Monday, April 28, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #89 - Criss Cross (1949, dir. Robert Siodmak)

Surprisingly, we’ve never reviewed a single film noir for our I’d Love To Turn You On at the Movies series, so it’s high time we got started. For those unfamiliar, film noir is a hotly debated category amongst film scholars even 70 years after the fact (just ask your favorite two film snobs what the first real film noir is and when film noir ended and watch the fireworks!), so maybe that’s why we haven’t hit it yet. In a nutshell (though some are sure to disagree on the details), the genre emerged in the early/mid-1940’s in Hollywood and ran through the late 50’s. It is generally characterized by a gloomy outlook on the world, by dark, foreboding black and white visuals, by out of control passions, by a femme fatale drawing our central character into a web of danger, and by sleazy characters on either side of the law, usually with few morally redeeming characteristics. It’s doubtful that the people making these films noir were consciously deciding to follow such a set pattern, but that most were responding to the uncertainty in the air that most of America felt during WWII and its immediate aftermath. You can see the style in such great 1940’s films as Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Out of the Past, and Murder, My Sweet. And you can see it in spades in the 1948 classic Criss Cross.
            Criss Cross – as perfect a title for a film noir as there ever was, beaten only, perhaps by Kiss Me Deadly – is rife with paranoia, double and triple crosses, and a grim fatalism in its story of an armored truck heist and its aftermath. The film opens with a nighttime aerial shot cruising low over L.A. with a doomy Miklós Rózsa score coming in from the first frame. Eventually we focus on a non-descript parking lot by a nightclub and the action moves down to the ground, where we find a cheating wife Anna (Yvonne De Carlo) in a passionate embrace with her boyfriend Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster) and them trying to find a way to get away from her husband, the dangerous gang leader Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea). Thompson takes a hike after she warns him how dangerous Dundee is and they enter the club separately, where Dundee has been waiting impatiently for her. A tense, jealous exchange follows between husband and wife and Thompson enters the club, getting into it immediately with Dundee. The smart, tight script sets its plot and a thicket of character motivations and relationships in motion within ten minutes, jumps immediately on to setting up the heist our main characters are engaged in, then jumps to flashback to give us the back story that lead everyone here. Turns out Steve and Anna used to be married, but now she’s married to Dundee, only Thompson doesn’t get over things so readily – he’s still head over heels for Anna, despite the warnings from his detective best friend Pete Ramirez that she’s bad news and to steer clear of her.
            The film is helmed by Robert Siodmak, known for a great batch of noirs and other crime films, and also for discovering Burt Lancaster who had his first Hollywood role in Siodmak’s earlier The Killers. In his earlier work in Europe before emigrating to the States and in Hollywood since, Siodmak had refined his technique to the point where he knew how to construct an airtight thriller. There’s an episode in the flashback part of the film when Lancaster’s character goes back to the club he and his ex-wife used to frequent and in an amazing, dialogue-free scene in that’s all smoky ambience, shadows thrown on the wall, and the intense, driving rumba of the band playing, he sets up everything we need to know about how obsessed he still is with her just from his body language and longing looks across the club, highlighted by the ever-tightening intensity of the editing in line with the music’s rhythms. And as we get back to “real time” and the heist, it’s again a masterful display of technique as the gang’s robbery is executed in a haze of smoke, and afterward as paranoia sets in deeply with more and more skewed angles and shadows making the most mundane settings feel fraught with peril. The film is also rife with references to being ruled by fate, by circumstances rather than their own wills guiding the characters, and this too is echoed in the film’s visuals, with many shots of frames within frames (doorways, windows, stairwells, etc.), suggesting that the characters are trapped in their circumstances. But it’s not as arty as all that; that’s just a film student admiring the work of a master. Despite the web of conflicting motivations and desires, there’s never a moment when the art of what Siodmak is doing overwhelms the story, which is always at the forefront.
            Fans of film noir will readily recognize this is a great one, those unfamiliar with the genre are in for a treat – and also probably about to go on a long road down the seemingly endless path of film noir. It’s a pleasurable road to travel for sure, and one that all film fans find their way to at some point. And it’s a lot safer to view from the sidelines than it is for the people in the films themselves.

            - Patrick Brown

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