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Criss Cross

21 Apr

“From the start, it all went one way. It was in the cards, or it was fate or a jinx, or whatever you want to call it.”

Burt Lancaster, Robert Siodmak, a heist, a hero doomed by fate and his own stupidity, and a rotten to the core femme fatale – all of this sounds a little like a brief synopsis of The Killers. In fact, it refers to Criss Cross (1949), a near relative of that earlier work and a film that vies with it for the honour of being hailed Siodmak’s best movie. Apart from the pairing of director and star, both these films share a similar theme and structure, and I find it almost impossible to decide which is the better one. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter – I like them both and they are two of the strongest noir pictures to come out of the 1940s.

The title of this movie is a highly appropriate one for a tale where the paths of all the main characters are continually intersecting in a web of deceit and betrayal, each crossing up the other at the first opportunity. At the centre of it all are three people – Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster), Anna (Yvonne De Carlo) and Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea) – bound together by an unholy combination of love, lust and greed. The opening shot, with the camera swooping ominously down from the night skies of LA, sees Anna and Steve caught in a clinch in the parking lot of a nightclub. As the lights suddenly pick them out, their startled and guilty reaction indicates that this is an illicit rendezvous. The fact is further underlined by the terse, tense dialogue – this couple is planning something dangerous, and the possibility of discovery holds a terrifying threat for them. Anna is married to local hood Slim Dundee, but she and Steve were once wed too. Their passionate embrace makes it clear that they have rekindled their old relationship, with the flame burning brightest for Steve in particular. And it’s from the point of view of Steve that the story is primarily seen, with the others moving in and out of the picture at various intervals. He’s a classic noir protagonist, a fairly ordinary guy with limited prospects and a blind spot where no-good females are concerned. A lengthy flashback sequence, accompanied by a suitably weary and resigned voiceover by Steve, spells out exactly how the lives of these three characters converged and the complex ties that continue to bind them together. In short, Steve’s job as a guard for an armored car company has led to his conspiring with Dundee to raid one of the secure vehicles. However, in the noir universe there’s no such thing as honour among thieves and everyone has his own hidden agenda. Steve is the only one of the trio whose motives have some semblance of decency – he’s driven by a kind of desperate love for Anna – and the aftermath of the heist shows just how deep the fault lines of treachery run in this uneasy alliance.

Apparently the untimely death of Mark Hellinger meant that the original script was revised and certain aspects of the story were changed. Be that as it may, the movie that we ended up with is almost impossible to fault and Daniel Fuchs’ script successfully blends the heist and Steve’s obsessive love to powerful effect. Flashback structures can sometimes be confusing or upset the mood of a film but in this case it works perfectly, coming at precisely the right point and filling in the background details that are vital to understanding the nature of Steve and Anna’s relationship. With a tight script, and Franz Planer’s photographic talents, in place, director Robert Siodmak was free to put it all together with his customary visual flair. The opening, which I referred to earlier, pitches the viewer headlong into this complex tale of dishonour and betrayal in incredibly stylish fashion. And it never really lets up from that moment, with one memorable and superbly shot scene following hard on the heels of another. Siodmak uses every trick up his sleeve to manipulate the mood and perspective, from coldly objective overheads to disconcerting low angles and close-ups, interspersed with fast cuts and dissolves. For me, the real stand out scenes, although there’s hardly a poor moment throughout, are the ones in Union Station and in the hospital. The former not only gives a fascinating glimpse of contemporary LA bustle, but also shows the director’s skill in composing a complex series of shots in a crowded environment while retaining control of the geography. In the latter, he uses the reflection from the mirror in Steve’s room to break up the static nature of the setup and extract the maximum amount of tension at the same time.

If the technical aspects of the film are straight out of the top drawer, then the same can also be said for the acting. Burt Lancaster kicked off his career with some finely judged playing as the doomed Swede in The Killers, and Siodmak got him to tap into that same vibe to coax another wonderfully nuanced and sensitive performance from him. Once again he hits all the right notes as the big palooka whose dark romanticism sees him suckered by the machinations of a conniving woman. Every emotional state the script calls on him to display is carried off convincingly, from fear and disenchantment right through to the calm acceptance of his fate at the end – from the dumbfounded look of a guy who’s just had his guts kicked out by the woman he loves to the cloying sense of panic of a man under sentence of death and trapped in an anonymous hospital ward. Yvonne De Carlo didn’t have to go through quite as many stages, yet she’s still excellent alternating between the sassy, sensual broad that forms her public persona and the nervy, desperate woman she becomes in private. When she drops all pretense in the climax and reveals her true character to Steve and the audience there’s a tangible shock to be felt. Dan Duryea was an old hand at taking on the role of the slimy villain, and to that he adds a layer of menace as Slim Dundee. He manages this so well that it’s easy to understand the level of fear and trepidation he provokes in Steve when he contemplates the consequences of crossing him. While these three actors carry the movie, there’s real depth in the  supporting cast too. Stephen McNally is solid and sympathetic as the cop whose friendship for Steve leads him to inadvertently push him into crime. In fact, there are lovely little cameos all through the movie: Percy Helton’s chipmunk featured barman, Joan Miller’s garrulous barfly, Griff Barnett’s kindly and lonely father figure.

Criss Cross has been out on DVD for many years now, and the US disc from Universal is an especially strong effort. It offers a near perfect transfer of the film with clarity, sharpness and contrast all at the high end of the scale. My only disappointment comes from the absence of any extra features, bar the theatrical trailer, for such a quality movie. One shouldn’t really complain, in these days of bare bones burn on demand discs, but this film does deserve a commentary track at the very least. Still, we have got an excellent piece of the filmmaker’s art looking great. Criss Cross is a highly rated production that occupies a prominent position in the noir canon, and it has earned that honour. It’s one of those rare films that checks all the boxes and never puts a foot wrong from its dramatic opening until it’s darkly cynical final fade out. Those who are familiar with the picture will know exactly what I’m talking about, and those who are not owe it to themselves to discover this little treasure. This is unquestionably one of the real jewels of film noir.

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24 responses to “Criss Cross

  1. Cavershamragu

    April 21, 2012 at 1:33 pm

    Realy enjoyed reading your analysis of this sublime movie Colin – I used to have it on VHS and then got the Universal DVD, which is fantastic looking, as you say – and if it comes out on Blu-ray I’ll be certain to snap it up. It is fascinating how good Lancaster is in these early Noir roles in which he is cast as vulnerable, even weak individuals – it’s something that before his stardom really took off he would contnue to do really well (and I inlude KISS THE BLOOD OFF MY HANDS, JIM THORPE, and SORRY, WRONG NUMBER and to a lesser extent BRUTE FORCE) whereas later of course he tended to play much tougher and more idealised heroes (though he was a great villain in Frankenheimer’s fabulous SEVEN DAYS IN MAY). It’s interesting that you mention the mirror in the hospital scene as Siodmak seems to be echoing the mirror shots from the heist and makes for an interesting use of a suspense device more usually associated with prison movies. THE KILLERS has that extraordinary opening going for it, but does to some extent get a bit turgid in the middle – this is a much bleaker movie but tonally much more of a piece so I understand why you vacillate between the two – as for whether it’s Siodmak’s best, well PHANTOM LADY and THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE really give it a run for it’s money in my view.

     
    • Colin

      April 21, 2012 at 1:58 pm

      Thanks Sergio. Lancaster did indeed have a great line in that kind of soft vulnerability in his early roles; it provided a great contrast to his physical presence and is ideally suited to the kind of noir loserd he was playing at the time. BTW, I’ve never seen Kiss the Blood off My Hands – such a wonderful title though.

      I think the problem you mention with The Killers stems from the multiple flashbacks employed. I like the use of the device but I know it can break the narrative flow at times. Criss Cross is tighter and more focussed in that respect, but it’s tone is so relentlessly dark and doom-laden. My preference for either movie tends to swing back and forth depending on my own mood I guess.

      Interesting choices you mention as competitors. Phantom Lady improves for me with each viewing, and I really enjoy how Ella Raines plays her role. Although I like The Spiral Staircase, and all Siodmak’s noir pictures to be honest, I wouldn’t rate it so highly. It’s an excellent gothic melodrama with fantastic atmosphere and set design, but it’s missing some of the edge that the director brought to his best work.

       
      • Cavershamragu

        April 21, 2012 at 2:33 pm

        SPIRAL STAIRCASE is a very different kind of movie, but to my mind it is perhaps the best of its kind in the genre. In the KILLERS there is also the O’Brien character which tends, in my view, to diffuse the tension a bit.

        By the way, have you seen Steven Soderbergh’s CRISS CROSS remake, THE UNDERNEATH? Not many people went to see it but it is sufficiently different to make ti well worth watching, not least for the director’s interesting use of colour schemes (later developed in his version of TRAFFIC – Soderbergh really has made a lot of remakes hasn’t he – directed OCEAN’S 11 and SOLARIS and produced the Hollywood version of INSOMNIA)

         
        • Colin

          April 21, 2012 at 2:45 pm

          Fair enough. I’ll agree The Spiral Staircase is right up there as one of the very best gothic melodrama/noirs around, which is a marvellous and rich little sub-genre in itself. I have the source novel in my basket at Amazon right now and will probably buy that soon just to see how it stacks up against the movie.

          No, I haven’t seen the remake but I was aware of it. I’m a bit ambivalent about Soderbergh; I liked Insomnia when I saw it in the cinema but I have to say Traffic just left me cold.

           
  2. Cavershamragu

    April 21, 2012 at 3:05 pm

    I know what you mean as Soderbergh can in fact be a very cerebral and therefore ‘chilly’ (sic) director though I basically do find myself responding to his ideas quite positively – then again, perhaps I’m a bit biased in his favour, being one of the few people on the planet that went to see THE GOOD GERMAN at the cinema – and as a sort of tribute to the Michael Curtiz style as filtered through a modern sensibility I actually thought it kind of succeeded really.

    Yvonne de Carlo is I think pretty good in the role and it certainly stands out in a career where her roles either traded on her sultry looks or made her up to look like a vampire! (used to love THE MUNSTERS as a kid, though can’t imagine why now)

     
    • Colin

      April 21, 2012 at 3:25 pm

      De Carlo was a very beautiful woman, and too many of her roles really only asked that she look good and not much else. This movie is probably her best piece of work.
      Agree on The Munsters – loved the show when I was a kid too, slightly mystified by the attraction now.

       
      • Cavershamragu

        April 21, 2012 at 4:00 pm

        I am definitely going to have to go and get my CRISS CROSS disc out now – just a great movie and it has definitely been too long since I watched it all the way through.

        Re; THE MUSTERS, which was always a bit more of a kids show I suppose, THE ADDAMS FAMILY has held up much better it seems to me, but then it has a sort of transgressive, iconoclastic vibe that was bound to survive better.

         
        • Colin

          April 21, 2012 at 4:06 pm

          Go for it – you won’t regret a repeat viewing.

          Yes, The Addams Family remains watchable, and enjoyable, as an adult whereas The Munsters is best not revisited unless you want to observe how much your tastes change. Personally, I find, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the bulk of what I enjoyed as a kid (and which was aimed predominantly at a young audience) is now virtually unwatchable.

           
  3. surroundedbyimbeciles

    April 21, 2012 at 7:58 pm

    I’ll watch anything with Yvonne DeCarlo. Up to and including The Munsters. In McLintock, she was a great counterbalance to Maureen O’Hara.

     
    • Colin

      April 21, 2012 at 9:23 pm

      Yes, good call on McLintock. I liked her in Border River and, to a lesser extent, in Shotgun. I’m hoping to pick up Sea Devils and Black Bart some time in the near future, the latter pairing her up with Dan Duryea again.

       
  4. Rod Croft

    April 21, 2012 at 11:29 pm

    Great film, great director, great actors, and a great review. I am tempted to use the old cliche’ -“Why don’t they make them like this any more ?”……but I won’t !

    Thanks Colin!

     
    • Colin

      April 22, 2012 at 9:43 am

      Thank you Rod.
      I guess the movie was just one of those happy coincidences when everything, story, actors and crew came together at the right time, and the whole thing simply gelled. Of course, the late 40s really was the point at which film noir reached its absolute peak.

       
  5. le0pard13

    April 22, 2012 at 12:27 am

    Fine review, Colin. Count me in as another who very much appreciated the work of Yvonne De Carlo. I may have first come to know her as Lily Munster from ‘The Munsters’ TV program, but the more of her early film work I came across later made me treasure the beauty. Well done.

     
    • Colin

      April 22, 2012 at 9:48 am

      Hi Michael. I figure I probably first became aware of De Carlo through her work on The Munsters too – I may have seen her in other stuff beforehand, but that show was definitely what brought her to my attention. She had a very long career and made so many movies that, for myself anyway, there’s still so much more to discover.

       
  6. Bacon Fry

    April 22, 2012 at 3:38 pm

    Lovely review. I loved The Killers and it led me to this – in both instances the performance of Burt Lancaster, who as you say was almost made for noir with his honest face and sensitivity mixed in with his physical presence. I like in Criss Cross how he looks at peace in the end, like he doesn’t care as long as he’s with Anna. As for Lily Munster, I didn’t realise the enormous body of work she’d done, including Moses’s wife in The Ten Commandments. In this, she sure fits the Jane Greer mould perfectly as the femme Fatale with the face of an angel.

    The scene outside the train station is just great, isn’t it? Anna tells Steve she’s going, only the driver leaves without her, and Steve watches in the foreground as she starts to walk away. It’s like elastic stretching. For a moment, it looks as though she’s going to keep walking, the elastic will snap and the characters can get on with their lives. Only she looks back, and it never snaps…

     
    • Colin

      April 22, 2012 at 4:00 pm

      Hi Mike. Yes, Lancaster’s Steve does seem to have made peace with himself by the end of the movie. Mind you, his illusions have not only been shattered but ground down into dust so there’s no real alternative left for him, is there?

      I like your comparison of Yvonne De Carlo’s Anna with Jane Greer (in Out of the Past, I presume) and it’s an appropriate one. Unlike say Ava Gardner’s Kitty in The Killers, who we know is basically no good right from the off, there’s at least a doubt about Anna until the last moment – I think it gives the revelation more punch.

      That scene outside Union Station is beautifully filmed: the way Siodmak moves the camera, the people moving around but never interfering in the action or shot, the tension between Lancaster and De Carlo, all emphasise the inevitable but random nature of events.

       
  7. spiv47

    April 23, 2012 at 2:50 pm

    Miklos Rozsa’s throbbing score over the opening credits, and the aerial view of nighttime LA sucks you in immediately into a noir that has to be in the top 5 for any noir fan.
    As for Kiss the Blood Off My Hands, the best thing about it is probably the title. Robert Newton is suitably menacing, and Lancaster is his tortured self, and the dark sets of an imaginary London are effective, but it’s not in the same league as Criss Cross. It’s missing a “bad” girl.
    A couple of short years after Criss Cross appeared, Siodmak and Lancaster made The Crimson Pirate, which brings out the 11 year old boy in all of us. Possibly the most entertaining pirate film ever, and the farthest thing from noir imaginable.

     
    • Colin

      April 23, 2012 at 7:44 pm

      Yeah, although I haven’t seen it, I have heard others say that Kiss the Blood off My Hands doesn’t really live up to the promise of its arresting title. Still and all, I hope to get round to it at some point, for the sake of completeness if nothing else.

      The Crimson Pirate doesn’t sound like it should be a Rober Siodmak film at all, does it? It’s so far removed from the kind of stuff he specialized in throughout the 40s that it makes you pause for a moment. But it’s wonderful entertainment, just radiates joy, and demonstrates how versatile and talented Siodmak was.

       
      • spiv47

        April 23, 2012 at 7:50 pm

        I have forgotten where I read or heard it, but The Crimson Pirate was meant to be quite a serious pirate film in the Black Swan/Captain Blood vein, but once Siodmak became involved in the project, he changed it all around – much to the better for us all. There is a book coming out soon by Alan Rode about Michael Curtiz, and one already out on Raoul Walsh. Siodmak needs his own biographer.

         
        • Colin

          April 23, 2012 at 8:02 pm

          Yes, I think that bit about the turnaround in the script originates from Christopher Lee. And I agree, I’d hate for it to have been any different.

          It seems strange that no one has knocked out a Siodmak bio before now – I’d snap it up in a heartbeat.

           
  8. shadowsandsatin

    April 23, 2012 at 5:49 pm

    Really enjoyed this outstanding write-up, Colin. Criss Cross is one of my favorites, and your post certainly does it justice. Bravo!

     
    • Colin

      April 23, 2012 at 7:48 pm

      Thanks very much for that. Your own site is a wonderful noir resource; it makes me appreciate the compliment even more.

       

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