Last week I relayed here the message I got from a 1953 Chevrolet Bel Air. Messages we receive can be alarming, or sometimes just informative, and in that case inspiring and maybe a little cryptic. I have recently seen another message from 1953, and this one isn’t alarming or cryptic, but is entertaining, if a bit dark. The message came in the form of the not-widely-known classic movie Crime Wave. This film should tickle the heart of any old car lover. It certainly did mine.
I’m a casual lover of classic movies, not a serious film buff. Those that really know the 40s/50s cop v. criminal genre, a.k.a. film noir, have probably heard of this movie, but I never had until I read a morbid but fascinating book called LAPD 1953 by James Ellroy. The book is commentary based on L.A. crime scene photos from that year, wherein he occasionally sings the praises of this movie as a valuable visual document of that world. I was intrigued enough to seek out the movie and I’m glad I did because whatever other virtues it has, it is a feast for car aficionados in a way few movies of the era are.
In this article I’ll show stills of the car characters from the movie, but I recommend actually watching it with a finger on the pause button because it is chock full of vehicles. I’ll try not to give too many spoilers for anyone who may see it in the future.
In my opinion, the cars keep the movie from being pedestrian (sorry!). The plot is pretty simple and not terribly original. The title was originally “The City Is Dark”, which I think was better, but got changed by the studio. The casting is pretty good, especially in the rogue’s gallery of ugly mugs that are the crooks. Lurking in the background there is a totally ripped Charles Bronson in one of his first Hollywood roles. Of course, the ex-con-trying-to-go-straight who gets caught up in trouble is implausibly handsome.
What really sets the movie apart is the direction by Andre De Toth. For a Hollywood studio movie of that period, the filming is amazing. At the time, lower-budget movies like this were almost always at least partially filmed in studios and backlots. In this movie, every outdoor scene is filmed on location in the real world (with a couple very small exceptions) and quite a few of the interior scenes are as well.
I love the choices of cars the producers made. In the opening scene, the bad guys arrive to hold up a gas station in a 1952 Ford Customline Country Sedan (presumably stolen). 1952 was first year Ford wagons were all steel. Country Squires adopted fake wood for the first time, but this mid-level model just uses two tone paint to great effect.
Also appearing in the opening scene is a police motorcycle, identified by someone else as a 1939 Harley-Davidson. I am not a motorcycle buff, so someone who is feel free to confirm that. Not surprisingly, the hold up does not go smoothly.
The police arrive in force in the aftermath to investigate, where we get a glimpse of lots of contemporary law enforcement vehicles. The city is dark, as all the nighttime scenes were clearly filmed at night, in contrast to the common practice of the time of filming in daylight with a dark lens.
The starring cop in the story arrives in a 1952 Mercury. Detective Simms is played by Sterling Hayden, who at 6’5″, looms over the rest of the movie. He is a toothpick-chewing prototype for Bud White (Russell Crowe in L.A. Confidential) with a disdain for nonsense and a love for short clown ties.
A dragnet ensues where we see more 1952 Ford Mainline LAPD black and white radio cars and a number of civilian vehicles.
One car examined by the police and let go is a 1936 Ford V8 Deluxe Station Wagon driven by a veterinarian who will be seen again in the movie, when he runs afoul of Charles Bronson. Not a good thing to do!
The action moves to LAPD police headquarters, which at the time was located inside City Hall, long the tallest building in LA. The scene of a 1947 Ford Deluxe arriving was shot in the actual location, as well as some (possibly all) of the interior scene.
The protagonist trying to stay a length ahead of the criminals drives a 1929 Ford Model A hot rod. The character is an airplane mechanic who we are probably meant to assume built the car himself, so he must be a good guy! When he drives off in this scene, the flathead V8 exhaust note is delicious. I don’t know if that was a natural recording of the car or dubbed in later, but it is perfect.
The car was well known in SoCal hotrodding circles and even appeared on the cover of Hot Rod! Apparently it was a real chick magnet.
His parole officer drives a 1941 Buick Super Estate Wagon, a car that should also be taken to signify that the owner is a good guy. Would a jerk drive a car like that? I was geeking out on the unexpected but delightful appearance of three wagons in the movie, two of them woodies.
The Buick is worth another photo. Looks like the background caught a 49-51 bathtub Nash!
Unfortunately for the car spotting, some of the narrative is necessarily filmed indoors. Even there, though, the artful direction of the movie comes through. Here, we know the police are coming because we see them from above, pulling up in their 52 Merc while the lovely Phyllis Kirk gets a closeup.
The climax of the movie involves a bank robbery. As the crooks get ready to meet up at the bank at the appointed time, we are given an extended scene of their stolen 1952 Lincoln Capri oozing through town. The Lincoln is luscious, as are many of the cars caught in the shots.
Predictably, that crime also fails to go off smoothly, despite the gang leader’s assurances that “I don’t miss.” Now the police pursue them in another 1952 Lincoln, this time a Cosmopolitan. Differentiating a 1952 Capri from a Cosmopolitan is harder than telling most sets of twins apart. Externally, rocker and windshield trim are the only differences I can find. Inside, it’s just upholstery (cloth vs. cloth/leather). Only $133 on a ~$3,200 car separated the models.
This is a little confusing, because the gang had earlier requisitioned without permission an identical Lincoln Cosmopolitan, but now the police are driving what looks like the same car (with different plates). When the police dispatchers were putting out an APB for that stolen car, the radio said it was a “gray Lincoln sedan, license in the fore column, 1-Sam-69417”. To the movie’s credit, they say it’s a “Lincoln” and not just a “gray sedan” the way most movies would have. Does anyone know what “license in the fore (or four) column” is?
Did cops ever used to drive Lincolns? You couldn’t have blamed them because Lincolns were some of the best performing cars available in the U.S. at the time. Just ask the drivers in the 1952-54 La Carrera Panamericana 2000 mile road race, where Lincoln took the top spots in the stock car class. Looks like another Nash photobombing!
I happen to own a copy of this 1954 ad with the road race car, it’s one of my favorites. Race on Domingo, sell on Monday.
Lincoln was all new for 1952, as were all Ford cars. In fact, the most common criticism of this generation of Lincolns is that they’re so conservatively styled, they look a lot like the Fords and Mercurys. Seeing movie police driving a Lincoln doesn’t look ridiculously implausible the way it would if they were driving a Cadillac.
Lincoln had a new engine, a 317.4 c.i. OHV V8 making 160hp. Lincoln was behind Cadillac and Chrysler in power for 1952, but if the police had happened to have the new 1953 model, as the 52 road race team did, the chase would have been over sooner as it got a significant bump in power to 205hp, giving it the second highest power rating in the market behind Caddy’s 210. GM supplied the four-speed Hydramatic transmission. What also helped the police to get their man was Lincoln’s new industry-first ball joint front suspension, contributing to its relatively good handling (grading on a massive early-50’s-American-sedan curve).
If the movie is let down slightly, it’s by most of the in-car scenes, which are studio-filmed with a process background typical of the time. Nothing’s perfect!
However, there were some POV in-car sequences filmed for the chase scene. If you watch this movie, I don’t want to get your expectations up on the chase. It’s not really a car chase in the post-Bullitt sense that we think of now. It’s more like two cars driving separately through traffic briskly. But it looks to have been filmed on active city streets and there is not any obviously sped up film, which was the usual technique for movie car chases at the time. Kudos there!
The chase ends at this prime Chinatown real estate in the penultimate scene of the movie. Two of the characters fall down an entire flight of stairs and it sure doesn’t look to me like any mats were used. Ouch!
So what was the message this movie sent to me? The explicit message from Detective Simms at the end was, “Next time call [the cops], but quick! The cops’ job is to protect the citizens.” I would perhaps rather say the message was don’t answer the phone in the middle of the night and definitely don’t tangle with Charles Bronson. But seriously, the real message from 1953 is the visual testimony of the movie itself, as much of a view as anything you will see in moving picture form of what the world looked like at that time. At least what it looked like in a small sliver of the world in the U.S.A., state of California, city of Los Angeles. It was uniquely shot in a documentary style that would become common in the late 60’s and 70’s, but was unusual then. Lots of other old movies give you glimpses filmed in the real world, but not often virtually the whole movie through the way this one does.
The poster might have been a tad sensationalistic. If you haven’t seen this movie and I’ve sold its virtues to you, hopefully you can catch it. It’s shown occasionally on Turner Classic movies and is sometimes available on cable on-demand. I bought the DVD, which was cheap and has a bonus audio commentary with author James Ellroy (he really likes this film). In the meantime, don’t take any curls off Cutie!
A note about years for the detail-oriented: Crime Wave was released in January 1954, but was filmed an unusually long time earlier in late November 1952. While neither is exactly 1953, the time frame matches up very well to that of the 1953 Chevrolet from last weeks’ article. The 1953 model year started well before the filming, so the Chevy could very well have been built already and the time periods match quite closely if not perfectly.