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The Perfect Film Noir

Eddie Muller, founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation, writes about the seminal film noir Criss Cross, screening this Friday night at the TOBY as a part of the Winter Nights series:

When people ask me to cite the definitive film noir, I usually say Double Indemnity. That’s the one most people have likely heard of. But these days, I’m more inclined to call Criss Cross the perfect film noir. I’ve seen it several more times in recent years and it improves with each viewing. Its mood of thwarted passion and desperate melancholy only deepens with the passing years.

Criss Cross
was essentially the culmination of the film noir era (roughly 1944-1952), made at the movement’s peak in 1949. It reunited the brain trust from The Killers (1946), one of the films that ignited Hollywood’s fascination with dark, cynical crime stories. The one collaborator missing, unfortunately, was producer Mark Hellinger who died of a heart attack at age 44, just as the project came together. A one-time Broadway newspaper columnist, the brash and ballsy Hellinger had recently scored his biggest success with the groundbreaking police procedural Naked City (1948). He seemed destined for a long career as film noir’s dominant storyteller.

Hellinger was inspired by Don Tracy’s 1934 novel about a daring racetrack robbery, complicated by sexual passions. It was essentially The Killers redux, only better: this time there was no dispassionate protagonist (Edmond O’Brien) to distance the audience from the tale’s maelstrom of lust and longing. Daniel Fuchs fashioned a screenplay that greatly improved upon Tracy’s novel. Michel (Michael) Kraike stepped into the producer’s role and smartly let director Robert Siodmak have free rein. (Although theirs was a successful collaboration, Siodmak and Hellinger often butted heads while making The Killers.)

Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster) is an armored car guard who still has it bad for his ex-wife, Anna (Yvonne De Carlo). He’s drawn back to Slims, a nightclub where their passion burned brightest. He discovers that she’s hooking up with Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea), a slick and shady operator. Anna, in fine femme fatale fettle, ignites a fire fight between the two men. When Dundee catches him with Anna, Steve blurts out a cover story: he’s willing to act as the inside man so Dundee can knock over one of his company’s armored cars. Both men stage a cagey mating dance, while setting each other up. Steve plans on swindling Slim, grabbing his cut, and running off with Anna. Slim plans to kill Steve in the heat of the heist.

Such are the rudiments of the plot. Staple crime story stuff. Yet the film unfolds in the most seductive fashion, flashbacks within flashbacks, moved dreamily along by Lancaster’s voiceover narration, one of the best in noir. Siodmak shows his cinematic genius by transforming this routine pulp into an achingly exquisite example of l’amour fou. For beyond all else, Criss Cross is about love—albeit a one-sided, obsessive love that moves steadily, sensually, toward an uncompromisingly bleak finale.

One of the lasting pleasures of Criss Cross is its stylishness. Robert Siodmak had a tremendous flair for compositions and camera movements, ominous yet elegant. Images simultaneously inviting and foreboding are essential to the noir vision, and Siodmak mustered them like no one else. From the start—the camera swooping down like a hungry night bird to catch Lancaster and De Carlo in a secret embrace in the nightclub’s parking lot—the director infuses the drama with an sexy urgency that gets under your skin like a narcotic.

The acting couldn’t have been more stylish, either. In the best noir, actors play with flourish. They understand that memorable moments are way up there—dangerously close to over-the-top. Lancaster had been a trapeze artist before acting, for Pete’s sake. In noir, where he usually played a predator turned prey, he always suggested an imminent eruption beneath his implacable machismo. Costar Dan Duryea possessed an innate sense of how to colorfully sketch a character—a caricature, really—while nailing the priorities: advance the story, entertain the audience. Duryea was so good at playing villainous cads (he specialized in smacking around recalcitrant dames) that in the late 1940s he received more fan mail than any other actor in Hollywood.

A viewing of Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Criss Cross provides a telling contrast between then and now. Retitled The Underneath (1995), it’s well told and engrossing. But to accommodate the supposedly more sophisticated tastes of contemporary audiences, the film is relentlessly “realistic.” It outlines motivation for every character to lend the proceedings as much credibility as possible. The actors sell the material with the studied naturalism now required of dramatic film acting. As a result, the film is an involving, but forgettable, 120 minutes.

During its 88 concentrated minutes, Criss Cross shoots out little slivers of art that will never leave your head. The lazy torpor of a nightclub in the late afternoon; the lanky Duryea, dangling around his digs like a jackal in a zoot suit; Lancaster’s lovelorn face as he watches his lost love rumba around the dance floor (with a young Tony Curtis); bandits in gas masks firing blindly through a smoke haze; the terror of a lurking shadow in a hospital hallway. Vivid, dynamic imagery—and vivid, dynamic acting—stick in the mind long after the extraneous details of “naturalism” have evaporated.

Modern film noir plays like real life. Classic film noir plays like a fevered dream. Criss Cross is one of the very best dreams you’ll have at the movies.

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