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A major undiscovered delight, Crime Wave shows the unheralded André De Toth as a master of genre thrills. The direction of this feature is practically perfect. There's not one slack moment and every character, setting and plot point is nailed with admirable efficiency. Sterling Hayden is almost scary as the relentless cop putting pressure on Gene Nelson's tough hero. The issue at hand is whether or not an ex-con always slides back into criminal activity. All indications are that staying clear of trouble is a difficult proposition for anyone who's done prison time.
By 1956 Crime Wave's simple story was being played out every week in TV episodes of Dragnet and Highway Patrol, but André De Toth and his expert actors turn it into a gem of a show. Sterling Hayden chews on toothpicks but looks like he'd rather be stomping every crook he sees; we're genuinely surprised when he offers a fair shake to one of his stoolies. Gene Nelson is a good hardboiled hero, neither an idealistic chump nor an embittered cynic. Like the best of noir protagonists, Steve Lacey must go it alone, trusting neither the cops nor the murderous 'friends' he met in prison.
De Toth's direction is remarkable. When the Laceys decide to ignore a late-night phone call, we see only Ellen's hand restraining Steve's from underneath as he reaches for the receiver, suggesting that she must be under him on the bed. In the next cutback, they're smoking. I don't know of an earlier Hollywood noir with such a bold suggestion of sexual activity. De Toth uses excellent part-subjective camera work to put us within the action, as when Bronson's brutish Ben Hastings assaults the veterinarian in his surgery. Low angles on Sterling Hayden make him seem enormous as he bulls his way under the glaring fluorescent lights of the police station. One scene begins with Hayden bursting into a dark room, gun drawn, a moment staged so sharply that it's almost frightening.
The crooks are slick and mean, with Ted De Corsia (The Killing, The Naked City) leaning on Steve just enough to get him to play ball with his crooked scheme. Nedrick Young is a luckless cohort (more on Young below) and a young Timothy Carey is Johnny Haslett, a leering goon enlisted to babysit the terrorized Ellen. We expect Haslet to rape her as soon as they're alone, and he instead invites her to play Gin Rummy! (Note: Check out Timothy Carey's IMDB page to see the most psychotic head shot in cinema history.)
Crime Wave evokes a great atmosphere of endless night in Los Angeles. Bert Glennon's expert photography puts us into a time machine to the streets of Glendale in 1952. Upscale movie patrons might have wanted more fanciful escapism, but the authentic settings in films like Crime Wave and Without Warning! now give us a fascinating eye on the way the past really looked. We can see the famous Red Cars on Glendale Blvd.; they'd be discontinued only a few years later.
The violent bank robbery leads to a convincing car pursuit from Glendale to Chinatown, culminating in a satisfying surprise ending. Crime Wave is the perfect 50s noir: realistic, fast-moving and unpretentious.
Warners presents Crime Wave in a terrific enhanced B&W transfer made from excellent elements. The movie starts oddly with the Warners logo coming up as an odd blur. The film then begins by repeating a few seconds of action already seen under the title sequence; it really looks as if the film were scored with this error in place and the filmmakers had no recourse but to leave it this way. Even though the titles are formatted for 1:66, the flat 1:37 transfer is correct; a license plate with a 1952 date suggests that Crime Wave was shelved for at least a year after completion, a detail confirmed by Eddie Muller in his commentary. The featurette The City is Dark uses on-camera input from Richard Schickel, Oliver Stone, Alain Silver, Christopher Coppola, Elizabeth Ward and an archival appearance by director André De Toth.
The commentary connects James Ellroy with Eddie Muller, a sure formula for seamy insights on this exceptional picture. Muller starts off like a hopped up disc jockey and goes upward from there, profanity bleeps and all. Ellroy growls and pants like a dog at every mention of a 50s noir actress. It's just your average academic conference. They both think that Crime Wave is the tops for gritty L.A. noir.
Decoy is the Wild Card in this noir ten-pack, a relatively impoverished Monogram production from 1946. Its biggest star is Sheldon Leonard, who usually plays second string bad guys in bigger pictures. It has an interesting and committed femme fatale in Jean Gillie, an English actress who garnered a lot of good press but made only one more picture before dying at age 33.
I was first intrigued by Decoy from its entry in Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style and an original 1946 trade notice that appeared in a 1985 Daily Variety compilation of Science Fiction film reviews. Crooks use medical hocus pocus to revive a gangster executed in the gas chamber, so he can lead them to a fortune in stolen loot. It sounds a lot like a scam in a story by Ben Hecht about early newspaper days in Chicago, a tale retold in Norman Jewison's 1969 Gaily, Gaily.
After 1978 Decoy rarely or never appeared on television or in museum screenings. In 2000 the American Cinematheque showed it with the writer of its original story, Stanley Rubin, in attendance. The movie brought the house down with its odd mix of melodrama, hardboiled gimmicks and unrestrained sadism. I thought then that, as far as violence goes, Decoy was to 1946 what Pulp Fiction is to 1994.
After a diet of mostly serious and sometimes prestigious films noir, Decoy stands out as an outrageous delight. It begins on a view of an absolutely filthy gas station bathroom sink and mirror and continues through a minimalist series of functional but artless sets, filmed and edited for speed in the manner that earned Monogram its low-end reputation. Reviewers thought that the story was exciting and moved at a brisk pace, but the cast of mostly no-name actors tells us that this B-picture wasn't made by the majors.
Although the dialogue is not bad, rushed direction frequently leaves the actors with awkward line readings and actions, as when the angst-ridden doctor smashes an overly symbolic copy of the Hippocratic Oath. Smooth operator Edward Norris acts cool whether witnessing a Lazarus-like resurrection or shooting a man in the back. Sheldon Leonard tries to add stylish touches to his tough-guy cop, but gets caught in some wildly inappropriate reactions. Holding it all together is Jean Gillie's murderous schemer, a characterization lifted directly from the cheapest crime pulps. Her Margot Shelby is given a woefully inadequate back-story monologue, which also attempts to explain her accent. All the guys are crazy for Margot, even Leonard's Jo Jo, although he's loath to admit it. Although never played for laughs, Decoy is frequently, hilariously overripe.
Bodies pile up like cordwood, with several ruthless killings happening off-screen. Nasty baddie-for-hire Philip Van Zandt stilettos a driver to death, and frequent double-crosses are sealed by shots from a .38 special. In its weirdest episode Decoy briefly becomes a mad doctor movie, reviving Frankie Olins with an injection that 'counteracts the effects of cyanide gas.' He then administers electric shocks, as in a Boris Karloff movie. This amazing medical miracle is short-lived, literally, as Margot wants not a revived Zombie, but simply the secret hidden in Olins' memory.
The scene that had the Cinematheque audience climbing the walls is when Shelby commits a grisly murder with impeccable Martha Stewart manners. She runs over one of her confederates with her car, and then backs up and runs him over twice more for good measure. Then she gingerly retrieves the treasure map and the jack used by the victim to change her flat tire. It must be seen to be believed. 1
The film's final gag has been used more than once since; I've seen an episode of The Rockford Files that's a close remake of Decoy, omitting the raising-the-dead gag. When she gets her greedy hands on the strongbox containing Olins' loot, Margot skips merrily through the fog, laughing hysterically. The cynicism in the final 'romantic' encounter with Jo Jo is simultaneously hilarious and devastating. Decoy is a dead-serious thriller that now plays like Camp, and we like it both ways.
Except for the unfortunate missing snippet, Decoy is a superb DVD rendering; we don't see many Monogram pictures in this condition. Most were sold off to Television, and the original elements for many were duped to 16mm and then tossed to the dogs. This sharp transfer allows us to check out the quality of sets, costumes and even the makeup.
The featurette A Map to Nowhere uses on-camera input from Stanley Rubin, Dick Cavett, Molly Haskell, and this reviewer -- make that, 'Film Critic.' For the feature-length commentary I had the privilege of hosting the author of the original story, Stanley Rubin, a fascinating man with a stellar career. We get sidetracked for a couple of minutes talking about Stanley's wartime experiences but otherwise use the commentary to investigate the genesis of this odd movie and the mystery of the promising Miss Jean Gillie. 2
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Crime Wave & Decoy rate:
1. At some point Monogram must have partially censored the scene in Decoy's original negative. In this DVD version Margot only runs over her victim once. Perhaps Warner Home Video and the owner of the rare print shown at the American Cinematheque can get together and restore this extra six or seven seconds of mind-blowing sadism.
2. I remember having too many commentary questions to ask Mr. Rubin. 3 The Warner commentary editors have left some gaps for feature dialogue, so some content must have been dropped. One subject I'd have liked to get further into is the tragic story of Decoy's screenwriter, Nedrick (Ned) Young, who was cruelly blacklisted. As Young also appears as an actor in Crime Wave this Classic Collection Double Feature should be considered (as Jeremy Arnold has suggested) an inadvertent Nedrick Young tribute! Since most of my research from the Academy Archives clipping file was omitted from the commentary, I'll outline it here:
Young was subpoena'd by the House Committee in 1953. He loudly objected that the committee unfairly threatened his livelihood, and took the 5th amendment rather than testify that he had once been a member of the Communist Party. His writing agent Gene Corman dropped him two days later. He was acting in House of Wax at the time; Warners also dropped him when the film was finished.
From 1953 to 1957 Ned Young had to find other jobs to support his family, including working as a bartender. He said that he was the only person who ever lost a junkyard job because of the blacklist -- a kid recognized his name and the junkman fired him.
Ned's luck and talent led him back to associations with even more famous movies. He's credited with the original story for Jailhouse Rock, as Ned Young. In 1957 he wrote a spec script with Harold Jacob Smith under the pen name Nathan E. Douglas, and sold it to Stanley Kramer. It was produced as The Defiant Ones. In January '59 the Academy rescinded its 'no awards for Communists' rule, because of the embarrassment over awarding a screenwriting Oscar for The Brave One to Robert Rich, a non-existent writer. The blacklisted Dalton Trumbo was the real author. 1958's The Defiant Ones won for Best Screenplay, or at least "Nathan E. Douglas" won it. I assume that Young did not collect the award.
In 1960 the blacklist was officially broken with the release of Spartacus and Exodus, but Ned Young had really done it two years earlier.
Things really never changed. A 1960 newspaper article mentioning the breaking of the blacklist ends with a rebuttal by Ronald Reagan, who says that the Communists weren't bad because of the scripts they wrote, but for their subversion behind the scenes, in the guilds, etc. Stanley Kramer put forward an angry defense of Young for Inherit the Wind, stating there was no content in the film that he as producer didn't want there, and that his critics better not dictate to him how to do business, because this wasn't Russia.
Nedrick Young died in 1968 of a heart attack, when he was only 54 years old. The Academy restored his screen credit for The Defiant Ones under his real name in the early 1990s.
Gary: Also listened to your Decoy commentary and watched the Criterion Thief of Bagdad.
Glenn: I take it you watched Thief of Bagdad to remove the trauma of listening to the Decoy commentary. Where do they find those idiot commentators?
Gary: You were fine, except for saying that the Monogram Charlie Chans starred Warner Oland when they starred Sidney Toler, and referring to Lugosi's Monogram horrors as "monster movies" (not many monsters about). Don't worry, though. I've got the MGM box set of Monogram Charlie Chans, and several more Monogram titles on tape and disc. We'll just strap you to a chair and force to watch them until you are more Monogram-literate!
Oh, sorry, I've just been informed that that would violate the Geneva Convention ...
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