‘Criss Cross,’ a stellar noir, screens Thursday at TCM fest

Criss Cross/1949/Universal Pictures/88 min.

What would film noir be without obsessive love? (Or “amour fou” as the French would say.) Just a bunch of caring and sharing among equal partners with no cause for discontent? How frightfully dull.

My favorite example is “Criss Cross” from 1949 by director Robert Siodmak. This film is somewhat neglected so I’m very happy that the TCM Classic Film Festival is screening it this Thursday with an intro from the Film Noir Foundation’s Eddie Muller. Siodmak helped define noir style and in this flick you can see what an unerring eye he had.

Anna (Yvonne De Carlo) and Steve (Burt Lancaster) find it impossible to say goodbye.

“Criss Cross” tells the story of a nice guy from a modest background who, try as he might, just cannot break ties with his sexy but venal ex-wife. They are one of noir’s most stunningly gorgeous couples.

Burt Lancaster as Steve Thompson takes your breath away with his arresting features and beautiful build. Equally captivating is exquisite Yvonne De Carlo (Lily Munster on the ’60s TV show, “The Munsters”) as Anna.

Lancaster and De Carlo were also paired in Jules Dassin’s prison film “Brute Force” from 1947. And in 1946, Siodmak helped catapult Lancaster and Ava Gardner to stardom in “The Killers,” another seminal film noir. Miklós Rózsa wrote original music for both Siodmak films.

Back to “Criss Cross.” Having returned to his native Los Angeles after more than a year of roaming around the country, working odd jobs, Steve’s convinced that he’s over Anna and can move on from their failed marriage.

He gets his old job back (as a driver for Horten’s, an armored car service) and reconnects with his family (a very unusual touch – most noir heroes are total loners). There’s Mom (Edna Holland), brother Slade (Richard Long) and his brother’s fiancée Helen (Meg Randall). They’re all anti-Anna, natch, and so is Steve’s childhood friend Det. Lt. Pete Ramirez (Stephen McNally).

Anna likes the perks that her sugar daddy Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea) can provide.

It’s only a matter of time (and fate, of course) before Steve sees Anna again, only to learn she has a new love interest, an unctuous gangster and sugar daddy named Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea), whom she abruptly marries.

But Anna can’t quite tear herself away from Steve – he is Burt bloody Lancaster, after all. When Slim catches the pair together, Steve stays calm and says he’s figured out a way to pull a heist – an inside job at Horten’s – but he needs some help to carry it out. Things don’t go quite according to plan, however, and the caper turns into a smoke-filled shootout, which lands Steve in the hospital and launches Slim on the lam.

Noir master Daniel Fuchs adapted “Criss Cross” from a Don Tracy novel. While the script’s references to Steve’s imminent doom are a little over the top, the movie is still an excellent showcase for the talents of German-émigré Siodmak, an auteur largely underrated in postwar Hollywood, as well as for his cast and crew. “Criss Cross” is both a tense, lean crime thriller and a textured, haunting story about relationships and human nature.

Much as I like “The Killers,” I prefer “Criss Cross” and its probing into questions of fate, our inherent human capacity for perversity and self-destruction, our tendencies toward paranoia, greed and guilt, and our willingness to trust, trick and manipulate others and ourselves. Basically, everything we hate to think about and try to repress.

We see romantic relationships that run the gamut from sweet to steamy to sadistic, with Siodmak and Fuchs reminding us of the violence that can lurk just under a tranquil surface. It’s also interesting to speculate, upon repeat viewings, just how far back Steve might have been hatching his plan and to what extent it grew out of Slim’s wider and stickier web of deceit.

When Slim and his gang invade Steve’s place, Steve outlines his plan.

Beginning with a magnificent shot that lands us in the middle of the story, we witness a clandestine meeting, a few minutes in a parking lot, of lovers Steve and Anna.

Then, as Siodmak backtracks to fill us in on their story, it’s one ravishing chiaroscuro composition after another, often shot from high above and suggesting a sense of encroaching peril or shot low to create a feeling of dominance, danger and power. Entrapping shadows abound.

Siodmak and cinematographer Franz Planer were at the top of their game in “Criss Cross. “ It’s hard to beat the panoramic opening scene and the pieta-like closing shot. Another striking scene: when Steve sees Anna dancing the rhumba (with an uncredited Tony Curtis) as Esy Morales’ band gives it their all. I also love the alternating high and low shots as Anna and Steve discover that Slim and his gang have infiltrated Steve’s place, quiet as cats, save for the refrigerator that pounds shut as they help themselves to beers. “You know,” says Dan Duryea’s Slim, in a cool, silky voice, “it don’t look right. You can’t exactly say it looks right now can you?”

Was there anyone better in 1940s than Duryea as the cheap, sleazy, misogynistic gangster-type who never failed to be dressed to the nines in the flashiest and gaudiest of garb?

Steve and Anna hope to reunite after she extricates herself from Slim.

Additionally, it’s a testament to Lancaster’s power of expression – his graceful physicality, measured, calm voice and what seems to be an innate kindness and intelligence – that you continue to root for him knowing that every step he takes is the wrong one.

And you can see how De Carlo as Anna could sear a man’s heart. (De Carlo later starred as the quirky matriarch in TV’s “The Munsters,” 1964-66.) While some would write Anna off as a conniving shrew who causes Steve’s downfall, and it’s pretty hard to argue otherwise, she at least never plays too coy – she wants him, yes, but she wants money too and she’s entirely clear that she’ll get it with or without him. It’s his choice (as much as you have a choice in film noir) to execute a heist to get a bunch of cash. As for the heist, particularly the planning of, I think there is much here that influenced John Huston when he made “The Asphalt Jungle” (1950).

Also memorable in their performances are Percy Helton as the bartender, Alan Napier as Finchley, the stately, dignified crook consultant who works for liquor and Griff Barnett as Pop, the co-worker whom Steve betrays. “Criss Cross” also features Raymond Burr, uncredited, as a gangster.

Steven Soderbergh remade “Criss Cross” as “The Underneath” in 1995 and it’s a good film. But just as Lancaster’s Steve likens his love to getting a bit of apple stuck in his teeth, “Criss Cross” similarly lodges in your psyche. Like a lurking temptation, it’s hard to let go.

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Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival is non-stop noirista heaven

The 2011 festival poster

After four days of back-to-back noirs at the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival in Palm Springs, it is hard to return to reality. I keep expecting to see men in fedoras and mink-coated molls. Or to hear terse whispers from crooks working a heist or an imperious “Ah, shut up” a la Joan Crawford. Well, it’s a rainy day and it’s still early so you never know what might happen.

The annual noir gathering, now in its 11th year, is one of my favorite fests and such a great chance to mingle with other noiristas, such as producer and programmer Alan K. Rode and the rest of the Dark City Players: Marvin Paige, Foster Hirsch, Kim Morgan and Eddie Muller. Ric and Rozene Supple are the fest’s executive producers and the Camelot Theatre does a great job hosting the event. The festival is named after its founder Arthur Lyons Jr., an author and longtime resident of Palm Springs.

From the first notes of Henry Mancini’s silky score for “Experiment in Terror,” which opened the fest, to the Palm Springs locations of 60 years ago, shown in the final movie, “The Damned Don’t Cry,” there was much to relish. In “Experiment in Terror” from 1962, Ross Martin hatches a plot to anonymously extort money from Lee Remick; his efforts are thwarted by FBI agent Glenn Ford.

Alan K. Rode talks with Stefanie Powers.

It’s hard to shake the mood of menace that director Blake Edwards creates in this chilling tale. Stefanie Powers, who played Remick’s younger sister, spoke after the screening. “Nobody shot that way,” she said of Edwards’ daring camera, adding that the film may be the first time that someone died on screen, eyes open.

Friday’s fare included “The Underworld Story” (1950, Cy Endfield); “Six Bridges to Cross” (1955, Joseph Pevney); “A Kiss Before Dying” (1956, Gerd Oswald) and “Cape Fear” (1962, J. Lee Thompson).

I can never get enough of Dan Duryea, star of “Underworld,” and seeing Tony Curtis in “Six Bridges” was a rare treat. “You can’t help liking him even if he is a criminal,” said co-star Julie Adams in the post-screening Q&A, noting the natural charm Curtis brought to the part of inveterate schemer Jerry Florea. Sal Mineo made his screen debut in this movie, as the young Jerry, leader of a Boston street gang.

Kim Morgan (left) and Julie Adams discuss "Six Bridges."

Then it was time for a dash of luscious color: The broad gaze of CinemaScope catches the hard-core badness of college student and casual killer Bud Corliss (Robert Wagner) in “A Kiss Before Dying.” Though he was voted most likely to succeed in high school, at 25, he’s still stuck in college, despite the support of his doting mom (Mary Astor). He figures it would be a whole lot easier to ditch the books and marry into a rich family, even if it requires a murder or two.

Co-starring as his love interests are Joanne Woodward and Virginia Leith, both of whom are excellent. Director Gerd Oswald, a mainstay of the classic TV show “The Outer Limits” and the son of Vienna-born director Richard Oswald, elicits memorable performances, particularly from the young and sexy Wagner.

The evening ended with a classic thriller: “Cape Fear.” The top-notch cast includes Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, Polly Bergen, Lori Martin, Barrie Chase, Telly Savalas, Martin Balsam and Jack Kruschen. Adding to the mood is music by the maestro of the suspense film Bernard Herrmann.

Barrie Chase recalled Mitchum's work as she chatted with Alan K. Rode after the screening.

Mitchum’s portrayal of Max Cady, a brutal sadist seeking revenge, is one of his best and most famous roles. On hand to reminisce after the movie was Chase, also an accomplished dancer who partnered with Fred Astaire on his TV specials. Chase said of Mitchum in this movie: “He was fantastically attractive as a horrible person.”

When she rehearsed her scene with Mitchum (she played a victim of his brutality), he made it very clear that he had nothing on under his pants. “It struck me as funny,” she said. (The audience had the same reaction.) “He was very kind and protective after that; he treated me like a kid sister.”

Also, Chase said, despite giving the impression that he winged it when it came to acting, Mitchum was “totally prepared, he knew exactly what he was going to do.” As for how she broke into movies, she told the audience she got the requisite encouragement to follow her dream from “a fella named Stanley Kubrick” whom she was going out with at the time.

Evelyn Keyes

On Saturday morning, critic Kim Morgan introduced “99 River Street” (1953, Phil Karlson) starring John Payne and Evelyn Keyes. Morgan pointed out that the film is a great example both of cinematographer Franz Planer’s work (he was on “Criss Cross,” 1949; “Letter from an Unknown Woman,” 1948; “Bad for Each Other,” 1953, and many others) and of the boxing noir sub-genre, along with “Body and Soul,” 1947, and “The Set-Up,” 1949. All three films, Morgan pointed out, likely would have been on Martin Scorsese’s radar as he prepared to make 1980’s “Raging Bull.”

Next up was “Plunder Road” from 1957, directed by the underrated Hubert Cornfield (“The Night of the Following Day,” 1969) and lensed by Ernest Haller. A reported favorite of Quentin Tarantino, this lean little caper flick is about a group of men stealing gold from a train, hauling it off in commercial trucks and melting it down in a foundry before getting it out of the country. It’s wildly far-fetched, true, but still a good time.

Jeanne Cooper explained to Foster Hirsch that the "Plunder Road" actors learned foundry work for the film.

And what noir fest would be complete without an appearance of Elisha Cook, Jr.? Gene Raymond, Wayne Morris and Jeanne Cooper round out the cast; in her discussion with Foster Hirsch, Cooper recalled that Cornfield made the actors really learn the work involved at foundry. He wanted authenticity but also told them wryly: “Now you can back yourselves up and know something more than acting.” Cornfield’s advice on knowing another trade was sadly prophetic – he eventually turned to house painting to support himself.

Completing the afternoon was 1954’s “Loophole,” directed by Harold Schuster, much of which was shot on location in Los Angeles, Hollywood and Malibu. It’s a strong example of a noir staple: the wrongly accused and possibly doomed dude. Barry Sullivan is a standup bank teller; Dorothy Malone plays his loyal and devoted wife; Charles McGraw shines as the obnoxious insurance investigator determined to make Sullivan pay for his “crime.”

Another stalwart of noir is amnesia and in “Mirage,” from 1965, we see the topic deftly handled by master noir director Edward Dmytryk (“Murder, My Sweet, 1944; “Crossfire,” 1947). Gregory Peck stars as the afflicted; Walter Matthau plays a newbie gumshoe helping him out; Diane Baker is a mysterious woman from his past. The film also boasts a great collection of villains: Kevin McCarthy, Jack Weston, Leif Erickson, Walter Abel and George Kennedy.

Dmytryk effortlessly balances suspense with humor and there are many funny moments, such as when Peck tells Matthau, “Wouldn’t it be hilarious if you knew what you were doing?” The film is written by Peter Stone, who also wrote “Charade” (1963) and co-wrote “Arabesque” (1966) both by director Stanley Donen, and you can definitely feel the similarities between the three movies.

Diane Baker shared with Eddie Muller that her artistic aim is to tell stories with meaning.

Eddie Muller and Diane Baker chatted extensively after the movie, with Baker recalling Peck as being full of life with a “great sense of humor and great energy.”

Arguably, the best movies were saved for last. Sunday’s lineup was “Crashout” (1955, Lewis R. Foster), “Saboteur” (1942, Alfred Hitchcock) and “The Damned Don’t Cry” (1950, Vincent Sherman). Certainly, my favorite guest appearance was actor/producer Norman Lloyd, who was interviewed by Alan K. Rode. Lloyd, 96, regaled the crowd with many stories about Orson Welles, John Houseman, Charlie Chaplin, Hitchcock and others.

On learning about filmmaking Lloyd said: “When I came to Hollywood, I didn’t know the front end of the camera from the back. I was very nosy and Mr. Hitchcock was delighted to answer my questions. It happened by my talking a lot.”

Norman Lloyd (right) told Alan K. Rode about learning from Alfred Hitchcock.

On Hitchcock dealing with actors? “Hitchcock worked with a major star who had been trained in the Stanislavski method. Hitchcock directed him to sit and the star asked, ‘Why do I sit?’ Hitchcock replied, ‘To put your ass in the seat of the chair.”

And in case any viewers were flagging after four days of viewing, there was sustenance to be found in, as Rode put it, the “take-no-prisoners femme fatale” – none other than Joan Crawford in “The Damned Don’t Cry.” The film is loosely based on the real-life story of Virginia Hill, mistress of gangster Bugsy Siegel, and it’s a joy to watch Crawford savagely claw her way to the top of a national crime syndicate, breaking heart after heart and stubbing out cig after cig as she climbs.

I love this line from Crawford’s character Ethel Whitehead: “Don’t talk to me about self-respect. That’s something you tell yourself you got when you got nothing else.”

Watching Crawford was a terrific way to wrap up the fest and I was a bit sad to say goodbye. I think Eddie Muller summed it up best said when he introduced “Mirage” on Saturday night, telling the packed theater, “The best part of every noir is when the woman gets the gun in her hand.”

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