Steve had thought that after two years away, he had left his former life of crime behind. He is on parole, has a job, a wife and leads what some might call an exemplary life considering his past. For some though, they are not content to let sleeping dogs lie and one night that past comes calling in the form of a knock on his door in the middle of the night. From there, whether he wants to or not, he is dropped in the middle of a crime wave committed by his former compatriots, men who think that they can rely on him to do what they consider right and if not, he does have a pressure point in for of a wife that they can exert if need be. Only one thing stands in the way of the criminals getting away with it all and that is their memory of Steve, which must be flawed for they have forgotten just how stubborn he can be.
Though it might be slightly generic, Crime Wave is a fairly apt title when it comes to the content of this film; though originally it was called The City is Dark. Starring Gene Nelson as Steve Lacey, Phyllis Kirk as his wife, Ted de Corsia as the leader of the gang and even a young Charles Bronson as one of the villains, the movie might not be the most original picture to come out of Hollywood, but it does have a very strong cast who deliver the goods from the first moment the film starts to the last. Additionally Sterling Hayden stars as the detective on the case and is a man who does not believe that Steve has left the life behind and if he can pin something on the former crook, then he would only be too happy. With a good story and an even stronger script by Crane Wilbur, the movie is peppered with action and violence throughout and some great characterisation whether it is Detective Lieutenant Sims, Steve himself or even the criminal veterinarian. Each performer plays off the other and it makes for an incredibly engaging character piece, a movie that does not have to rely on anything else other than the interaction between the actors.
One of the more interesting aspects of it all is the fact that there is no clear-cut hero; no real protagonist that stands out that one wants to root for. Steve should fill that role, but even though he might be a reformed criminal, having served his time and turned his life around, he has an attitude towards everything, people or otherwise that precludes him from being anything other than an anti-hero, though he does not quite fit that particular mold either. Steve should be the good guy or at the very least Detective Sims, but neither embodies that classic caricature and while either one might be hard to cheer for at times, it makes what is happening all the better because not every film needs to have the good versus evil trope. Sometimes playing in the gray where this movie tends to lean, can be just as much fun as it is when it is black and white.
Due to all of this, director Andre DeToth serves up a cold picture, one full of menace and even a bit of despair. Crime Wave is not a feel-good movie even under the best of circumstances. Much of the film is spent under bright lights, even after the sun goes down. That does not mean that DeToth and cinematographer Bert Glennon forego the use of shadow though, using it in good measure when called for. As such, the disparity between light and darkness is used to differentiate those who fall on the side of good and those who do not. It is an effective tool and made even more so thanks to that aforementioned gray area, creating a movie filled with tough guys and self-serving motivations, of love and hate and greed and death.
Tense, suspenseful and unforgiving, Crime Wave is the kind of noir film that grabs its viewers by the shoulders and gives them a knee to the gut, delivering seventy-three unforgettable minutes and ranking among the very best the genre ever had to offer.
5 out of 5