3:45 PM, Sunday October 17

Classic Cinemas, Elsternwick

Introduced by Jake Wilson

Director: Robert Siodmak
Country: USA
Year: 1948
Runtime: 88 minutes
Rating: PG

Tickets ⟶

“One of the most tragic and compelling of film noir.” — Alain Silver

German refugee Robert Siodmak landed in Hollywood during WW2 and worked as a journeyman director for a mere decade and a half before returning to Europe. From 1944 to 1949 he made a series of noirs that set the standard for the genre, none more so than Criss Cross – a dark tale of passion, envy, betrayal and violence set around the narrative of an armoured car robbery.  1940s noir icons Burt Lancaster and Dan Duryea battle it out for the affection of the stunning Yvonne De Carlo, their actions perpetuating patterns of desire, dismay and unrequited love. Superbly restored by production company Universal-International, Criss Cross will be screening at Cinema Reborn in a brand new 4K digital copy that accentuates every element of the bleak post-war world in which doomed characters meet their inevitable destiny.

Presented in a new 4K restoration.

Notes by Bruce Hodsdon:

Robert Siodmak
Born in Memphis in 1900 while his parents were on a business trip, Siodmak was brought up in Germany. He directed films in both Germany and France before arriving in Hollywood, a Jewish refugee, in 1940. After directing B movies for various studios he signed a long-term contract in 1943 with Universal where his brother Curt was working as a screenwriter. There and sometimes on loan-out, he directed a series of films subsequently termed film noir: Phantom Lady, Christmas Holiday (1944), The Killers(1946), Criss Cross(1948) and The File on Thelma Jordan (1949). He also directed films withnoir elements including The Suspect (1944), The Spiral Staircase (1945), The Dark Mirror (1946), and Cry of the City (1948). He returned to Germany in the early fifties where (also in France and England) he directed more than a dozen features, the last in 1968.

The Film
While it can hardly be ignored Criss Cross has too often been curiously under-appreciated. It stands with mainstream films noirs like Double Indemnity (1944), Detour (1945), Out of the Past (1947), Gun Crazy (1950), The Big Heat (1953), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), andTouch of Evil (1958), at the apex of the canon.

Criss Cross followed The Killers, based on a Hemingway short story, a cherished project of indie producer Mark Hellinger. He had been impressed by Siodmak's work on Phantom Lady (“he gives you back 125%”) and gave him freedom to contribute to the screen treatment of The Killers which made the then little-known leads, Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner, into stars. Hellinger was in the process of setting up Criss Cross with Lancaster and Siodmak already contracted when he died suddenly, age 44, of a massive heart attack. Universal took it over and handed it to Siodmak who found himself, again with scope for creative input into the script based on a novel by Don Tracy. Siodmak wrote it in collaboration with Daniel Fuchs, novelist and an Oscar winner for best original story (Love Me or Leave Me). Siodmak gained the services of talented cameraman, another German refugee, Frank (Franz) Planer (Letter from an Unknown Woman) and  signed up Yvonne De Carlo whose down-to-earth assertiveness plays more credibly opposite a young Lancaster than Ava Gardner's detached sophistication in The Killers.

Both films are notable for their dramatic openings. The aerial shot of Los Angeles at night descends on a couple, Steve and Anna (Lancaster and De Carlo), kissing in a parking lot. Evident is the excitement and anxiety of the double cross and the powerful physical bond between them. They are in a sexual triangle with gangster boss Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea). The film shares a similar plot to The Killers – a heist and double cross, the back story unfolding in flashbacks with Steve as narrator.

A good deal of the film is taken up with two flashbacks, linked by Steve's narration.  Following the opening scenes at the nightclub the night before the payroll robbery we are taken back to the time of Steve's return in an alienated state after two years drifting around the country following the break-up of his marriage with Anna. It is a more coherent use of flashback than the multiple flashbacks that structure The Killers with the latter’s inherent confusion between the objective and subjective (the audience knows more from what it is being shown than the investigator in The Killers knows from what he is being told).

A second 'triangle' becomes increasingly evident with the introduction of Lieutenant Ramirez (Steve McNally). More than just a boyhood friend of Steve's, he is his self appointed moral guardian. There is a barely repressed homo-eroticism, his interest in Steve apparent in his hate of Anna and the nature of his close ties with Steve's family. A seemingly obtrusively friendly concern soon assumes a vindictive edge. In Michael Walker's words, if Slim is the id, Ramirez becomes Steve's vicious super ego.

At a crucial moment Steve, in the grip of  l'amour fou, refuses a way out of his involvement with Slim's gang that Ramirez offers him when his fight with Slim boils over as the gang boss pulls a knife. The fight is initially staged by the gang to mislead Ramirez. Steve is committed as the insider working as a driver of the targeted payroll car. As Walker suggests “subtextually, the exchange [with Ramirez] can be seen as a sexual invitation that Steve refuses.” What has unravelled between the two former friends, leading up to this crucial moment, is played out in two succeeding flashbacks. This later assumes disquieting proportions as Steve lies helpless in the enforced immobility of a hospital bed after the robbery, in fear of kidnap and on the edge of consciousness. Ramirez, appears as a figure of doom complementing Slim's 'figure of destiny' while the kidnapper seems like Ramirez's shadow.

Steve puts up the proposal for the armoured car robbery to Slim Dundee seemingly on the spur of the moment when confronted by Slim's confirmation of the couple's adultery. It seems clear in Steve's preceding scene with Anna in his bedroom that they had not discussed the idea with each other. Steve knows that Slim would plan to double-cross him. He readily accepts Slim's suggestion (a measure of Slim's confidence) that Anna look after the post robbery pay-off. While the plans are being made, she lies asleep outside the male group. As Michael Walker recognises “Steve and Anna are certainly Siodmak's most interesting and complex heterosexual couple.”   Highlighting the disruptive nature of sexual desire is an overt sense of quasi sexual thrill contained in the fear and excitement of high risk crime. As a noir couple Steve and Anna stand comparison with, e.g., Mitchum-Greer, MacMurray-Stanwyck, and Welles-Hayworth.  In the context of this gallery of spider women De Carlo's limited range, her 'B' lead sexiness, as Siodmak seems to have realised, adds credibility and ambiguity to the relationship with Steve.

Steve's narration in Criss Cross recalls the fatalism of Jeff Bailey (Mitchum) in Out of the Past (1947). These are two films noirsthat come close to bringing a tragic dimension, generally outside noir's ambit, to the hero's obsession, aided immeasurably by the aura of resigned vulnerability brought to their roles by Lancaster and Mitchum. Steve's narration is passive and uncontrolled, the converse of a controlling point of view. He is both self aware yet seemingly involuntarily resigned to his obsession with Anna. A turning point in the narrative is Steve's first sighting in a flashback 22 mins into the film of her moving sensually to Latin rhythm in the night club, evoked subjectively by the combination of long lens and rhythmic montage.

Is the subject of Criss Cross a frequently recurring preoccupation of films noirs: the destruction of a basically good man by a corrupt woman? Ava Gardner in The Killers seems to be there more to fulfil the function of femme fatale rather than provide an engaging characterisation.  She is “little more than a prop used in engineering [Lancaster/the Swede's ] doom” as Jean-Pierre Coursodon aptly describes Gardner/Kitty.  Anna's relationship with Steve is more ambiguous. The couple ultimately can be seen to be victims of a failed crime passionel They become increasingly ensnared by circumstances to which Steve fatally reacts.

A fateful sense of inevitability is suggested in the opening aerial shots searching out the couple in the night underscored by Miklos Rosza's evocative theme music. There is a dark symmetry between the film's opening and closing scenes with Steve and Anna. Planer's depth of field at moments assumes an expressionist edge as when Steve enters the bar from the street to which he keeps returning in search of Anna. The sudden chance appearance of Anna in sharp focus in the crowded middle distance at Union Station initiates their fated further reconnection. The robbery is expressionistically blanketed in tear gas.

Siodmak also brings his early involvement with documentary and realist filmmaking in Germany into play. Filming in LA locations - -the elevated Bunker Hill family home in old LA and elsewhere in the city - is effectively maintained in interior spaces by the careful integration of back projected streets outside, in the staging of the tension in scenes in the family home and the unobtrusive deployment of depth of field in the crowded bar and nightclub.

Without assuming a progressive dimension, the portrayal of the fallen couple in Criss Cross is distanced from classical narrativity in which sequence and stylistic seamlessness are the instruments for smoothing over potential and actual contradictions. The stability of classical narrative in the forties is increasingly interrupted in various ways, no more so than in films noirs, eg by flashback structure – which in Criss Cross is middle-beginning-end*. The film dissolves into the robbery assuming expressionistically nightmarish proportions in a violent break from the unsettling naturalism of the first half, in turn disturbed by the loss of control in  the hero-victim's narration. A further destabilising element, as suggested above, is the unresolved homo-eroticism in the intensity with which Lieutenant Ramirez attempts to destroy Steve's relationship with Anna.

*Dana Polan takes up an example of forties noir, Dark Passage (1947),that he finds  “in style and story demonstrates a certain distance from classic narrativity without implying... liberation from a... narrative ideology ”. Polan Ch 5 (Power & Paranoia Columbia UP 1986) argues that “in the chaotic world of film noir, especially, the ordinary world undergoes a defamiliarization... in which the confidence in human projects comes undone.” In this chapter he traces some of the forms of this “defamiliarization of human coordinates in forties film representation of space and time,” ultimately arguing that this “leads to the commodification of everyday life and the rise of non-narrative spectacle from within the heart of classical narrative.”.

References: “Robert Siodmak” by Michael Walker The Movie Book of Film Noir ed. Ian Cameron Studio Vista 1992, pp. 110-51; Carlos Clarens Crime Movies W W Norton 1980. Jean-Pierre Coursodon American Directors Volume 1 McGraw-Hill 1983.

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