The Eternal Ceremony: ‘Crime Wave’ and ‘L.627’

Anuj Malhotra

Crime Wave (1954)

Crime Wave (1954)

In a scene from André De Toth’s Crime Wave (1954) (also known in some circles as The City is Dark), Gat Morgan, one of the three perpetrators of a failed gas station robbery and the only one wounded, runs in from a distance, his left hand pressing down on his abdomen, towards an arbitrary, nighttime shed – it’s all merely to sustain the notion of an escape, he isn’t really running from anyone or in any particular direction, but this is how a movie-scene on a studio lot is directed. The camera pans right-to-left with him, emphasising the tenseness of the whole affair that the film wants us to buy: there is a shooting, messages being transmitted, fugitives on the run, cop-cars descending onto the crime-scene, loud-speakers blaring – something’s gotta be going down in the city tonight (a patron of the bar says to another: ‘The heat’s on all over town’).

The movie’s completely sincere up till this moment about its own phoniness, like all movies made by a group of professionals. The camera swirls on its own axis framing Gat as he runs till the edge of a studio-wall – this allows him (and through his motion, us) a new vantage point. We can now see that a road lines this present shed, and from the far background, a cop car turns onto it. Even more tenseness. A sub-premise within the larger premise, a question: will the cop car reach in time and nab our injured fugitive? Will he able to hide himself just in time? Gat’s physical description booms from the loud-speaker of the cop car and radiates through the atmosphere – the grand declaration of its relentless nightly purpose reaches us even before the car does itself.

Gat is terrified. He must conceal himself from this monster that proudly announces its absolute antagonism towards him. He swiftly turns around as the car approaches closer, and it is at this moment in the film that André De Toth’s film surpasses its fakeness and becomes something else entirely. To record in its entirety Gat’s physical withdrawal from the scene, the camera must perform an elaborate maneuver. It must first track laterally, from the edge of the wall where Gat is positioned originally, to the door of the shed behind which he will hide and then, it must swiftly turn its attention towards the cop car and follow it till it’s gone (De Toth might as well have kept his focus on Gat as the car receded aurally off-screen, but the effects of this curious directorial choice will be revealed to us in a second). As it happens, the first movement of this two-part routine is conducted efficiently and with great skill, but as soon as the camera begins to turn onto the car, it comes off loose on its mount, falls over unnaturally to the left for a millisecond and performs an unintentional cant, before recovering quickly to frame the moving cop car. The car passes the camera and keeps on moving further down the street as the announcement fades into a distance – Gat hasn’t been noticed and trouble has passed. One expects the film to now swiftly cut swiftly to Gat and register momentary relief on his face, but this doesn’t happen. Instead, the camera remains affixed on the car, two seconds longer than it should, as its metallic being dissolves into the black-hole of night, never to be seen again. This also means that by the time we finally lose sight of it, a section of the residential suburbia towards which it is headed has emerged in the background of the frame. This brief inclusion assures us that the universe of the film is a single, coherent whole – that objects spatially align in it, that roads come from somewhere and lead someplace else, that characters must take decisions and face consequences for them, that there is causality and there is fate – crucially, that it is a world of many possibilities (a belief that the film will validate in its surprising, almost peculiar ending).

And then, we cut back to Gat.

But this trueness or authenticity is all there is to De Toth’s film really, which seems to exist for no other purpose but to chronicle a social dynamic (in this case, between escaped criminals and their handler-cops) and abandon it when its vitality is exhausted (euphemism for: the criminals die or are let free and the cop continues with his duty). It is a movie that proves that ‘cops and robbers’ as a phrase is a misnomer, or atleast the popular inference drawn from it is fallacious, because it seems to set them up as members of opposing teams, ritually engaged in a ceremony where one must thwart the other. Instead, Crime Wave adopts a more slanted, non-committal view of the phrase (and the situation it describes) itself, essentially recommending a substitute: ‘cops and robbers and the world’. The film thinks of cops and robbers as participants in an eternal game of grand concepts (‘Justice’, ‘Fairness’, ‘Crime’, ‘Principles’, ‘Law’) even as the city that surrounds them, entirely apathetic to their affair, continues to function in its own rhythms.

This steady equilibrium and harmony between the law-enforcers and the law-breakers is disturbed when Gat shoots a cop during the gas-station robbery – one from the cops dies, but all the criminals are still alive. This imbalance must be corrected, and hence, the central conceit of the film isn’t that of one cop and his team trying to nab gas-station robbers and prevent them from pulling another one off at a bank, but of both the parties attempting a treaty that ensures that a similar pact-violation doesn’t occur in the future. To pull this off, the cops and their prime suspect (Steve Lacey, played by Gene Nelson) conference twice in the film (once at his home, second in the police station – home and away), try to trip each other, prove to be too smart, attempt polite bargaining; the failure of which causes this reconciliatory effort to collapse, letting all hell break loose. De Toth’s film is clear about its belief that if there is anyone who understands the robbers and their pathetic misery, it is the cops themselves – because their structural constitution is similarly bureaucratic (gang-leader and his band of followers) and that, if anything, they are interchangeable: the head cop in the film is played by Sterling Hayden, an actor known most famously for his roles as a robber. It is important to point out that while Fritz Lang explored the inherent similarities between these two parties in his M (1931), Lang’s grander commentary was reserved for another, more urgent issue altogether; it is in De Toth’s film that these resemblances are taken to the level of a theme (42 years on, Michael Mann’s Heat fashions irony from this idea, thereby preferring effect over complexity).

In this, it connects with Bertrand Tavernier’s 1992 film, L. 627, a far superior movie that takes on the ideas of De Toth’s film and elevates them to the level of commentary on the oppressiveness of Protestant work-ethic and that of middle-class life in general. Lucien ‘Lulu’ Marguet, the lead protagonist of L. 627, much like Hayden’s Det. L. Sims from Crime Wave, is a duty-bound working-class policeman whose methods are at loggerheads with the department that surrounds him, but who, even more crucially, relates and sympathises with the drug-dealers, hustlers, hookers and immigrants he comes in contact with. The film centers around Lulu’s relationship with one such character and how his allegiances to absurd symbols of ‘normal life’ (a wife, a job, colleagues, office, government-job, national pride) cause his pursuit of more privately held desires to rupture.

Tavernier’s film seems to pay an even more conscious tribute to De Toth’s. In a scene set at the new police station to which Lulu’s been transferred, the camera laterally tracks between two enjoined cubicles (bureaucracy in police departments is a big concern of the film). The first, in which a couple of neighbours from different social classes bicker about an allegedly dangerous pet dog owned by one of them to a cop seated across the table and the second, in which Lulu attends to a wonky-in-his-head old man who believes he has been robbed by people who come ‘through the walls’.  This mirrors an early scene in Crime Wave, where Hayden’s character, having interrogated the gas-station attendant and effectively identified the robbers, gets up from his desk, becomes our tour-guide through the police station and walks over to different desks, each of them occupied by people mouthing their private banalities (lovers’ quarrel, a breakup) to the police officers on duty. Both Crime Wave and L. 627 think of these cops as record-keepers, chroniclers of the most private miseries of the people they come in touch with, never allowed in this exchange to evolve into fully human personalities themselves. Tavernier’s film literalises this idea too: Lulu actually records on video people’s private functions on the side, which is what Sims would do too, if De Toth didn’t want to wrap the movie in thirteen days flat.

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