Cinema Station

Authentic American Primitives: Andre De Toth | May 4, 2010

Andre De Toth

He called himself “a Hungarian born, one-eyed American cowboy from Texas.”  He supposedly lost the eye in an anti-Nazi demonstration before he moved to America.  He had seven wives and nineteen children.

His most famous directing gig might be the horror film House of Wax, starring Vincent Price: an amazing 3D achievement because of his handicap.  He also made a ton of Westerns with Randolph Scott.  The film of his we highlight this time is from 1954; it is called Crime Wave.

Crime Wave

Not unadulterated Noir by our definition, but a police-procedural mixed with a heist film, Crime Wave, directed by De Toth is lean and mean.  It was shot almost in its entirety on locations.  He was offered a big budget and thirty days, but declined and said he could do it both faster and cheaper.  So they gave him fifteen days; he finished it in thirteen.

Here is the opening scene from the film:

De Toth fought to cast Sterling Hayden as Detective Sims, the ruthless cop who pushes nice guy Steve Lacey (Gene Nelson) to help him track down a trio of escaped convicts.  The studio wanted Humphrey Bogart.  They said, “Sterling can’t act.”  De Toth said he didn’t have to, he was the genuine article.

Sterling quit smoking for the part just like his character Sims.  The detective explains, “You know, it isn’t what a man wants to do, Lacey, but what he has to do.  Now you take me, I love to smoke cigarettes, but the doctor says I can’t have them.  So what do I do?  I chew tooth picks, tons of them.”  James Ellroy, author of L.A. Confidential, calls Hayden the “the film noir poet brute”.  He’s spot on.

The picture plays out with not many surprises in terms of plot; it holds together through Hayden’s character.  It’s not clear how far he will go to get what he wants.  In many ways, he is scarier than the three ex-cons.  He knows Lacey is a reformed criminal with a sweet wife who means no harm, but he has no problem putting both their lives in danger to catch the bad guys.

At the end, when we see a side of him we didn’t know was there, he leans against a wall on a street corner and pulls a cigarette out of his pocket.  It’s bent, crooked like he’s had it there waiting for months, years maybe.  He puts it in his mouth, lights it, realizes something and throws it away.  He slides the toothpick back in his mouth.  It’s the last shot of the picture and boy is it a beauty.

More on De Toth later.

-Most information scavenged from disreputable sources such as Wikipedia and the word of James Ellroy and Eddie Muller.

-TM

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