Short Takes: The Gangster and Crime Wave

Crime in the streets is this week’s theme. Two low budget flicks that came and went from the screen in the final blink of a dead man’s eye.

The Gangster (1947) Gordon Wiles

Unconventional gangster flick with Barry Sullivan as a hardened, self made, top dog gangster who becomes obsessed with a beautiful dame (Belita). Meanwhile he soon finds himself being squeezed out of his territory by another outfit headed up by the snarly Sheldon Leonard. Each of his weaknesses are slowly exposed, the politicians once in his pocket are no longer there, and other hoods are no longer willing to back him up. His downfall is inevitable.

Sullivan’s character is obsessive and paranoid when it come to his girl and bitter, cold-hearted and cynical toward everyone else.  Despite being a low-budget production director Gordon Wiles paints the sets with a shadowed noirish light. And the sets, though obviously backlot, are very stylized, the shadowy ironwork on the elevated train, the rain soaked streets, the details in the soda fountain shop add an engaging arty flavor. The look and detail most likely stems from director Gordon Wiles background as an art director. There is also a winning melodramatic score by Louis Gruenberg.  Yet for all these nice touches there is something about the film that does not crystallize. All these nice pieces yet the whole does not ring true and leaves you unfilled.

The film represented a reteaming of Barry Sullivan and Belita one year after they appeared in the 1946 oddity, “Suspense.” Supporting cast include Charles McGraw, John Ireland, Virginia Christine, Harry Morgan, Akim Tariroff, Elisha Cook Jr. and Leif Erickson. Also look for Shelley Winters in a small role. The script was co-written by the soon to be blacklisted Dalton Trumbo.

Crime Wave (1954) Andre de Toth

“Crime Wave” reunited director Andre deToth, producer Bryan Foy along with actors Phyllis Kirk and Charles Buchinsky (aka Bronson) whom only the year before made the classic 3-D horror film, “House of Wax.” Made in 13 days, two days under budget, “Crime Wave” is a minor gem, a blend of dark lighting and shade, mixed with natural light. Shot on location in both Los Angeles and Glendale, California, cinematographer Bert Glennon’s camera weaves its way through the city streets creating a realistic your are there impression.

The film stars noir favorite Sterling Hayden, this time on the right side of the law. As police Lt. Sims, Hayden is a tough, rumpled, sanctimonious cop ready to stomp on any ex-con who crosses his path. Sims has it in for Steve Lacy (Gene Nelson), an ex-con, now married and gone straight. When members of Steve’s former gang break out of San Quentin, killing a cop and a gas attendant along the way, they hold up in Steve’s apartment against his will. They also force Steve into participating in their big plan to rob a local bank. Sims meanwhile figures Steve is just going back to his old ways and dragging his innocent wife, Ellen (Phyllis Kirk) down with him.

What really sparkles here is the camera work by Bert Glennon and a devilish supporting cast. This was Gene Nelson’s first dramatic role. Most of his previous work had been in musicals like “She’s Working Her Way Through College,”  “Lullaby of Broadway” and “Three Sailors and a Girl.” Later on Gene would turn to directing working on such films as “Kissin’ Cousins” and “Harum Scarum”, both with Elvis, and “Hootenanny Hoot!” He eventually settled into directing TV shows. But here he displays a keen ability to be a solid dramatic actor. A young ex-con caught in the middle, forced to go along with his former cohorts or suffer the consequences. And his cohorts are some pretty nasty guys. Ted deCorcia is Doc Penny, the leader of the gang and Charles Buchinsky is a nasty hot headed Ben Hastings. As one point Hastings points his gun at Steve’s pretty wife Ellen and with a bit of a deranged smile on his face asks Doc if he wants him to “clip a curl off the cutie.”

Andre deToth made only two film noirs in his career, this film and the earlier underrated 1948 film, “Pitfall” with Dick Powell and Elizabeth Scott. The script, by Crane Wilber, is based on a Saturday Evening Post story called “Criminal’s Mark.” Wilbur also wrote “He Walked by Night,” “Women’s Prison” and “The Phenix City Story.” Wilbur directed a series of films including “Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison” and “The Bat.”

9 comments on “Short Takes: The Gangster and Crime Wave

  1. vinnieh says:

    Interesting review, I am trying to watch more old gangster movies so thanks for the recommendation.


  2. […] 24 frames: the gangster/ crime wave (which i just saw and liked a lot) […]


  3. Great stuff here John. I can’t imagine anyone filming in 13 days and having a quality film in the end. I can’t wait to see these movies. Thanks again.


  4. Yes, I agree with Paul. A movie in THIRTEEN DAYS?! Remarkable. Sounds like a gem & can’t wait to see it.


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