Friday, August 28, 2020

Criss Cross (1949) 
Directed by: Robert Siodmak.
Written by: Daniel Fuchs based on the novel by Don Tracy.
Starring: Burt Lancaster (Steve Thompson), Yvonne De Carlo (Anna), Dan Duryea (Slim Dundee), Stephen McNally (Pete Ramirez), Esy Morales (Orchestra Leader), Tom Pedi (Vincent), Percy Helton (Frank), Alan Napier (Finchley), Griff Barnett (Pop), Meg Randall (Helen), Richard Long (Slade Thompson), Joan Miller (The Lush), Edna Holland (Mrs. Thompson), John Doucette (Walt), Marc Krah (Mort), James O'Rear (Waxie), John 'Skins' Miller (Midget).
The Underneath (1995) 
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh.
Written by: Steven Soderbergh and Daniel Fuchs based on the novel by Don Tracy.
Starring: Peter Gallagher (Michael Chambers), Alison Elliott (Rachel), William Fichtner (Tommy Dundee), Adam Trese (David Chambers), Joe Don Baker (Clay Hinkle), Paul Dooley Ed Dutton), Shelley Duvall (Nurse), Elisabeth Shue (Susan Crenshaw), Anjanette Comer (Mrs. Chambers), Joe Chrest (Mr. Rodman).

Richard Siodmak’s Criss Cross (1949) is a reunion of sorts – reuniting the director with the star of his 1946 hit, The Killers, Burt Lancaster. The structure of the film is similar as well – told in flashback, although this time from the point-of-view of Lancaster’s character – Steven Thompson, rather than being told from the point of view of those who knew him as in The Killers – which is the structure that gave that film the nickname of the Citizen Kane of Film Noir. It isn’t that the masterwork that The Killers is – it doesn’t have that amazing opening scene, the structure is more typical, and Yvonne De Carlo is a poor substitute for Ava Gardner. Still, Criss Cross is a fine noir – with an absolute killer of an ending. Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Criss Cross The Underneath (1995) was mainly greeted with shrugs in 1995, and a re-evaluation has never really happened – in part because Soderbergh himself is so dismissive of the film. He jumped into the film quickly, after losing the Quiz Show directing gig, at an interesting point of his career – sex, lies and videotape (1989) had made him an indie darling – a Palme D’or win, lots of praise – but he had been struggling to follow it up. Kafka (1991) was seen as a commercial and critical failure, and while King of the Hill (1993) had gotten mainly good reviews – it was also mainly ignored. Soderbergh recalls now that he knew for the time he stepped onto the set that it was a mistake – he was miserable, he was going through the motions, and the result is a sleepy film. He’d recharge after – doing the experimental Schizopolis (1996) – that led into the best period of his career – Out of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Ocean’s 11, Solaris, etc. He says he needed to make The Underneath to understand how miserable he was. But watching the film now – honestly, for the first time (it was the only Soderbergh I hadn’t seen) – I think Soderbergh is too hard on the film. It’s not a masterwork by any means – but you can certainly see the roots of those films I just mentioned – in terms of structure, in terms of visuals, etc. – that you didn’t see before this. If this is Soderbergh going through the motions, it certainly shows how much talent he has. And while it’s far from the prolific director’s best film, it’s also pretty far from his worst.

In Criss Cross, Lancaster’s Thompson is a classic hero stooge. He has just returned to L.A. after a year of drifting around the country, licking his wounds, and trying to get his ex-wife, Anna (De Carlo) out of his system. They had a hot and heavy relationship, but one marked with a lot of fights – they are that couple that love each other, have terrific chemistry, but still shouldn’t be together. He says he wants his old life back – his old job working for an armored truck company, a return to his family – his beloved mother, a younger brother who is getting married, etc. He says he has no plans of seeing Anna – and yet, he cannot help himself. He’s barely back when he starts going to their old hangout, so it isn’t long before he “runs into” Anna. Their relationship starts up again – slowly – complicated more than a little by the fact that she is seeing someone else – criminal Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea, playing the Dan Duryea role). Things get even more complicated when Anna runs off with Slim – and marries him. Yet, she just cannot seem to get over Thompson, and Thompson cannot get over her.

The film is classic noir – the nice guy brought low by the femme fatale he should know well enough to leave alone, but cannot help himself. A relatively short film – 90 minutes – with a three act structure, the opening and closing of which are stellar. Siodmak does a terrific job of setting everything up in the opening, Lancaster is in fine form, playing the stooge (this was in the period where critics still were unsure if this handsome lunk could act), and Duryea at his slimy best. The final act of the film is even better – the armored car heist is absolutely terrific, the hospital scene is incredibly intense, as Lancaster worries that they are out to get him, and Siodmak slowly ratchets up the tension – all leading to the classic final moments of the film, which is one of the best end. The problem is that the second acts drags more than a little – and it’s mainly due to the fact that Yvonne De Carlo just isn’t overly convincing as the femme fatale. Compare her to Ava Gardner in The Killers – where you have no trouble believing that Lancaster would sacrifice everything for her, and you see the issue.  We buy that Thompson does all this for her because the screenplay, and Lancaster, tell us he does – not because she is particularly great. This is supposed to be a relationship where the characters cannot help their lust for each other – and it never quite comes off. This makes Criss Cross certainly a flawed film – but still a very good one – what works more than makes up for what doesn’t work, yet at the same time you see perhaps why someone would want to remake the film – and fix what was missing.

Soderbergh’s The Underneath though doesn’t really do that – it doesn’t have the interest. The setup is similar – this

time Peter Gallagher plays Michael Chambers, returning to Austin for his mother’s marriage, falls back in with his old girlfriend Rachel (Allison Elliott) who is now criminal Tommy Dundee (William Fichtner). Again, he starts working for an armored car company, and again is drawn into a heist with Dundee and company, where here are double and triple crosses. Again, there is an insanely intense hospital sequence (this one is probably even better), leading to a different, though still tragic, ending.

But Soderbergh and company change the details up considerably in the first two acts. Gallagher’s Michael isn’t some innocent trying to reclaim what he lost. He was a gambling addict, who owed money all over town, and left Austin at the risk of getting killed by some of the people he has screwed over – leaving Rachel to pick up the pieces. The flashback structure gives us more of those details. Chambers here is a screw-up – and while his family acts as if they are glad he’s back, they also cannot help but wonder when he’s going to screw-up again. Rachel is far less happy to see him back than Anna is to see Thompson in Criss Cross – yes, they start seeing each other, but she’s smart enough to know they shouldn’t. The last act of the film is really when the noir aspect really takes over – you see the roots there more clearly. Up until then, it feels like Soderbergh and company are more interested in the characters, than putting them through the noir paces.

Perhaps this is why Soderbergh refers to the film as “sleepy”. The pacing is certainly slower here, but it’s because its taking its time to establish Michael and Rachel – and the larger cast of characters, and showing them in their prior life before Michael fled, to make sense of what happens later. The two leads are certainly more complicated here than they were in the 1949 original – Michael is slimier, less innocent (watch how he uses Elisabeth Shue’s character for example) – and Rachel more guarded and controlled. In the original, it felt like Lancaster was the one who felt burned and betrayed – here it has been flipped.

You also certainly see a lot of Soderbergh touches throughout The Underneath. Watch the cinematography by Elliot Davis (not “Peter Andrews”, who of course is Soderbergh himself – a process he wouldn’t start until Traffic) for its saturated colors, and overarching color scheme for how it predates Traffic. Watch the structure that predates things like Out of Sight or The Limey. Or the heist, which predates Ocean’s 11 – and several other Soderbergh films. Perhaps this makes The Underneath more interesting in retrospect than it was at the time – knowing what was coming, we can see roots of some of it here - and Soderbergh himself has said that he “wouldn’t recommend the film to anyone” except to as part of the arch of his career. In that interview, on the Criterion disk for King of the Hill, where The Underneath is a “bonus” – he seems to be referring to how it made him realize how he didn’t want to make films – but it could also refer to some of the things it prefigures.

It's odd to me that Soderbergh and company decided to change the ending of Criss Cross – both because it’s perhaps the best thing about the original, and the most famous – which is perhaps reason enough to change it to catch the audience who had seen the original off-guard. I do think that perhaps without the last shot of the movie it would work – that shot, of a character who if I’m being honest I don’t really know why they would be there or care, and who frankly you forget about because he had been missing for a while, implies that the ultimate end of the story – what will happen off-screen – will be the same as Criss Cross. And yet, without it, perhaps the ending would work better – as it would not right the wrongs of the film, but would certainly be the type of ending you couldn’t get away with in 1949 – but you’d want to in 1995.

Overall, I think Criss Cross and The Underneath make a fascinating double bill. It’s not just how watching the films back to back highlight the similarities and differences in approaches. It’s also fascinating in terms of the director’s careers – for Siodmak, he was returning to his greatest success, and trying to recapture the magic of The Killers – and getting close. For Soderbergh, it was his personal nadir – a miserable experience, that nonetheless produced what I think is an underrated film. Perhaps that’s just because Soderbergh himself lowers expectations so much for the film – but I think The Underneath is a key film in his filmography – not just because he was so miserable making it, he changed his entire approach – although that is true. But because you can see the filmmaker Soderbergh was going to become in just a few short years.

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