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I was rather nonplussed with Robert Siodmak’s seminal film The Killers. The opening, based on Ernest Hemingway’s short story, is one of the most terrifying sequences in all of Noir: the great dialogue like “He’s never even seen us before,” “He’s only gonna see us once”, the great lighting, the extreme fatalism and geometric certainty of the Swede’s fate; it’s the very definition of Noir. The rest of the film is entertaining, but it never lives up to that inspired opening. It always feels just like what it is: a half-assed explanation of Hemingway’s characters’ motivations and backstories. The beauty of that vignette though is its mystery; the way the Swede just takes it. The cheesy flashbacks and uninspired double and triple cross plotting obscure the fact that no explanation will ever satisfy the intensity of that question. I wasn’t sure who was to blame for this misstep though, and I went into Criss Cross with high expectations of a turnaround in my opinion of Siodmak. I was definitely satisfied; Criss Cross is easily on of the best Films Noir I’ve seen, with both a high degree of craftsmanship and a distinctly personal artistic perspective.
Bosley Crowther, in his contemporary review, said that Burt Lancaster just played his usual tough guy and that his performance was adequate but uninspired. I saw a lot more subtlety in his role; Steve Thompson (Lancaster) comes across much more like a Mitchum than a Ford. He has this laconic, bored attitude that can’t be diverted. Nothing in his hometown seems to catch his attention, and he wanders from place to place with no real goal—traveling the South, going from one job to another.
One of the funny things about a character like Walter Neff in Double Indemnity is that he is supposedly bored enough with his life and job to commit murder for fun, but he comes across like an energetic rastabout upon first meeting Phyllis: flirty, witty, sexually confident. Contrast that with Steve Thompson in Criss Cross; Thompson is quiet and distant, watching Anna dance with a young Tony Curtis at the club. Later he rebuffs her advances repeatedly; she continually pursues him. After dinner one night his family proposes any number of activities: a movie, bowling, even ice skating. He is disturbingly nonresponsive, and they all notice.
When he finally does take an interest in life, in the form of Anna, she marries his rival, Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea)—a “well known man” at the head of a local criminal organization. Again he decides to leave her alone. Fate throws them together, and she asks for a ride home. Her story of abuse and misery is enough to touch his heart, but there’s still an extremely blunt shock when he suggests the armored car robbery. It’s completely out of the blue, as in this movie the “Femme Fatale” has no machinations in the propulsion of the plot. In fact, during a quiet moment in the planning of the heist she tells him that this is a horrible idea and that she wishes they’d never met. Thompson says at the end, rather disgusted, that he “never cared about the money, all I wanted was you,” but of course the real appeal was the thrill of feeling alive: the sense of having some sort of personal agency. Nothing in his life has ever made him feel alive except for Anna, and that isn’t something that he’s willing to surrender.
Thompson is a typical Noir protagonist but not the Tough Guy variety. He’s ‘The Stranger.’ The man out of time, ‘lost down dark alleyways, running running’ to quote M. Mitchum excelled at these roles in movies like Angel Face and Out of the Past. Lancaster is absolutely breathtaking in Criss Cross; when he says “I’ll know better next time” at the end, its filled with such empathy and horror. He crushes so many conflicting emotions into each desperate line, forcing it all under the surface, churning under his monotonous facade. He doesn’t take on the heist because he loves Anna or thinks they can truly have a life together; he just can’t take it anymore.
I’m not drunk, I’m sober, cold sober. I’m gonna see Anna. I’m gonna see her any time that I want. I’m gonna do anything I please. And you and Dundee and nobody else is gonna tell me what to do, see?
The cinematography in Criss Cross is top notch. Franz Planer is a veteran of Film Noir, and he pulls out all the stops. Many shots were reminiscent of Edward Hopper paintings, like this one…
The movie is very tense, with one of the all time great action sequences in a Noir. I haven’t seen Armored Car Robbery, but the way Siodmak stages the heist in this movie is genius. Using chemical gas and gas masks, explosions, and brutal violence against innocent characters, Siodmak crafts a hellish sequence that is singularly visceral among the large scale set pieces I’ve seen in Noir. Noir is adept at small intimate violence, like the murder of Mart in Born to Kill: close ups of faces and weapons. In contrast, the armored car heist is filled with wide context shots and complex staging with multiple gun men and points of action. Everyone should see the brilliant mid-heist twist coming but we can’t, because by this point the action’s too intense to keep thinking about human nature. Very thrilling and unique action for a melodrama like this. The film has several scenes like this, playing counterpoint to Romance to create a unique atmosphere.
This is the interesting line the movie walks. It was originally being produced by Mark Hellinger until he died, and his idea was for more of a straight action film focusing on the heist. Reportedly Lancaster was disappointed with the direction that Siodmak and screenwriter Daniel Fuchs went with the narrative. They focus on the intense romantic melodrama, and this is what really makes the movie for me. Like They Only Live By Night the year before, this film took a very skewed view on its subject matter, but this was what made Noir Noir. True Noir is rarely concerned with all the details of the plot. Even in most of the Docu Noirs of the mid 40s, the aberrant psychology of the characters and the cruel nature of fate were the primary themes, and The Big Sleep, for some the definitive Film Noir, is famous for its incomprehensibility.
Noir is all about character, and in Criss Cross we have some doozys. I’ve already described the protagonist, and his female counterpart is equally interesting. Anna is much more sympathetic than your average Femme Fatale, but not as wholesome as your average Good Girl. She has one of the more human characterizations given to a woman in a Noir: she legitimately pursues Thompson and only chooses Slim out of desperation, she discourages the heist, and she ‘betrays’ him, not out of pure greed but pure terror. Unlike true Fatales she’s motivated more by self-preservation than greed, but like all Fatales her greed is still a little higher on her values totem than love/lust.
The ending is one of the most bitter pills Noir has swallowed, with a gorgeous lovers’ tableaux and an expression on Slim’s face of the pure empty helpless cruelty of fate. I will definitely be seeing more of Robert Siodmak’s Noirs, and I will be giving The Killers a rewatch very soon.