The story is as noir as it gets (minus the ubiquitous femme fatale) but also fairly commonplace, with the main character, Steve Lacy (Gene Nelson), caught between the strong arm of the law and a couple of criminals that force him to help them with a robbery. Steve Lacy is a San Quentin parolee, trying to straighten out his life. He's living together with his loving wife Ellen (Phyllis Kirk) and working as an aircraft mechanic. But due to a robbery that turned sour and a dead cop, San Quentin escapee Gat Morgan (Ned Young) ends up dead on Lacy's couch, who sees his new life fall apart quickly especially when detective lieutenant Sims (Sterling Hayden) is on to him. Sims leads the hunt for the copkiller, and he makes the connection with 3 San Quentin escapees, Morgan, Doc Penny (Ted De Corsia) and Ben Hastings (Charles Bronson) and that they might shack up at Lacy's cuz of knowing him from doing time together. But Lacy has more worries, as Doc Penny and Hastings also find their way to his apartment and take Ellen so they can extort Lacy into helping them out with a bank robbery.
The story is pure noir, and so is this movie. From start to finish, the movie moves at a steady pace without moving too fast or too slow. It's gripping and quite thrilling. The movie has a documentary style to it at times, especially in the earlier parts, which is also due to the shots that were taken at an actual police bureau, as well as the many shots of downtown Los Angeles. It is shot beautifully, both the day time as well as the nighttime shots, where shadows take on a life of their own. Very few of the shots look staged, giving the movie a very natural kind of look, whole still looking very noir, especially during the nighttime scenes.
Sterling Hayden is the standout actor here. His Sims is a tough, hardboiled cop who at one point explains his philosophy on criminals: 'Once a crook, always a crook', even though he eventually realizes Lacy is on the up-and-up. Due to his health, Sims has given up smoking and now chews toothpicks, by the dozen. With his tall frame, Hayden towers above everybody else, giving him even more of an authorative aura. There are a couple of great scenes inside the police bureau, including one where Sims walks around a room where several people are being questioned about the cop killing, with Sims looking down on the people, seeing right through them, while casually chewing on a toothpick. They show Sims as the natural king of the precinct, self-assured, confident and all-knowing.
Gene Nelson's Lacy seems like a lightweight compared to Hayden's Sims. Nelson is decent here, giving Lacy a soft edge but enough of a spine to stand up to Sims and not become his 'pet rat'. Lacy drives around in a spiffy 1930 Ford Model A Roadster, something which seemed a bit out of character for the Lacy as portrayed by Nelson, but who's complaining seeing a hot car like that make an appearance? I was least impressed with his part, and Phyllis Kirk just doesn't get a lot to do here either besides being 'the wife', which is a shame.
On the other side of the fence, Ted De Corsia and Charles Bronson are great as crooks. De Corsia was born to play these small-time ringleaders, and Bronson gives his character a playful air with a vicious mean streak. There's also a small but memorable part in this movie for the truly eccentric Timothy Carey as a crazy crook with some strange facial mannerisms, something he would become famous for.
There's also a veterinarian who makes a few appearances, a former doctor and also an ex-con, Otto Hessler, played by Jay Novello. He was convicted after a patient of his died, and he's grown into a resentful man since. He hates people and loves dogs. He has some memorable philosophical lines: 'People... They accept the love of a dog, and then when it gets old and sick, they say, "Put it to sleep." And do you know what they call it? Mercy. That's what they call it.'
Overall, 'Crime Wave' is an impressive noir which easily stands the test of time. It is beautiful visually and has pretty solid performances all around. I wouldn't call it a classic, but it definitely deserves more praise and recognition than it seems to get. Mandatory viewing if yer into noir.