Criss Cross (1949)

criss_cross_1949_trailer_2Aesthetically, Robert Siodmak’s roots in German Expressionism are crucial to the formation of the film-noir world as we know it today and Criss Cross has to be one of the most diverting additions to his repertoire. Once more he’s paired with his star from The Killers (1946) Burt Lancaster with another raging score from Miklos Rozsa and yet again there is a heist involved. However, whereas the film inspired by Hemingway’s original story was a story about a washed-up boxer — a humble Citizen Kane if you will — with some criminal elements mixed in, Criss Cross is all thriller. It represents the subset of film-noir that is the heist film, but it would hardly be film-noir without something going terribly wrong. This event is integral to the plotting as is the love triangle that becomes the main axis of the ensuing action.

The location shooting throughout L.A. is put on display in the opening shot when the camera swoops down on a parking lot right outside a lively nighttime watering hole known as the Round Up. In these early stages, Siodmak reels his viewers in with a seductive close-up of Yvonne De Carlo looking straight at Burt Lancaster, her lover, except in looking at her man she’s also staring directly at the audience as well with those earnest eyes of hers. And from that point on her role as a femme fatale is cemented for good.

We know she’s undoubtedly nothing but trouble and yet we cannot help but be strung along with Lancaster. After all, someone that beautiful cannot be all bad, right? They never are, right? And we spend the rest of the film grappling with these questions, although the worst is always inevitable. So it goes with Criss Cross.

However, for the audience to try and understand the stakes of the story, most of the great film noirs develop the character’s pre-existing life as much as they magnify the moments of immense conflict. Criss Cross begins in the middle but soon flashes back to when Steve Thompson (Lancaster) first returns to Los Angeles, the sparkling city where his family lives as well as his former wife Anna (De Carlo). And despite the sirens going off and the chiding of friends and family including his mother and his concerned cop friend (Stephen McNally), he finds himself attracted to her once again like a moth to a flame.

He’s soon infatuated once more, embroiled in passion and at the same time petty bickering, tied up in complicated knots as Anna is also seeing the gangster Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea) who doesn’t take kindly to having another man around. In immaculate fatale fashion, Anna plays everyone off with a certain degree of vivacity and at the same time deadly innocence. One moment lively and carefree, the next biting and selfish. You can never pin her down and Steve never does. Still, he’s devoted to her. He goes half-way on a heist with his bitter rival just to save face and subsequently finds himself knee-deep in corruption that he never dreamed of, all because of a girl.

But aside from dealing with a guilty conscience, he still must survive a vengeful gangster.  The number of crisscrosses isn’t all that important, only the fact that they happen and on numerous occasions. The film finishes up with a gloriously fatalistic ending that while abrupt, in typical Classic Hollywood fashion, still delivers a satisfying final conclusion, going out just as it came in, with a rewarding dose of noirish intrigue.

Echoing the words of Proverbs, “The lips of an adulterous woman drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil; but in the end, she is bitter as gall. Her feet go down to death.” That about sums up Criss Cross: an exhilarating and altogether deadly exercise from Robert Siodmak. Those questions still burrow into the back of our mind to the very end. Was Anna really insidious or just misunderstood? We’ll never know exactly. But perhaps the results speak for themselves. Anyways, that’s for each individual to judge on their own.

4/5 Stars

The Professionals (1966)

220px-Movie_poster_for_-The_Professionals-Who wouldn’t be enticed by a film entitled The Professionals? It feels a little like an amalgamation of The Magnificent Seven, The Dirty Dozen, with a  little sprinkling of Mission Impossible, and dare I say The Wild Bunch? We have a band of four big-time pros who are brought together to rescue the wife of a man named Grant (Ralph Bellamy). She is being held at ransom in the heart of Mexico. That’s no small task in the wake of Pancho Villa and the Mexican-American conflict, but these men are the best of the best.

The leader is none other than Lee Marvin (of The Dirty Dozen) with his prematurely white hair, leading the band as Rico Fardan, a skilled tactician, and former U.S. Army Officer. He is joined by Jake Sharp (Woody Strode), who is the best tracker around and also a crack shot with a bow and arrow. Next, comes skilled horseman and pack master Hans Ehrengard (Robert Ryan), who keeps mainly to himself. The most dynamic part is that of Bill Dolworth (Burt Lancaster), an unscrupulous scrounger who nevertheless is a good shot and an artist when it comes to using explosives. He’s not what you call a trustworthy type, but Rico would trust this man with his life and that says a lot.

Richard Brooks story is straightforward enough. This dream team goes in with their mission clear: The man who stands in there way is revolutionary turned outlaw Jesus Raza (Jack Palance), who is the one keeping Maria (Claudia Cardinale) captive.

As they push forward, they witness the brutality of Raza and his men as they raid a passing train and execute many of the occupants. Soon Fardan and his crew move in on Raza’s compound and wreak havoc one night so they can pull Maria out and take her to safety. But she seems like a very reluctant damsel in distress. She also seems very intimate with Raza. That’s the first sign that something’s up, but still, they follow the parameters of the assignment and pull her out.

Retribution follows and after a gunfight The Professionals flee through the mountains with Raza in hot pursuit. They use explosives to try and impede the progress of the rebels, and then Dolworth resolves to stay back to bide his partners time so they can get across the border. It’s at this point that he fights like one of the magnificent seven, in an impressive rearguard action that has his foes befuddled.

It’s when he actually comes face to face with his enemy that things become interesting. They know him and he knows them. Once upon a time, he fought with Raza and he was also acquainted with the lively female marksman Chiquita. When they finally get back to good ol’ Mr. Grant they find he’s not as straight-laced as they once thought, so they make a costly decision. They lose out on their big payoff but do the honorable thing by setting Maria free.

The Professionals gives us want we want. Honestly, we want cool characters and fun action sequences and that’s essentially what we get. There’s quite a bit of fairly graphic violence too for a ’60s western signaling a slow change in the genre. Lee Marvin is impeccable as the self-assured, tough as nails commanding type. Lancaster is, of course, the most interesting, and I can only imagine he had the most fun because playing a scoundrel would undoubtedly be a treat. Strode, Palance, and Cardinale were enjoyable to watch in their own rights as well since we did not necessarily need a whole lot of depth from them. It was only Robert Ryan’s role that felt rather like a throwaway part that did not have much to it. No matter, the Professionals was still an enjoyable all-star western.

J.W. Grant: You bastard.

Rico: Yes, sir. In my case an accident of birth. But you, sir, you’re a self-made man.

4/5 Stars

Review: The Killers (1946)

Thekillers2It’s been said that Robert Siodmak’s The Killers was Ernest Hemingway’s favorite adaptation of one of his works which was, in this case, a short story. As a film-noir, it works on numerous levels from the cinematography, to the score, to the young stars, to the ingenious narrative. Some credit, of course, can go to Hemingway for the concept, but a lot of the creative success must be given to the likes of Siodmak, John Huston and a host of others.

The film opens in an instant with two lurking gunmen entering a diner in a small New Jersey town called Brentwood. Their target is a washed up boxer called “The Swede” and we do not know why, but after terrorizing a few locals, they riddle him with bullet holes and that’s the end of it. It’s an intense sequence because the thugs (William Conrad and Charles McGraw)  are antagonistic and Miklos Rozsa’s score is nearly relentlessness.

The story could have ended there if it wasn’t for an insurance investigator named Reardon (Edmond O’Brien), who takes an interest in the dead man so he can find his beneficiary. In the present, he begins to piece together little fragments of the boxer’s past slowly but surely.

It starts out with Nick Adams who witnessed the thugs and worked with The Swede when a mysterious man came by the filing station. Soon after Ole Andreson stopped coming in to work and a while later he was dead. That’s all Nick knows, and it does not give Reardon much to go on.

Next, he tracks down The Swede’s beneficiary who turns out to be a kindly hotel maid. The connection seems slim, but it turns out that she kept him from committing suicide after a tough evening where he tore his flat apart. It’s still not much to go on, but Reardon thanks her and moves on with his investigation, still intrigued.

Then he goes to Philadelphia and gets his biggest puzzle piece from a policeman named Lubinsky, who used to run with the Swede as kids and probably knew him the best of anyone. He and his wife explain to Reardon how Pete Llund, as he was known, lost his final bout and was forced to move on with his life. About that time he met Kitty Collins for the first time and was infatuated for good.

Charleston is next the old stooge who spent a good many years locked up in a cell with the Swede. Reardon comes upon him at the funeral and from the old convict, he learns about a bank job that the washed up boxer got involved in. The other partners were Blinky, Dum Dum, and Big Jim. They are Reardon’s next points of interest.

Blinky is near death and recounts the robbery. Dum Dum crosses path with Reardon and shares about the aftermath of the job which went sour. Next, comes Big Jim whose tight-lipped about the past. Last but not least is Kitty, who is fearful that Reardon knows something and can actually blackmail her. That’s when everything begins to line up and heat up. After being absent for so long, the Killers are back in the picture and Rozsa’s score picks up again threatening the status quo of the film. They put us on edge again and for good reason. But the real focal point of the ending is Kitty.

Obviously, Citizen Kane has so many layers of interest, but it shares a similar narrative arc to The Killers where the main character is killed and his story gets pieced together thanks to flashbacks that are furnished from the present. Except, in many ways, the story of The Swede intrigues me more as a character. Charles Foster Kane is a magnate with an impressive if not tragic life.

Swede’s life is probably just as tragic except it was more humble and chock full of more crime. He was small time and he even failed in love when his friend Lubinsky got the girl of his dreams. It’s an interesting life too that ended unnaturally with gunshots rather than Kane who died as an old man. The Swede was cut short in a tragic sort of way and I think that’s part of what intrigues Reardon. It’s more than a job, but a mysterious story of a man’s life that the audience also gets taken along for. As far as storytelling goes, it’s great and it really works to flesh out these characters.

Ultimately, Reardon feels like the main character of sorts, but such an aura is built around The Swede and Kitty that it is understandable that this film made stars out of Lancaster and Gardner. They are certainly memorable partially because we hardly ever seen them in the present (except for Kitty at the end). Their whole persona is built off of what others say and there’s something interesting about that. There’s the fatalistic and sullen Swede which turned out be a perfect debut for Burt Lancaster. Ava Gardner has the soft seductive whisper of lethal poison all wrapped up in a beautiful body and it leaves a major impression.

Above all else, The Killers is a prime example of film noir blending German Expressionism from Siodmak’s native Germany with more documentary style sequences that take inspiration from post-war neo-realism. The opening sequence especially drips with noir sensibilities that, at its most dramatic, looms with shadows from the exterior of the diner to the low-key lighting of the Swede’s bedroom. For a while, it’s even difficult to know that’s Burt Lancaster reclined on the bed because his whole body is fully encased as he speaks. It’s only when he gets up into the light that we finally are introduced before he gets gunned down a few minutes later. It’s great staging and the atmosphere remains for a great deal of the film from the prison cell to Big Jim’s mansion. Each place is contrasted with the present or other locales like Reardon’s office which are more natural in lighting. It doesn’t get much better than that.

4.5/5 Stars

Brute Force (1947)

BruteForceImage873Potentially one of the weaker Jules Dassin films noir, Brute Force is still a worthwhile film exploring the dynamics of a prison during the 1940s. The inspiration comes from the rebellion at Alcatraz in 1946 and this film was shocking at the time for the amount of violence it portrayed. It stars Burt Lancaster as the glowering leader of a group of prisoners in block K17. His main antagonist and the villain of the entire yard is the authoritarian Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn in an especially icy role).

The story follows the inmates as they make due with prison life and bide their time waiting for parole. However, Joe Collins, who is fresh off a spell of solitary confinement, seems bent on escape. The prison warden is an older fellow struggling to keep tempers from boiling over. The likable but often inebriated doctor (Art Smith) can see the writing on the wall. Things are reaching the end of the line if Munsey continues to hike up his tactics that are making the men resent him more and more every day. It’s positively a powder keg and it’s not going to be a pretty sight if the pressures get to be too much.

The entirety of the film takes place within the confines of the prison except for a couple flashbacks as four men recall the women they left outside in the real world. They are played by Anita Colby, Ella Raines, Yvonne De Carlo and Ann Blyth respectively, reflecting the hope, memories, and loved ones who are pulling at these men and ultimately led them to get into trouble. Perhaps it’s a stretch, but you might even be able to call them the femme fatales in an otherwise very male-centric film.

One man hangs himself afterward from Munsey and another gets it for causing problems for Joe. Neither of these men is looking to stand down anytime soon as Joe cautiously begins enacting plans of escape with another prisoner named Gallagher (Charles Bickford). Munsey continues to hound prisoners for information while halting all privileges.

Ultimately, the finale turns into the most electrifying moment of the film, while simultaneously Munsey is made the new warden and Collins puts his plan in action. Guards are waiting for him and his crew, but Gallagher has plans of his own in the compound. It leads to a handful of explosions, endless mayhem, and more than a few deaths. This is what happens when you use brute force.

4/5 Stars

The Best Films of Burt Lancaster (1913-1994)

1. From Here to Eternity
2. Sweet Smell of Success
3. The Leopard
4. Judgment at Nuremberg
5. The Killers
6. Elmer Gantry
7. Local Hero
8. Atlantic City
9. Criss Cross
10. Seven Days in May
11. The Train
12. The Crimson Pirate
13. Brute Force
14. The Professionals
15. Field of Dreams
16. The Flame and The Arrow
17, The Swimmer
18. Separate Tables
19. Birman of Alcatraz
20. Run Silent, Run Deep
21. Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

I always try to improve, to find new ways of expressing myself, to keep looking for truth and originality.

The Leopard (1963)

Directed by Luchino Visconti and starring a stellar cast including Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon, and Claudia Cardinale, this Italian film revolves around a Prince and Patriarch during a period of social change in Italy in the 1860s. 

His Excellency the Prince of Salina (Lancaster) is a highly respected noble, who lives with his family on a large estate in Sicily. In his own life, the Prince is annoyed with his marriage and perturbed about the company his nephew Tancredi (Delon) is keeping. However, a revolution led by a man named Garibaldi means great change for the nation and finally following the lead of his nephew, who joins the rebel redshirts, the Prince sides with the new way and supports the plebiscites that are set up. His nephew falls for the beautiful daughter (Cardinale) of an aristocrat, and despite the fact that his own daughter has an eye on Tancredi, Don Fabrizo fully supports the marriage knowing it is good for the family. Because of his title and the respect he has garnered, the Prince is offered a position as a senator in the new government. But he courteously turns it down feeling he is too old and too attached to the old ways. Tancredi and Angelica are to be engaged and they are presented together at an extravagant ball. Over the course of the evening, Don Fabrizo has time to talk, dance with the young beauty Angelica, and reflect on his own life. As the lavish evening begins to dwindle the Leopard walks off to clear his head. 

In some respects, I saw this as an Italian equivalent to Gone with the Wind, and I could see some precursors to The Godfather here because the Italians portrayed are very religious and chivalrous people who can also be ruthless. However, I think it is fair to say that The Leopard is its own film entirely, and it should be taken as such. Tancredi and Angelica are no Rhett and Scarlett and the Prince is not the Godfather. They are their own unique characters. In my personal opinion, I would recommend the Italian version because that is the way the director meant it to be seen and Lancaster’s normal voice seems out of place in the film. Some may say that this detracts from his performance, but I think his presence and acting ability show through even if he is dubbed.

4.5/5 Stars

Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

This epic court drama relates the true story of the War Crime Trials after World War II. With Stanley Kramer directing, this cast is amazing. Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Marlene Dietrich, Montgomery Clift, Judy Garland, Werner Klemperer, and even William Shatner all play a part. However, Maximillian Schell is by far the standout because he is such an amazing defender of his country’s honor throughout the entire film. He wants the Holocaust to be known and yet all the while he goes through the case with dignity even though the pressures are so great. For every intense moment the viewer is stuck in their seat and when the verdict comes it is hard to contain the emotion. This movie should be seen by all not only because it is great but it also chronicles an important event in history. Whatever happens we should never forget the events surrounding the Judgment at Nuremberg.

4.5/5 Stars

Criss Cross (1949) – Film-Noir

c8a9b-crisscrossStarring Burt Lancaster and Yvonne DeCarlo, this Robert Siodmak-directed film-noir revolves around a heist and a love triangle gone bad.

The film opens with Lancaster secretly meeting with his lover with plants to eventually run away together. Then he enters the bar and fights with his love’s gangster husband. However, when a policeman friend comes in, Lancaster will not press charges and non one talks. Little does the policeman know what is really going on. The next day Steve drives an armored car full of money to its destination. As he nervously drives, in a flashback he recalls how it all began.

He had finally returned home after a long absence. His main reason was to see his former wife and yet although they still had feelings for each other, she had remarried a gangster named Slim. Despite the circumstances  both lovers began meeting more often. In order to save himself and Anna, he suggested a robbery of the armored car with Slim.

Then, back in the present the wheels begin to turn and the armored car is ambushed. However, Slim does not stick to his word and there is a firefight. Steve is called a hero but he is left helpless in the hospital. After bribing the man who was to betray him, Steve rendezvous with Anna. However, all is not well and she is ready to leave him behind since Slim is obviously on his way. But she is not quick enough. This film reveals the nature of two double crosses which ends in a deadly criss cross.

4/5 Stars

The Sweet Smell of Success (1957) – Film-Noir

Starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, this film has memorable dialogue and chilling performances. Curtis is Sydney Falco, a greedy and conniving press agent who is constantly trying to get on the good side of influential people. His main target is the renowned if not ruthless gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Lancaster). Falco bargains for publicity he desperately needs in exchange fro breaking up the romance of Hunsecker’s kid sister. The plan seems to work just as Falco foresaw, however a heated confrontation leads to Hunsecker seeking revenge on his sister’s boyfriend. Ruthlessly he has the man framed with the help of a reluctant Falco. Finally, Falco has had enough but Hunsecker turns on him too in order to protect his image and his sister. As the film closes, Hunsecker’s almost suicidal sister leaves to go back to her boyfriend and he is all alone. Lancaster and Curtis both give performances that brim with corruption and sleaze. The score and the New York atmosphere also help to bring the film alive.

4.5/5 Stars

The Killers (1946) – Film-Noir

Starring Burt Lancaster in his debut as well as Ava Garner, the film begins with two gunmen killing “The Swede” (Lancaster) in a small town. Interested in the mystery, an insurance investigator named Reardon (Edmund O’Brien) tries to piece together the past of the dead man. He works to gather more information and talks to “The Swede’s” former friend as well as a hotel worker, and a past cell mate. Through a series of flashbacks Reardon slowly strings together the past including “The Swede’s” boxing career, his time in prison, and especially an alluring woman, Kitty Collins (Gardner).In the climatic scene Reardon finally meets the beautiful Kitty. Only after a series of events and her quick getaway does he grasp the whole truth. Kitty was a deadly double crosser. However, in a cruel twist her partner in crime is killed and her fate is sealed. This is an exciting film noir with solid acting and a great style of storytelling. This was my first experience with director Robert Siomak, and I must say I was quite impressed.

4.5/5 Stars