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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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).