Cinema Station

The Hawkins Brothers: Crime Storytellers

October 28, 2010

For a moviegoer, sometimes unfamiliar names become familiar. During the credits of the Andre De Toth directed Hidden Fear, the name John Hawkins struck a bell but I ignored it. I didn’t think about the name until I started Budd Boetticher’s The Killer is Loose and there it was again in the opening credits.

The very first time I saw the name was months ago: another De Toth picture, Crime Wave. The link the between the three movies isn’t only a name; it’s a consistency in craft, in the tiny character details that elevate these three crime pictures above most others.

John Hawkins, of whom I can find little about, was a writer and producer. He produced Bonanza and other than the movies, wrote for such television shows as The Fugitive and The 87th Precinct series. Alongside his name is his brother’s: Ward Hawkins. They each collaborated on Crime Wave and The Killer is Loose. From what I can gather, both of these films where based on stories by the brothers (they were frequently published in the Saturday Evening Post).

Both films had a screenwriter other than the Hawkins (Harold Medford for The Killer is Loose and three writers for Crime Wave). Although sometimes it’s hard to pick out the parties responsible for the exceptional qualities in good work (perhaps it was the director with an idea on set, or the actor), the name Hawkins keeps repeating itself at the beginning and end of good crime pictures.

The Killer is Loose is an odd cop story. The lead, played by Joseph Cotten, accidentaly shoots the wife of a bank robber played by Wendell Correy. He’s no ordinary bank robber, and no ordinary killer as the poster suggests. He’s timid, introverted; in the army we learn that he was constantly made fun of. Still, he involves himself in crime and the punishment is not his own but his wife’s.

Wendell Corey

The outcome of the innocent murder: Cotten made a mistake and Correy goes to jail. But before he goes, he swears to take the life of Cotten’s wife and when he escapes sometime later, the picture really takes off. That’s all I’ll say about the plot. The picture, like many in the gallery of second-run crime movies, is fast, sharp, and much smarter than most A-pictures. The characters’ actions are fresh, unpredictable, and downright complex. Budd Boetticher was a great director, not only of Westerns. Whatever his strengths, I can’t help but credit the “story” men behind this one: the Hawkins brothers.

Timothy Carey, front and center

Crime Wave, which I focused on before in an article about its director, is a little crime gem too. A tale of the burden of being an ex-crook at its core, the movie comprises police-procedural, heist, and kidnapping in a killer plot. The cast highlights are Sterling Hayden and Timothy Carey. Hayden plays a tough cop about as good as anyone could and Carey plays the ultimate scene-stealing psycho (he may have been the best scene-stealer ever). Again, De Toth was a terrific director but it’s not only the starkness of the pace and lighting that make Crime Wave a great picture; it’s the root of the movie, the core, where it came from.

Unlike the previous two, the movie Hidden Fear was not based on a story by Ward Hawkins. From the available information, it seems the screenplay was written by both Andre De Toth and John Hawkins. Like the other two, this is a tight little crime movie. The basic plot involves an American cop (John Payne) trying to clear his sister’s name after she gets mixed up with a murder in Denmark. Somewhere along the way, counterfeit and other such crimes become involved.

John Payne, a Pulp machine in my mind, here with two broads in Western mode

On one level, Hidden Fear feels like an early entry in the French New Wave. The lighting is almost all natural, the cutting abrupt and ragged but effectively so, the whole thing stripped of Hollywood exaggerations. It is a lean, mean picture but what really gives it guts are the characters and dialog. Payne’s American cop is Mickey-Spillane tough. In one great scene from Hawkins and De Toth, he slaps his sister around to find out the truth. The Danish cop enters the interrogation room and tells him, “This isn’t the way we do things here.” Payne, lacking all emotion, responds, “Sometimes it’s the only way.” He parades through the picture as a tall, strong statue, a perfect machine of pulp and Hawkins’ script is his backbone. Outlined with tons of great characters: a sultry blonde played by Anne Neyland and a backstabbing ruthless villain played by Alexander Knox. Hidden Fear climaxes with a great, minimal car chase and a harsh ending that conveys the same bizarre since of victory and tragedy as Hawkins’ ending for The Killer is Loose.

Alexander Knox

I’ll keep an eye out for John and Ward Hawkins from now on. And because their names were once unfamiliar to me and have now become synonymous with great crime writing, I’ll look for others like the Hawkins, buried in the credits of great forgotten cinema.


Authentic American Primitives: Andre De Toth

May 4, 2010
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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.