Wednesday, September 19, 2007

9/19: Criss Cross; The Killers (1964)

Criss Cross is a fine noir from director Robert Siodmak, whose career provided the genre with many of its characteristic classics. The film follows Burt Lancaster as Steve Thompson, an armored car security man who's unwittingly pulled into a life of crime by his ex-wife. Yvonne DeCarlo plays a great femme fatale here, and her smoldering presence is one of the film's high points. The story starts with Thompson arriving back in his home town. He'd been away for about a year following his divorce, and he tells himself that he's returning now to help out his family, but it's patently obvious that he's really looking for Anna, his ex-wife. Once he sees her, they immediately reignite their hot/cold romance, but it ends when Anna abruptly runs off and marries Dundee, a local gangster (played with a constant slimy leer by Dan Duryea). The marriage doesn't quite end the affair, though, and when Dundee learns that the two have been seeing each other, Thompson convinces him that all he really wants is to help the gangsters plot an armored car robbery.

The film is a typically bleak example of the noir style, and the betrayals and murders that end the film should hardly be surprising — there's no way out for these people, no matter how much they might dream. Siodmak bathes this grim tale in dense shadows that help set the dark tone. The opening, with a dark car gliding through an even darker night in a parking lot, sets the mood early. Light only enters the picture a few minutes later, as the headlights illuminate the lovers Thompson and Anna locked in an illicit embrace. Light, for them, is anathema, something to be afraid of, and they instinctively flinch away. These characters live their lives in darkness, and the film's happiest moments take place in the dim, smoky bar where the lovers first met and continue to hang out. This story doesn't hold much surprise, and the doomed lovers go towards their inevitable fate with noir's characteristic fatalism. The primary pleasure here is purely visual, in the gorgeous chiaroscuro lighting, and in Duryea's sneering performance.

Don Siegel's 1964 TV feature The Killers, the first film made for television, came well after the generally accepted noir period had ended in the mid-to-late 50s. Nevertheless, Siegel is another important director of B-noirs, and this film is a remake of Siodmak's 1946 film of the same name, which Siegel was originally slated to direct at that time. Instead, he wound up making the film almost 20 years later, and it's quite a different beast. In Siegel's bright, shadowless daytime compositions here, there is very little of the noir aesthetic on a visual level. The plot is mostly adapted from Siodmak's version, maintaining the extensive back story that the film script grafted onto Ernest Hemingway's brief story of two hitmen making a kill. There are a few changes — the dead man is a washed-up race car driver rather than a washed-up boxer, and the focus is on the two hitmen rather than, as in Siodmak's version, the insurance investigator assigned to the case. But mostly, Siegel is simply retelling the story, and the lack of the classic noir visuals would initially appear to make this a much lesser work.

Nevertheless, Siegel's version of The Killers does have a few things going for it. Most obvious are the performances. Siodmak had Ava Gardner for his femme fatale, and as good as Angie Dickinson is, she just can't live up to Gardner's sultry, smoldering performance, which completely anchored the original film. The rest of the cast, though, definitely falls in Siegel's favor. John Cassavetes plays Johnny North, the doomed race car driver whose love for Dickinson propels him into deep trouble and misery. Cassavetes, with his trademark smirk and casual delivery, is always fun to watch, even if he tended to view his Hollywood career as just a moneymaker for his own independently made films. But the real star here is Lee Marvin as the older of the two hitmen, turning in a brilliant tough guy performance that culminates in his tragic and surprisingly moving final scene, in which Siegel delivers a bleak denouement and a strong condemnation of greedy violence. Siegel's idea to center the story around the two hitmen is a great twist, though it does mean he loses the mysterious and sinister aura that surrounded them in the original. In Siegel's vision, the hitmen become avatars of capitalistic excess, as epitomized by the iconic final shot — predictive of Bresson's L'Argent — of a fatally wounded Lee Marvin pointing his finger at the cops in lieu of a gun, then falling backwards amid a spill of cash. It's a great final image for a solid post-noir thriller.

No comments: