In 2020 film noir, particularly classic noir from the late 1940’s Hollywood feels like the equivalent of visiting an alien world. Everything is vaguely familiar yet oddly off in an America 70 odd years ago. People look different, talk different and act different. It’s a fascinating quite intoxicating world to immerse yourself in. It was the opposite of the Hollywood dream factory, dark and dangerously cynical, noir appealed to our base instincts of greed, lust, envy, desire for power, and even occasionally love – but not the kind that ends well.
These post war tales of crosses and double crosses, of desperate men, and dangerous dames were in the main low budget b-grade thrillers, all shot with deep expressionist shadows and starred a slew of b-grade Hollywood contract players. You knew the rules going in, big broad archetypes and witty one-liners. There was real talent behind the camera, the likes of Fritz Lang (The Big Heat), Jacques Tourneur (Out Of The Past), and Robert Siodmak (The Killers) – European immigrants escaping the war determined to make a career in America, and not afraid to play with form.
1949’s Criss Cross is one of the best. It’s a classic trope, a law-abiding sap who gets dragged into a criminal scheme because of a dame. A young Burt Lancaster is an honest Joe, whose misfortune is that he still carries a torch for his ex wife. Whilst noir is full of femme fatales, they don’t come as much fatale as Anne (Yvonne DeCarlo), who whilst dating Lancaster’s Steve Thompson ups and marries the local hoodlum (Slim Dundee) Dan Duryea (Night Passage) in a typically smarmy role, positively oozing across the screen. Yet Thompson can’t let go and pretty soon the lovers are creeping around behind Dundee’s back. You can see where this is going. And it’s not good for anyone.
Directed by the aforementioned German Robert Siodmak, he’s reunited with Lancaster after the success of Lancaster’s screen debut, 1946’s The Killers. It’s imaginatively directed, beginning with an aerial shot that zeros in on the two lovers in a car park of a bar, conjuring plans up together and sending us headlong into the middle of the plot. Yvonne DeCarlo (The Munsters) then delivers her lines staring straight down the barrel of the camera. It’s pretty bold. Soon we end up in a flashback that goes on for almost and hour. It sounds ridiculous yet it works.
It’s a hest film, a love triangle, it’s a film driven by lust, the kind you know that’s bad for you, but you just can’t stop. It was remade by Steven Soderbergh in 1995 as the Underneath, starring Peter Gallagher, but as usual the original is far superior, with even Soderbergh famously referring to his take as dead on arrival. Miklos Rozsa’s score is actually quite haunting, though with credits that include Double Indemnity and The Killers we’d expect that. There’s also an extended dance scene featuring the incredible rumba of The Esy Morales Orchestra, with an uncredited Tony Curtis that is simply magnificent as Lancaster eyes off DeCarlo like a wolf hunting prey. The music is sex. And the longing, lust, jealousy and disgust that plays across Lancaster’s face says it all. Brilliant.