I saw Underneath (1995) when it first came out, but only last night did I finally catch up with the film noir that Steven Soderbergh’s film blandly, tepidly remade: Robert Siodmak’s Criss Cross. Burt Lancaster plays Steve Thompson, who, obsessed with ex-wife Anna, returns to the scene of his marriage, Los Angeles, and for the sake of what he imagines is their future together becomes the “inside man” in an armored car heist that Anna’s new husband, gangster Slim Dundee, masterminds. Poor Steve, the schlemiel, is in for a rude awakening. “You have to do what’s best for yourself,” Anna tells him, rationalizing her abandonment of him, as she hurriedly tries to make her exit before Slim arrives. Her kiss-off: “The trouble is you’ve never understood what kind of a world it is.”
It’s a cold world, where darkness takes precedence over daylight, and the dense fog of a double-cross blurs day, morally, into night. No less than Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet (1948), Siodmak’s film reflects the tenor of the post-World War II Cold War.
Except for the story, which, based on Don Tracy’s 1934 novel, is fairly uninteresting (Olivier’s film had better source material), as well as superficial acting all-around, this collaboration among Siodmak, black-and-white cinematographer Franz Planer and scorer Miklós Rózsa, whose driven music recalls his fateful theme for Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), is a work of amazing accomplishment. Visually harsh, it reaches a stunning dead-end with one of cinema’s (pardon) most gripping clinches. Poor Steve is poorer yet for being played by clueless Lancaster, who cannot summon forth the requisite sense of the loss of a lifetime. Still, Siodmak’s brilliance takes some of the bloom off the rose of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) up ahead, where Jimmy Stewart, unlike Burt, conjures romantic obsession from the inside out. (Some can act; some can’t.) Whatever Yvonne De Carlo’s limitations as an actress, however, her pulsating dance in a club scene—my goodness!—makes Marilyn Monroe’s jitterbug the following year in John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950) look harmless by comparison. The future Lily Munster’s staggering steaminess fully conveys why Steve can’t get Anna out of his mind and blood.
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