Director: Robert Siodmak
By Marilyn Ferdinand
This past Friday, the hubby and I had the great good fortune of being welcomed as guests of the “Czar of Noir” Eddie Muller to a screening of Robert Siodmak’s ripping film noir Criss Cross, shown as a part of the Winter Nights series of noir and neo-noir films at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. After a blessedly snow-free drive south and a quick run through some of the museum—including a not-so-quick examination of their special exhibit on photojournalist WeeGee—we joined a packed crowd in the comfortable Toby theatre to listen to native Californian Eddie’s amazement that so many people would come out on a (not very) cold night to listen to him and see Criss Cross.
He needn’t have been surprised. The habits of cold-weather dwellers aside, both he and Criss Cross did not disappoint. Eddie talked about the noir style, influenced by the German diaspora to Hollywood that included director Siodmak; the discovery by the French of these uncharacteristically downbeat American films of the 1940s and ’50s that had not been exported during the war years; and the contributions to Criss Cross of William Bowers, the witty, often uncredited writer every producer in Hollywood wanted to “touch” their scripts made for an interesting introduction to the film. A lively and lengthy Q&A session held after the film revealed even more of interest, including what a huge star the now nearly forgotten Dan Duryea was, how the protagonist in the source book was described as ugly—a far cry from the matinee-idol looks of Burt Lancaster—and (never fear) a plug for the For the Love of Film (Noir) blogathon prompted when Eddie started talking about the restoration of films for the big screen.
Of course, the main event was the film itself. Boasting a cast that includes not only Lancaster and Duryea, but also Yvonne De Carlo and the unmistakable character actor Percy Helton, a score by Miklós Rózsa, and the primal rhythms of the Esy Morales Latin band, Criss Cross has everything a cinephile could want and more. The film opens with a aerial shot that swoops down on a nightclub parking lot, where a couple in full embrace are caught in the headlights of a car. The woman, Anna (De Carlo), promises the man, Steve Thompson (Lancaster), that when it’s all over, they will be together forever, the way it was always meant to be. Anna moves into the club, where the heart-quickening music of Morales and his band entertains a stuffed room of dancers and drinkers moving in choreographed chaos across the smoke-filled dance floor. Anna is questioned by her suspicious husband, a criminal named Slim Dundee (Duryea), and accompanies him into a back room where his gang is throwing a going-away party for the couple, who are moving from Los Angeles to Detroit.
Thompson (Lancaster) comes into the club searching for Dundee. He is intercepted by his friend, Pete Ramirez (Stephen McNally), a detective with the LAPD, who tries to dissuade him from breaking into Dundee’s party. Undaunted, Thompson disappears behind the closed door, and soon, a waiter informs Ramirez that Dundee has pulled a knife on Thompson. Eager to put Dundee behind bars before he can slip off to Detroit, Ramirez moves. Too late. Dundee has already dropped the knife; Thompson refuses to press charges, and without cooperating witnesses, Ramirez must admit defeat. When the two men and the members of Dundee’s gang move into an alley to cool off, we learn the fight was staged. The gang and Thompson are actually planning to pull a payroll heist on the company Thompson works for, and the ruse is part of the scheme to succeed at this exceedingly difficult job. Thompson, rueful about the bedfellows he made, thinks about the cause of it all—Anna, his ex-wife. We spend most of the rest of the film in flashback, beginning with Thompson’s return to Los Angeles after months bumming around the country following his divorce from Anna, and his acknowledgment that he came back because he just couldn’t get Anna out of his system.
Siodmak sets up the fatal attraction of Anna and Steve with an iconic scene that captures the essence of the femme fatale. Steve goes back to the night club, a place he and Anna frequented during their contentious marriage, and catches sight of her on the dance floor. The Morales band is playing a number that is almost completely rhythmic, with the only melody coming from a single flute playing a short burst from time to time—an exotic, hypnotic riff. Siodmak and his cinematographer Franz Planer show close-ups of Anna’s face, as she dips, spins, and pulses her shoulders to the music. They intercut these close-ups with close-ups of Steve as he watches her with rapt attention, thus pulling us with Steve under Anna’s spell.
The pair don’t immediately pick up where they left off. Anna is dating Dundee and merely asks Steve to call her some time. Their sizzling mutual attraction escapes no one’s attention; both Dundee and Ramirez want to keep Steve away from Anna. When they start seeing each other again, Ramirez goes behind Steve’s back and warns Anna that he’ll put her behind bars for something or other if she doesn’t stay away from Steve, a rotten ploy that sends her into Dundee’s arms. That would have been the end of it except for that cruel twist of fate that always plagues noir antiheroes—Steve catches sight of Anna in Union Station, wrapped in furs and a long face. She and Steve arrange to meet, and she reveals how Ramirez busted them up and how Dundee beats her, showing him the bruises to back up her story. When Dundee catches the two of them together, Steve spontaneously invents the idea of the payroll heist to keep Dundee from attacking Anna after he’s left. They develop a plan, and the film returns to the present, where the robbery and its aftermath make up the final act of the film.
At 88 minutes, Criss Cross is a fairly short film. But it is so packed with great supporting characters and inventive cinematography and location shooting that it feels much more expansive. Small parts, like Helton’s weasely bartender and a lush (Joan Miller) who seems permanently affixed to the end of the bar, don’t do anything to advance the plot; they simply provide the wonderful color that makes this film such a knockout. A special treat is seeing an uncredited, very young Tony Curtis dancing with De Carlo in the scene described above. Every noir fan’s favorite Los Angeles location, Bunker Hill, gets a great workout in this film. Brilliant is a scene where the conspirators look up an alcoholic crime mastermind (Alan Napier) in a Bunker Hill dive, bribing him with open credit at a liquor store in exchange for a fool-proof plan, with the Angels Flight funicular attactively framed in the window in the background. Cuts in and out, showing more sleeping bodies with each cut, mark the passage of time in the all-night planning session.
There isn’t a filmmaker alive who doesn’t like chance meetings happening when a figure moves out of the way to give the main characters a clear view of each other. Siodmak and Planer are no exception, but the way they move Anna and Steve through the crowds at Union Station builds tension until the clerk behind the standalone cigarette counter bends down to get Steve a pack, revealing Anna turning away from the information counter. The voiceover shows Steve’s pain at the fateful series of events that led to this reveal, the if-onlys that could have prevented it. Fat chance in noir, we want to scream at the screen.
The heist itself builds our fear, as the elderly guard Pop’s (Griff Barnett) case of the jitters has us hoping he won’t be killed if the gang screws up—which, of course, they must. The set-up is ingenious, with the gang using tear gas to disable bystanders and cover their actions. When Steve realizes that he, too, has been set up, his grappling with a thug wearing a gas mask seems like something out of science fiction. Losing at this crap game, being called a hero in the newspapers in a heist that got Pop killed, seems to seal his fate. Lancaster’s fear of the inevitable, something he feels he deserves, is heightened when he is left alone in his hospital room, helplessly attached to a traction device that shows him up to be the marionette of all the lowlifes with whom he’s gotten hopelessly entangled.
Seeing this film on the big screen was a major treat. Planer’s expressionistic camerawork is monumentally more impressive than it was during a home viewing. The chance to meet Eddie and participate in the Q&A was an extra bonus, but sharing the movie with other people and chatting about it afterwards is a communal experience I always crave and enjoy. Have a look at this terrific film and please remember to participate in our blogathon February 14-21 to raise money to restore The Sound of Fury (aka, Try and Get Me), another great film that can only improve when it’s ready to be seen as it was intended—larger than life, in crisp black and white.