“Criss Cross” and “The Killers”

The noir double feature I saw this week of Robert Siodmak’s Criss Cross and The Killers deserves a bit more than the passing mention in yesterday’s post about a week of movies.

The City Pages is being difficult and not providing Rob Nelson’s succinct review of Criss Cross online, so I’ll reprint it:

As an impossibly convoluted thriller stuffed with flashbacks and nihilistic voiceovers, this 1949 film noir from director Robert Siodmak isn’t quite on a par with The Killers, Siodmak’s first collaboration with tough-guy cum patsy Burt Lancaster. But it’s a skillful, brooding, highly entertaining movie nonetheless–and far more potent than Steven Soderbergh’s arty remake The Underneath. In fact, what seemed to be Soderbergh’s most innovative scene–a protracted hospital-room dialogue between the helpless protagonist and his potential assassin–actually pales in comparison to Siodmak’s more straightforwardly intense staging, in which the intersecting bars of the hero’s death bed visually represent both title and plot. Plus, the narration delivered by Lancaster, playing a wayward loser who returns to his duplicitous ex-wife (Yvonne De Carlo) works as a perfect articulation of the genre’s gender-oriented despair: “From the start, it all went one way. It was in the cards, or it was fate, or it was a jinx, or whatever you want to call it.” I’d call it a postwar metaphor for the trauma of vets who, coming home, found that their wives weren’t the compliant homemakers they were before.

Julie Caniglia recommended The Killers over Criss Cross as well. Former acrobat Burt Lancaster is The Swede, a role that made him a star. He’s handsome and tragic in a tank top, a look Siodmak repeated in the later Criss Cross.

This 1946 adaptation of a Hemingway story, which one film critic dubbed the “Citizen Kane of noirs,” is indeed a deft example of Hollywood studio tradition cast with a pall of brooding German Expressionism (director Robert Siodmak began and ended his movie career in Germany). Like Kane, it begins with a death–the murder of the Swede, a small-town gas station attendant (Burt Lancaster, looking hot in a career-launching role)–and then unfolds the increasingly complex “double-cross to end all double-crosses” that led up to it. Basically, the Swede’s $2,500 life insurance payment leads one Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) to uncover the details of a $250,000 caper years earlier. Yes, words like “caper” and “sing” are used freely here; there are also boxing matches, poker games, boarding houses, and small-time cons named Blinky and Dum-Dum. The big-time con Big Jim Colfax asks for a cigarette with his dying breath, and his dame Kitty (Ava Gardner) croons an impromptu, piano-side torch song–making smitten that lovable lug, the Swede. Such elements have long since been chewed into mealy clichés, but in The Killers they’re evergreen.

These worked well as a double feature, and were both well worth renting if you’re a fan of film noir.

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