Two From Siodmak: The Killers & Criss Cross

August 30, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Robert Siodmak 1948

Robert Siod­mak 1948

While such stu­dios as Twen­ti­eth Cen­tury Fox, RKO, Para­mount, United Artists and even MGM, pro­duced the pro­fu­sion of movies in the Film Noir cycle, it was Uni­ver­sal who dis­pensed two gen­uine pearls of the genre…
The Killers (1946), and Criss Cross (1949).

Here I dis­cuss these two intrigu­ing and well dis­ci­plined films, both pro­duced by Uni­ver­sal and both directed by Robert Siod­mak. Siod­mak like the other Ger­man emi­gre direc­tors Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, and Otto Pre­minger dom­i­nated the field of Film Noir. Robert Siodmak’s Noir cred­its also include Phan­tom Lady (1943), Cry of the City (1948), and The File on Thelma Jor­don (1949), but his sin­gle Oscar® nom­i­na­tion was for The Killers based loosely on the Ernest Hem­ing­way short story of the same name.

The Killers, opens as a pair of hired killers drift into a small New Jer­sey town with the inten­tion of gun­ning down a local gas sta­tion atten­dant named Swede, Burt Lan­caster in his film debut. The Killers await their prey at the local diner. When he fails to appear as sched­uled they locate the board­ing house where he lives, force their way into his room where he sto­ically awaits them. Mak­ing no attempt to escape, he is killed in a blaze of gun­fire. His final words, “I did some­thing wrong—once.” The film unfolds with sim­i­lar dis­con­nected flash­back tech­niques used ear­lier in Cit­i­zen Kane (1941), and mas­ter­fully applied here.

Edmond O'Brien as James Riordan, watch trailer

Edmond O’Brien as James Riordan

The nar­ra­tive begins when an insur­ance inves­ti­ga­tor James Rior­dan, Edmond O’Brien fol­low­ing a rou­tine claim for a minor amount of money, begins to sus­pect some­thing more com­plex because of Lancaster’s unwill­ing­ness to do any­thing to pre­vent his death. O’Brien’s inves­ti­ga­tion leads him to an assort­ment of ques­tion­able char­ac­ters, and it becomes appar­ent that Lan­caster was involved with a gang of thieves. He also learns that Lancaster’s dou­ble cross by a woman named Kitty Collins, Ava Gard­ner left him over­whelmed and dis­traught. O’Brien con­cludes that it was only a mat­ter of time until Lancaster’s check­ered past caught up with him.

O’Brien desir­ing to see jus­tice pre­vail, poses as an under­world oper­a­tive and is promised a bounty if he can con­vinces Lancaster’s old gang that he can unearth the miss­ing loot they sus­pect Lan­caster and Gard­ner swin­dled after a heist. Secur­ing the gangs con­fi­dence, O’Brien locates Gard­ner, and she agrees to meet him with the express inten­tion of hav­ing him killed by the same two men who killed Lan­caster. O’Brien sens­ing the endeavor cov­ers him­self and the assas­sins them­selves are killed. Gard­ner escapes lead­ing O’Brien to the gang leader and real swindler Big Jim Col­fax  Albert Dekker, who on his death bed con­fesses and impli­cates Gardner.

William Conrad

William Con­rad

The Killers con­tains sev­eral clas­sic Noir ele­ments. The gun­man por­trayed by Charles McGraw, and William Con­rad typ­ify the per­sona of the Noir world. The cor­rupt cos­mos that makes a promis­ing young boxer turn crim­i­nal is typ­i­cal Film Noir. The under­cur­rent of vio­lence, dark motives, hope­less­ness are all Noir icons. The film exhibits the same hard-boiled style of Hemingway’s short story, though it ends with the killing of the prin­ci­pal. Script writer Anthony Veiller uses the killing sequence as a pro­logue in order to explain why Lan­caster looses his will to live. Pro­ducer Mark Hellinger High Sierra (1941), Brute Force (1947), The Naked City (1948), a for­mer news­pa­per reporter super­vised the entire pro­duc­tion. The sen­si­bil­i­ties of Siod­mak and Veiller with the hard boiled real­ism of Hellinger blend to exem­plify many of the most engag­ing aspects of Film Noir.

Though the pro­tag­o­nist is clearly Edmond O’Brien, it the bro­ken down boxer Lan­caster with whom we are most intrigued. The dis­junc­tive use of time, the unre­lated flash­backs, all com­bine to put us in the voyeuris­tic posi­tion of know­ing not only what will become of him, but more impor­tantly why. And despite our protes­ta­tions he hope­lessly falls for the omnipresent femme fatale, an unavoid­able ingre­di­ent of the Noir cycle. Just as the old-time hood Charleston (Vince Bar­net) advises him on the fal­li­bil­ity of lis­ten­ing to the golden harps, we too can only empathize his impend­ing doom.

Burt Lancaster, Yvonne DeCarlo, watch trailer

Burt Lan­caster, Yvonne DeCarlo

When you double-cross a double-crosser, it’s a Criss Cross… Though it’s been a year since his divorce, Steve Thomp­son Burt Lan­caster is still haunted by the mem­ory of Anna Yvonne DeCarlo, his for­mer wife. He finds him­self back in Los Angles, and the night­club where they spent time together. He is sur­prised to see DeCarlo on the dance floor. She tells him that she is plan­ning to merry Slim Dundee Dan Duryea whose con­nec­tions to the local crime syn­di­cate pro­vide her the wealth that Lan­caster could not. She implies how­ever, that Duryea’s wealth is no com­pen­sa­tion for the phys­i­cal inten­sity she and Lan­caster shared.

After DeCarlo’s mar­riage to Duryea, Lan­caster again plans to leave town. But as fate (a Noir req­ui­site), would have it he runs into DeCarlo at the Union Sta­tion where she is see­ing Duryea off on a busi­ness trip. Encour­aged by DeCarlo’s hints of dis­sat­is­fac­tion with Duryea, Lan­caster begins see­ing her. This despite warn­ings from his boy­hood friend now a cop Pete Rmairez, Stephen McNally On one occa­sion Duryea caches them together, and Lan­caster sens­ing trou­ble impro­vises an involved scheme to rob the armored car com­pany for which he works.

DeCarlo talks Lan­caster into actu­ally going through with the rob­bery, con­vinc­ing him that she will aban­don Duryea once the job is done. Duryea on the other hand believes that DeCarlo is hav­ing an affair with Lan­caster, and plans an elab­o­rate double-cross. Dur­ing the holdup Duryea’s men kill Lancaster’s part­ner and friend and attempt to kill Lan­caster, who is only wounded and man­ages to kill two of Duryea’s men. He is hos­pi­tal­ized and held up as hero. But because DeCarlo and the money have dis­ap­peared, McNally believes it was Lan­caster who mas­ter­minded the heist. Duryea has Lan­caster kid­napped from the hos­pi­tal, but Lan­caster bribes the kid­nap­per into tak­ing him to DeCarlo. DeCarlo know­ing that any moment Duryea will appear attempts to leave the wounded Lan­caster, but before she can make an exit Duryea appears and kills them both.

Dan Duryea Yvonne DeCarlo Union Station Los Angeles

Dan Duryea, Yvonne DeCarlo, Union Sta­tion Los Angeles

From the very begin­ning of the film with the aer­ial shot of the night­club park­ing lot we get the feel­ing of approach­ing fatal­ity so famil­iar in the Noir cycle. As Lan­caster and DeCarlo embark on their ill-fated intrigue, they attempt to con­vince one another that every­thing will work out… that it will soon be over. We have of course, no idea what they are talk­ing about. The scene quickly shifts to the inte­rior of the night­club where last minute prepa­ra­tions, plans and ali­bis for the rob­bery are accel­er­at­ing. Finally the heist its self gets under­way. Through a series of com­plex flash­backs we are given details bring­ing us to the present.

The thrust of the film is estab­lished early with a flash­back of the newly arrived Lan­caster in the night­club look­ing for DeCarlo. The point-of-view shot com­pels us to see what Lan­caster sees. Through a series of long shots we see a cou­ple fran­ti­cally danc­ing to the beat of a rumba orches­tra. We see that the woman danc­ing is DeCarlo, and with­out a word of dia­log we are made to under­stand that Lan­caster is still emo­tion­ally and phys­i­cally obsessed with her —the basis for the entire story.

There are three diverse motifs in Criss Cross

  • The typ­i­cally Noir dis­tinc­tions we see in the begin­ning with the night­club park­ing lot scene, empha­sized by the fren­zied chords of Mik­los Rozsa’s score, (Rozsa also wrote the music for The Killers). We are accus­tomed to night shots, wet pave­ment, and flash­ing car head­lights within the Noir cycle. We expect that some­thing is about to hap­pen. But noth­ing does. With this ruse, we are put off-balance.
  • The scenes of Lancaster’s home, and the armored car com­pany where he works are tra­di­tion­ally lit, char­ac­ter­is­tic of motion pic­tures of the day.
  • And finally wit­ness the images of Lan­caster in the hos­pi­tal after the armored car rob­bery. Here we are pro­vided with a range of sur­real, Hitch­cock­ian close ups that might be bet­ter suited for a David O. Selznick production.
Burt Lancaster 1946

Burt Lan­caster 1946

What is so unusual about these dis­tinc­tions is the way Siod­mak inte­grates them so seam­lessly. In doing so Lancaster’s fate is that much more of a tragedy —Criss Cross is one the more tragic films of Noir cycle.

Burt Lan­caster was a phys­i­cal actor, but his best work, in by hum­ble opin­ion came in his early films of the Noir cycle. In addi­tion to the afore­men­tioned, he made; I Walk Alone (1947), Brute Force (1948), Kiss the Blood off My Hands (1948), Sorry, Wrong Num­ber (1948), and later, the excel­lent though under­rated Sweet Smell of Suc­cess (1957).

by Michael Mills

About Michael Mills
Rank-amateur photographer, I like Classic films, real Jazz, Opera, and a little Hank Williams . . . and sometimes baseball . . .