Friday, February 24, 2012

Ex spots the mark

From an arial view of some anonymous stretch of Los Angeles we descend into a parking lot, and in that parking lot we find a man and a woman, hiding amidst the cars, speaking hushed and excitedly, and in the midst of this exchange we cut jarringly to the man’s point of view, to a close up-vision of the woman’s sculpted, lovely face, her eyes like luminous planets, and she’s looking right at him, at the camera, at us, and this is how, with great economy and elegance, we get locked from the very start into the almost dreamlike subjectivity of the doomed hero of Criss Cross (1949). We become lost in his longing as he watches the woman he desires dancing a rhumba in a club with Tony Curtis, and later become lost in the haze of a heist gone awry, a landscape made of smoke out of which figures in suits and gas masks and carrying guns appear and disappear. The hero’s voice-over narration speaks to us of the inescapability of fate—a thesis strengthened by the film’s subtle array of grid-like imagery—and, seeing events play out from his claustrophobic perspective, it becomes hard to argue with him.

Following Double Indemnity (1944), the second film in Metro Cinema’s Film Noir series leaps ahead five years to a moment when both the major studios and poverty row were churning out moody crime thrillers like so many bratwursts. Yet it’s remarkable how consistently good these films were, as though whatever, in retrospect, makes these films noir—artful atmosphere, moral ambiguity, social commentary, hot sex—makes them good. Director Robert Siodmak and star Burt Lancaster had already collaborated on the sublimely fatalistic, extremely liberal adaptation of Hemingway’s The Killers (1946), and while Criss Cross revisits somewhat similar thematic terrain, Daniel Fuchs’ script, based on Don Tracy’s novel of the same name, offers some fascinating variations on by-now familiar motifs. We’re back in the realm of secret affairs, criminal plans to escape or do away with an oppressive male power figure, and the femme fatale’s capacity to drain the hero’s better judgement—presuming he ever had any—familiar from Double Indemnity. But in this case the deadly female, played by Yvonne De Carlo, a considerably more angelic actress than Barbara Stanwyck, is no stranger taking advantage of the hero’s ignorance. She’s his ex-wife.

So Criss Cross is the story of a marriage. Lancaster’s beefy, hopelessly romantic armoured car guard already tried sharing a life with De Carlo’s object of desire, and, he says, they fought like cats and dogs. He left town for a while, then came back, and with one look at her on the dance floor, she not even knowing he’s watching her, he’s drawn in again. Since he went away she got herself glued to a very amusing douche bag crime lord, deliciously embodied by Dan Duryea, so she and Lancaster begin an affair—if you’re no good as spouses, maybe it’ll work as adulterous lovers. It doesn’t, of course. They want too much, nostalgic for what never really was. I hope I’m not spoiling things when I tell you that things end badly. But how do we get to that ending? Believe me, you’ve got to experience Criss Cross to really understand.

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