Noirvember: The Top Ten Noir Films That I Still Haven’t Seen

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Noirvember is finally here, and I honestly couldn’t be any more excited for it! In the years past I haven’t really been able to dive in and honor what’s slowly but surely become my favorite classic film genre, but this time around I’m hoping to change all of that. I figured that a top five or ten list of my favorite noirs would be just the thing to write about in keeping with my promise to provide a steady stream of original content throughout the rest of the year, but I soon realized that just about every noir-loving blog will be compiling that very same type of list over the course of the month. While of course I think that’s a great thing, as everyone has his or her own differing opinions about which noir films reign supreme, I think now would be a great time for me to devote some time to the movies that I still haven’t been able to sit down and watch for one reason or another. Though I’m no Czar of Noir like my favorite Turner Classic Movies host Eddie Muller, I’ve seen my fair share of murder dramas and crime thrillers. These ten films, however, are the ones that have frustrated me the most because they’ve managed to evade my eyes, and are from what I understand some of the best noirs that I still haven’t been able to see. Of course there are plenty more where this came from, but I’m making it my own personal goal to watch as many of these particular features as I can before the month is over.

10. Thieves’ Highway (1949)

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I could probably list a million reasons why Thieves’ Highway (1949) has intrigued me ever since I first discovered the film, but most of them honestly have to do with Eddie Muller. Ranked number thirteen on his list of the Top 25 Noir Films, he claims that this was the picture that first got him hooked on noir. From what I can tell it’s no surprise as it seems to comprise of an intriguing chain of events starring none other than Richard Conte, an actor who I’ve adored in everything I’ve seen him in from The Blue Gardenia (1944) to his incredible performance on The Twilight Zone in 1959, and Valentina Cortese, an actress who I’ve been dying to see onscreen. Muller gave the movie special attention in one of the many short features that ran on Turner Classic Movies promoting the premiere of Noir Alley, a special program on the channel that highlights one picture from the genre per week. He talked about one particular steamy scene in which Cortese plays tic-tac-toe across the bare chest of Conte using her long fingernails, a not-so-subtle approach to depicting sex onscreen when the Hayes Code forbade it under normal circumstances. This entrancing pairing immediately piqued my interest, and the film’s plot made it a high priority on my list of need-to-see noirs.

9. Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

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As you might remember, I mentioned this past summer that I was enrolled in Turner Classic Movies’ The Master of Suspense: 50 Years of Hitchcock online course. I thoroughly enjoyed it and had a great time learning about the esteemed director, and going into it I promised myself that I would take the time to focus on films of Hitchcock’s that I hadn’t gotten the chance to watch before rather than simply watching the same few over and over again. Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and Notorious (1946) were the two that I instantly put on my watchlist, and coincidentally both were featured in the course as Hitchcock’s main contributions to film noir. Unforunately, I was so engrossed in the curriculum itself that I managed to see Notorious (1946) but not the picture that I had been looking forward to seeing the most, Shadow of a Doubt (1943). This has just been one of those movies that’s slipped through the cracks for me somehow, which is a shame because I’ve been looking forward to seeing Teresa Wright in a film and Joseph Cotten intrigued me immensely after I saw him display his acting chops in Citizen Kane (1941) and Journey Into Fear (1942). I’ve tried my best to stay away from anything that would reveal the ending of the film, but from the bits and pieces of information that I’ve accidentally found, I believe I’m in for some gripping twists and turns.

8. The Night of the Hunter (1955)

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This is a movie that I certainly believe has permeated pop culture and cemented itself as a classic in every sense of the word. I saw the iconic shot of Robert Mitchum leaning against a fencepost with the words ‘LOVE’ and ‘HATE’ tattooed on his knuckles long before I had any idea what the film was even about, and when I finally did learn about The Night of the Hunter (1955)‘s captivating storyline I was more than eager to see it. I’ve mentioned earlier in the article that there are just some movies that slip through the cracks, and that’s definitely an understatement when it comes to this film. If I recall correctly I’ve tried to watch this one five or six different times as it’s screened on TCM quite often, but something always gets in the way like a scheduling conflict or even a phone call at the exact wrong time that lasted just a little too long. It’s become really irritating to me at this point, and if there’s any film on this list that I’ll really groan about if I don’t manage to watch it at long last, this one is it. I’m really looking forward to seeing both Robert Mitchum’s acting, which from what I’ve heard is at his diabolical best, and Charles Laughton behind the camera for a change for his only feature film as a director. Even more inviting is the fact that I still haven’t seen a Lillian Gish feature, though I’ve admired her in photographs for as long as I’ve been interested in classic film, so all in all I’m hopeful that this one will be a real treat.

7. The Third Man (1949)

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In some circles that I know about, admitting that you have yet to watch The Third Man (1949) is almost as bad as admitting that you haven’t seen Citizen Kane (1941), and sometimes I’ve found that it’s even worse. It’s not astonishing, as the two films were undoubtedly high ranking among Orson Welles’ many crowning achievements, and The Third Man (1949) earned both Welles and the aforementioned Joseph Cotten a great deal of respect in the film noir community after its release. I think it’s about time that I finally cross this one off of my list, and what promises to make this particular viewing even better is that I still haven’t influenced my own opinion beforehand by reading a single thing about the story. I’ve seen a couple of very artistic, Welles-esque shots that seem to solidify the cinematography at least within the confines of noir, but aside from that I’ll be going into this viewing completely blind. Usually I like to learn as much as I can about a film before I actually sit down and watch it (with the exception of the ending, of course), mostly so I don’t end up stuck with a picture that I don’t enjoy, so this is quite a rare feat for me. Wish me luck this month as I finally sit down and give it a try, and let me know what you thought of The Third Man (1949) if you’ve seen it before!

6. The Big Heat (1953)

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This is another film that I’ve tried to watch multiple times, though I really would have seen The Big Heat (1953) if it weren’t for the fact that the version I found online was the version with audio commentary for some reason. So many different aspects of this movie interest and appeal to me; for one thing, this is the only movie that I’ve heard of that was based on a newspaper serial. I assume that’s sort of the equivalent of someone making fanfiction into a movie today, or maybe a post on social media. To me it’s pretty rare that something from that medium would be considered so great that there would be a demand for a film, and as a result I have high hopes for the plot. Of course there’s also the stellar cast, with Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame. I’ve been especially enamored by Grahame ever since I watched her alluring performance in another classic noir (and Eddie Muller’s personal favorite), In A Lonely Place (1950). If any film showed me that such a glamorous woman could carry a dramatic picture, that one is it, and I’m incredibly excited to see her try on another noir for size. With two incredible actors and a tagline that eerily states “Somebody’s going to pay… because he forgot to kill me!”, I’m sure that I’ll be on pins and needles until I sit down to watch this film.

5. The Glass Key (1942)

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Yes, you’re reading this right: I have not one, but two of the noirs that paired Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake on my list. The reason is simple: Even though I’ve only seen three of her films, I would easily place Veronica Lake on a list of my top ten favorite actresses. Her unattainable beauty and relatable personality make for a unique and riveting combination, and I always adore watching her onscreen. Of course she was best known for her contribution to noir, especially in the three pictures that she made with Alan Ladd: This Gun for Hire (1942), which I’ve already seen and enjoyed, and the two that have made my list, The Glass Key (1942) and The Blue Dahlia (1946), so I’d honestly feel like a phony if I claimed that I was such a huge fan of Veronica’s without watching these films in particular. What’s even more interesting about The Glass Key (1942) is that it’s based on iconic noir author Dashiell Hammett’s favorite of his novels. That’s quite a statement when you realize that he also penned novels like The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man, and once again this really makes me curious about the storyline of the film. Hopefully I enjoy The Glass Key (1942) as much as I loved This Gun for Hire (1942), because I’d be more than happy to rank this among my favorite films starring Veronica Lake.

4. The Blue Dahlia (1946)

 

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Here’s the second of the two films starring Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd that made my list. This one was made long after their other onscreen pairings, during Veronica Lake’s unfortunate decline in Hollywood. While I’ve claimed that I’ve attempted to watch many of the films on this list, The Blue Dahlia (1946) is the one that I’ve actually seen the most of. I’ve tried to watch it a few times, and once again I’ve been interrupted for one reason or another, though with this film it’s always after the first couple of scenes. I could probably recite the beginning interactions between Ladd’s character Johnny Morrison and his unfaithful wife by heart by now, but this month I really hope to finally sit down and watch the story unfold completely. While I don’t have a vast multitude of interests aside from classic film I will admit that true crime is definitely one of them, and if the title of this picture sounded familiar to you, you’re not alone. The title of the infamous unsolved crime “The Black Dahlia” came from this film; some believe that the moniker was given because it was the last movie she watched before she was killed, while others believe that it was because she wore dahlias in her hair. Whatever the reason the name stuck, and while of course it doesn’t directly relate, it does add another layer of intrigue and further motivates me to finally see this classic.

3. Murder, My Sweet (1944)

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Murder, My Sweet (1944) is yet another film that Turner Classic Movies initially sparked my interest in, though it wasn’t because the movie in its entirety was shown on the channel. Instead I first heard about it in one of the segments shown in between pictures, a short documentary about noir director Edward Dmytryk. The narrator painted a beautiful picture of the director and his accomplishments, making me more curious about him than any other noir filmmaker that I’ve heard of. One of the facts that intrigued me most was that Dmytryk saw potential in romantic musical actor Dick Powell and decided to cast him in a serious crime drama, taking on the iconic role of Detective Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet (1944). Marlowe was created by Raymond Chandler, a mystery writer that earned his place among Hammett and all of the other great authors of the genre. This character in particular has been portrayed onscreen countless times, most famously in this film by Powell as well as in The Big Sleep (1946) by Humphrey Bogart, and is considered by many to be the ultimate noir character. Not only was Murder, My Sweet (1944) given an immense amount of praise by the documentary, which of course made me eager to see it, but I’ve also noticed it on numerous rankings of the best noirs of all time, sometimes even making its way to the top spot. All of these reasons have led to me longing to finally see Dmytryk and Powell at their best, and I can’t wait to finally add this one to my film collection.

2. Nightmare Alley (1947)

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The fact that I still haven’t seen Nightmare Alley (1947) is absolutely baffling to me. If you’re new to my blog you might not know this, but Tyrone Power is my favorite actor of all time. Hence, as you might imagine, I’ve seen the vast majority of his movies, but I still can’t really say why this one hasn’t been my top priority. At this point I’m downright ashamed to admit that I haven’t seen it, because I’ve known for a long time that it was Ty’s personal favorite of all of his films. Made after his service in World War II, Power was a weathered man at this point in his life, far from the youthful and dashing romantic idol type that he was confined to at 20th Century Fox in the late 1930s. Nightmare Alley (1947) was one of the first pictures that really allowed him to stretch the limits of his craft, and he was more than grateful for the opportunity to carry a film using more than just his looks. Even more compelling was that it took the coveted number seven spot on Eddie Muller’s Top 25 Noir Films list that I discussed earlier. According to Muller, Nightmare Alley (1947) is Tyrone Power’s “greatest contribution to the movies”, and if all of that doesn’t provide enough motivation for me to watch it, I honestly don’t know what will. Aside from Ty I believe that the picture as a whole is comprised of a talented group of actors, including Joan Blondell (who I’ve always admired) along with Coleen Gray and Helen Walker, two ingenues at the time who I’ve been eager to see onscreen. To me, Nightmare Alley (1947) is an absolute must this month.

1. Out of the Past (1947)

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Of course everyone has their differing opinions on which noir is the best, but from what I’ve seen, there’s more or less a general consensus. I’ve read my fair share of lists discussing the best movies that stemmed from the genre, and from my experience one of these three usually earns the top spot: Double Indemnity (1944), The Maltese Falcon (1941), and surprisingly most often, this film. I haven’t seen it, so I’m really not aware what all the fuss is about yet, but I have the feeling that the incomparable acting style of Robert Mitchum has something to do with it. The cast in general couldn’t be more appealing, with the might of Kirk Douglas and the stunning beauty of both Rhonda Fleming and of course Jane Greer, two of the most gorgeous women I have ever laid eyes on, rounding out the main list of actors. I can truly say that each of the four have been people who I’ve wanted to see onscreen much more than I already do, Jane Greer especially as I’ve only seen her in one film. Once again Out of the Past (1947) makes Muller’s list, this time at number nine, though I wouldn’t exactly call his mini-review very favorable. “Face it, the meandering script is saved by Frank Fenton’s dialogue. But this is how we want noir to look and sound, so it gets cut lots of slack,” he writes, though he mentions that Kirk Douglas is “never better”, and that along with all of the acclaim that’s surrounded the picture for decades is more than good enough for me.

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The Franchot Tone Blogathon: Phantom Lady (1944)

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Hi, everyone! I’m so happy to be back with what will likely be my last post for the month. Today I’ll be celebrating one of the most underrated actors in classic film, Franchot Tone! As always, I’d like to start off by thanking the gracious host of this blogathon, Finding Franchot, for dedicating an entire blog to celebrating such an iconic person and giving us all something really great to write about. I wish your first blogathon all the success possible, and I hope that it could become an annual one in the future! Without further ado, on with the post!

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An original theatrical poster for Phantom Lady (1944).

The first half or so of Phantom Lady (1944) follows engineer Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis), who prior to the events of the film had an argument with his wife Marcella when she turned down the opportunity to go to the theater with him. Despondent that his marriage isn’t working out, he heads to the nearest bar, where he befriends a mysterious woman wearing a daring black hat. The two decide to go to the theater instead, where they have a fun time despite getting stared at by the skirt-chasing drummer of the show’s band (played by the iconic supporting noir actor Elisha Cook, Jr.), and despite the star of the show Estela Monteiro (Aurora Miranda, whom I found out was the sister of Carmen Miranda) becoming infuriated with the woman for wearing the same hat as she was. Scott and the nameless woman part ways, and upon reentering his home, he discovers that his wife Marcella has been strangled to death by one of her husband’s neckties and suddenly he’s being questioned by a mob of detectives. Though it’s obvious that he is innocent of the murder from the start, he is unable to cough up an alibi that suits the police. The next day is spent with Inspector Burgess (Thomas Gomez) as the two of them attempt to retrace his steps from the night before. The bartender, the taxi driver who took Scott and the phantom lady to the theater, and Estela Monteiro all claim to have seen Scott, but not the woman that he was with, while Scott himself can hardly remember what she looked like. Due to circumstantial evidence, a judge and jury rule Scott guilty of Marcella’s murder and sentence him to death row.

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Director Robert Siodmak, Ella Raines, and Franchot Tone on the set of Phantom Lady (1944).

Scott’s faithful and lovestruck secretary of fifteen years Carol (Ella Raines) remains by his side throughout the trial, and when he informs her that he has only eighteen days left before he is executed, Carol begins to conduct an investigation of her own. She starts by essentially stalking the bartender, occupying the same booth at the bar night after night for weeks before one day attempting to follow him home. It appears that she has terrified him to the point of attempted murder, as we see him almost push her onto the tracks of the train that they are both waiting for, yet his plan is foiled by the appearance of another passenger. Finally he confronts Carol as she continues to follow him, questioning her motives and attempting to get physically violent with her before strangers interfere and restrain the man. Terrified once again, he runs out into the street and is run over. After the bartender’s death Carol finally gets some help with her investigation in the form of Inspector Burgess, who originally conducted the investigation against Scott, but now Burgess too feels that he is innocent. Carol and the inspector move onto the next witness, the drummer at the show named Cliff, who they plan to get talking by having Carol disguise herself as a trashy dame named Jeannie hoping to earn his affection. The plan works, and after a few drinks and some incredibly impressive drumming that’s said to have been dubbed in by Buddy Rich, one of the most famous jazz drummers of all time, Cliff reveals that he was paid $500 to say that he had never seen the lady that Scott was with that night. Soon afterwards the rest of Carol’s plan is foiled when Cliff finds a police file on him in “Jeannie’s” purse that was undoubtedly supplied by Inspector Burgess, and Carol flees Cliff’s apartment.

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Ella Raines and Franchot Tone in a publicity still for Phantom Lady (1944).

After she leaves, the real murderer is revealed. We find out that Scott’s best friend Jack Marlow (Franchot Tone) was the one who really killed Marcella with Scott’s necktie, and due to Cliff’s loose lips about being paid off Jack strangles him in the same fashion. Soon Jack himself joins Carol and the inspector’s investigation in order to derail it and kill everyone who can help clear Scott’s name, but will the truth be revealed in the end? The most interesting part about this plot is that Jack is revealed to be the true killer about halfway into the film, unlike most mysteries and noirs that save that juicy tidbit for the end. The choice that Phantom Lady (1944) made added some much needed suspense to the film, and every time you see Carol or the inspector on the right track or Jack closing in on them, you really feel like you’re at the edge of your seat and the question is no longer who the killer is, but when the protagonists will find out who the killer is, and if they can before it’s too late. Unfortunately what the plot has in originality and structure, it lacks in just about everything else.

The entire movie supports itself on the search for the phantom lady that Scott was with the night of the murder, but there are two main issues with that pursuit of an alibi:

  1. The first witness questioned the morning after the murder, the bartender, claims that he saw only Scott just after 8pm, after the murder had already taken place. Therefore Carol and the inspector should not have been searching for the lady who Scott spent time with during and after his visit to the bar, but trying to find out where Scott was during the murder so they could form a substantial alibi.
  2. Even if Scott was supposedly with the woman at the bar or the theater during the murder, the fact that the bartender, the taxi driver, the drummer, and the star of the show all saw Scott (which they claimed that they did) should have been more than enough of an alibi for him, and whether they saw who he was with or not should have been irrelevant.
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Franchot Tone and Ella Raines appearing in the most suspenseful scene of Phantom Lady (1944).

Still somehow the entire film was built up around finding this woman, and there lies my biggest problem with it. I must admit that I’m not always thinking while watching films and most plot twists really do end up shocking me, but the fact that I figured all of this out before the film even finished should be a testament to how obvious these mistakes were. Desite the obvious plotholes I really did enjoy Phantom Lady (1944) as a whole, though, and was really impressed with the amount of suspense as well as the performances given. Alan Curtis wasn’t top billed for his portrayal of Scott Henderson, but he really held his own as the main character in the forty-five minute timespan until Franchot Tone first appears onscreen. The fact that anyone can receive top billing when their character doesn’t enter for the majority of the film is baffling to me, but I have to admit that I adored Franchot Tone playing a psychotic villain.  It was very much against type for the charismatic romantic idol of the 1930s, and it made me wish that he had done more challenging roles like this one. Before watching this film I had already seen Ella Raines in the B-movie The Second Face (1950), and after seeing her in such a memorable performance for such an inconsequential picture I was even more excited to see her in this film. She didn’t disappoint, and the beauty and brains that she brought to the role proved to be essential to this movie as a whole. All in all I believe that this film can be easily enjoyed if the audience doesn’t care whether the plot makes sense or not, but if it did, it would probably receive a perfect score from me that I just can’t give otherwise.

The Film Noir Blogathon: My Analysis of Criss Cross (1949)

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I would like to begin by thanking the gracious host of this fantastic blogathon, Quiggy of The Midnite Drive-In, for creating such a perfect homage to such a perfect genre. I’m just as ecstatic as you are for such a magnificent number of responses, and I’m incredibly honored to be one of the blogathon’s many participants. Now, without further ado, on with the post!

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Yvonne De Carlo, Burt Lancaster, and director Robert Siodmak share a banana split on the set of Criss Cross (1949).

The film begins with two things that instantly grab my attention. The first is the wonderful yet ominous score, composed by Miklós Rózsa, who oversaw the music of an innumerable amount of classics, including but not nearly limited to Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945), Spellbound (1945), and Ben-Hur (1959). The second thing that catches my eye is the very first exchange of the movie: an amorous love scene in the parking lot of a dance hall that features what appears to be an already established couple, Anna (Yvonne De Carlo) and Steve (Burt Lancaster). They anxiously discuss their affair and plans for the aftermath of a heist that is to take place the following day, including their plan to end up together, with Anna promising her lover Steve that “after it’s all over it’ll be just you and me, the way it should have been from the start”.

Despite the film giving no background about how the couple met or why they plan to go through with what seems to be a dangerous operation, the audience’s sympathy immediately lies with the pair, and the film could have ended right there and gotten a five star rating from me. It goes on, however, and shows Anna’s inquisitive husband Slim Dundee once she leaves the parking lot and reenters the Round Up dance hall. The two argue, of course, and make it painstakingly obvious why Anna is having an affair. Not long afterwards, Slim and Steve get into a predictable scuffle. We find out only later that it was staged just to throw Lieutenant Pete Ramirez off their trail, and that Steve and Slim actually plan on pulling off the robbery of an armored car together, but what meant to be a fight only for show turned into a real one once Slim began questioning Steve about his wife. Nonetheless, the two let bygones be bygones and the day of the robbery arrives. Steve, an employee for the armored car agency that they plan to steal from, is behind the wheel.

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Yvonne De Carlo and Burt Lancaster share an embrace in this publicity still for Criss Cross (1949).

As he drives to his destination and the plan is put into motion he begins to hear Anna’s comforting words in his head, and from there he narrates a flashback that finally gives some insight into how it all really started. He begins just after his return to Los Angeles after his divorce from Anna, and spins quite the yarn about how he returned to the Round Up where they used to spend their time together, reunited with her there, and fell in love with her all over again. Steve starts to dream of resuming their marriage, but his hopes are soon dashed once Anna marries Slim, the resident gangster of Los Angeles, and all of the money that comes with him.

A heartbroken Steve is on his own for a time, but inevitably Anna comes back into his life and the two begin a clandestine liaison. After a series of secret meetings between the two of them, Slim finds out that Steve and Anna have been seeing one another, and in a moment of desperation Steve devises an elaborate excuse in order to diffuse suspicion. He states that he was only conversing with Anna so that she and her mobster husband would assist him in holding up one of the armored cars that he is meant to protect for the company he works for, and as soon as the explanation leaves his lips he finds himself planning an armored car robbery for real.

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Tony Curtis dances his way to stardom with Yvonne De Carlo in Criss Cross (1949).

Lancaster’s performance stands out head and shoulders above the rest, and though I have not seen the bulk of his filmography I would certainly dare to say that this is the best acting I have ever seen him display onscreen. The feelings of desperation and heartache that Steve goes through are so very convincing that it is quite difficult to separate the actor from the character. Of course De Carlo’s performance is also first rate, and even though at times her acting is a bit stiff (especially compared to such superb an actor as Lancaster) I find her magnificent beauty and appeal makes her vastly underrated as an actress. She practically sends shockwaves through the screen, and I truly feel that she deserves more credit for her incredible films outside of The Munsters. Another notable appearance occurs twenty-two minutes into the film, during the scene in which Steve first sees Anna again at the Round Up, dancing with another man. That man is none other than Tony Curtis, in his feature film debut. He was so nervous that he kept his back to the camera as often as possible, and amusingly he would later star in two more films with Burt Lancaster, Trapeze (1956) and The Sweet Smell of Success (1957), both of which gave Curtis a starring role but gave Lancaster top billing.

In spite of some dull points here and there, I find this picture to be quite the thriller, and though the film contains many noir trademarks, I would consider it anything but archetypal. For once the leading lady is much more than just an afterthought and the love story is fully developed, which balances out the action in the picture nicely, gives it some raw human emotion, and sets it apart from the typical noir. All in all, Criss Cross (1949) is still a suspenseful delight for any noir fan, and its crosses and double crosses leave you hanging on the edge of your seat until the film’s tragic end.