|Directed by||Robert Siodmak|
Reuniting with director Siodmak after their success with Ernest Hemingway‘s The Killers, Burt Lancaster plays Steve Thompson, a man who seals his dark fate when he returns to Los Angeles to find his ex-wife Anna Dundee (Yvonne DeCarlo) eager to rekindle their love against all better judgment.
She encourages their affair but then quickly marries mobster Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea). To deflect suspicion of the affair, Steve Thompson leads Dundee into a daylight armored-truck robbery, only to be “criss crossed” when the crime is pulled off.
Like many films noir, Criss Cross was shot around downtown Los Angeles, beginning with the opening panorama from a helicopter that ends at a nightclub just north of downtown. Lancaster’s character lives with his mother at a house on Hill Street, just above the north entrance of the short Hill Street Tunnel (at Temple Street). (Hill Street was actually both the tunnel and the street running above it in what was called the Court Hill section. Court Hill, between First and Temple Streets, was a fork of Bunker Hill that ran east almost to Broadway.) The tunnel and the hill above it (including the house) were razed in 1955 for expansion of theCivic Center and a new Los Angeles County Courthouse on Hill Street, which can often be seen in episodes of Perry Mason. For the planning of the heist, Siodmak used the exterior and interiors of the rambling, rundown Sunshine Apartments on the steep Third Street steps between Hill and Olive, just opposite the funicular Angels Flight, which we see going up and down in the background through the windows of the hotel room. This area of Bunker Hill was a favorite of noir directors, and unfortunately it was all torn down in the 1960s. There is also an extended scene inside and outside Union Station on Alameda.
Criss Cross is the cruelest cut
5 December 2003
Burt Lancaster, hot off his success in “The Killers,” where he burned up the screen with the smoldering Ava Gardner, paired up again with director Robert Siodmak to make this noir hit with yet another sultry and exotic leading lady, this time the stunning Yvonne de Carlo. In this role she proves she’s not just a decorative sex symbol and gets to strut the acting chops I’ve always suspected her of possessing.
For those who are only familiar with her as Lilly Munster on the famous TV show, it is a treat to see her at her youthful beauty and in one of her best roles. Although I believe Gardner to be the more beautiful of the two, I couldn’t imagine her pulling off this role (at least at this stage of her career; she later developed much more depth) as impressively as de Carlo does, who in my view is (or at least became, in this movie) the better actress. Lancaster also proves that his star-making performance in the aforementioned “The Killers” was not a fluke, and despite the two films’ possessing a surface similarity–sexy dame double crosses love or lust-strucked sap with fatal consequences, which, of course, would describe many noirs–Lancaster makes a unique, interesting and multi-dimentional dupe in both roles. He exudes typical male ‘traits’ of toughness, masculinity and jadedness but yet is susceptible to the more typical ‘female’ qualities of vulnerability, sensitivity, lovelorness and hopeful, but ultimately futile, optimism in his refusal, or inability, to become completely cynical and hard-bitten, even at the end. In “Criss Cross” he plays the divorced Steve Thompson, who has recently returned to San Francisco where his ex-wife Anna remains, trying to convince himself of every reason in the book for moving back home except the real one–his lingering, potent love and strong attraction for her which still persists. He moves back in with his family and gets his job back at an armored-car company, all the while playing what will turn out to be a dangerous game–going back to their old haunts where he pretends he has no desire to see Anna, when he knows sooner or later he will. The situation proves to be all the more risky when he discovers she has married Slim Dundee, an abusive, big-shot gangster. But despite this extremely dangerous, untenable situation, he is unable to resist when Anna’s siren song beckons, luring not only him, but her husband, into her lethal web and complex scheme with cold-blooded precision.
The three principals give riveting performances: Lancaster’s Steve–the viewer can feel his painful uncertainty in knowing he should not and must not get tangled up with his ex again, and yet he must; he is so in love (or lust) that there really is no other option for him. De Carlo’s Anna in my view is the most difficult role in the film to convincingly portray–despite her despicable, heartless, self-serving actions, she still remains likable and even heartrending in her justifications. She convincingly displays vulnerability and anguish but at the same time is completely venal and selfish, willing to use the two men who love her and then discard them. We get the feeling that she *may* be good at heart, but really and truly has lost her way, has assessed she’s too far gone to ever go back, and so she will plow on ahead determinedly, consequences and feelings and people’s lives be dam*ed. The scene where de Carlo is with the men as they plan the heist is reminiscent of the one in “The Killers” where Ava Gardner is with the criminal gang–it is obvious they are no mere decorative dames, molls who remain in the background; they play an active role with the big boys, but they have something up their sleeves.
As for Dan Duryea as Slim, despite his seeming, or in fact playing, the same kind of roles in all the movies I’ve seen him in, that of the smarmy, slimy, sleazy character who possesses many of the most undesirable, worst traits in humankind–mean, petty, greedy, cowardly, sneaky, etc., he remains puzzlingly fascinating and even likable, and he does not fail here. His character here is the kind of person no man, and woman, crosses without consequence, and like Lancaster, who loves Anna to the end, Slim is dead set upon paying her back what she has reaped, but despite the fact that all that she’s done to him, he still loves her as well. In fact, his feelings for her and the devastated, shellshocked look on his face at the end brings to mind that song, or at least the famous line I’ve heard somewhere, “I loved her but I had to kill her.”
Lancaster, de Carlo and Duryea were such an electrifying trio that it’s a shame the three never made a movie together again (in fact, Lancaster and de Carlo’s chemistry was not limited to the screen, the two were lovers during filming). But perhaps it’s just as well as it would be a challenge to surpass this example of film-noir excellence. The ending is one of the most stunning and shocking I’ve seen, and the final shot of Lancaster and de Carlo presents an almost artfully arranged, beautiful but devastatingly tragic tableau. Look for Tony Curtis (looking like a gigolo) as he makes an appearance in a small role as de Carlo’s partner during a zesty, lusty rumba. And keep an eye out for the dramatic, stylish, minimalist ensemble Duryea wears in one scene consisting of an all-black suit with a retina-scalding white tie–talk about fashion being way ahead of its time, Duryea sure looks sharp! Fascinating noir, recommended also as a companion piece to “The Killers.”
Siodmak and Lancaster (and DeCarlo and Duryea) scale one of the pinnacles of film noir
Robert Siodmak and Burt Lancaster made beautiful movies together – two of them, anyway (The Crimson Pirate is, as they say, another story). Together, they mark Siodmak’s most assured work in film noir – and indispensable titles in the cycle. Siodmak introduced Lancaster to the world in The Killers; three years after that auspicious debut, he starred him again in Criss Cross. With his chiseled face and rugged physique, Lancaster was the embodiment of the all-American pluck that had just won a war and was setting out to assume hegemony of the globe. So Siodmak cast him, again, as a loser.
Lancaster returns to his family home in the shabby Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles; he’d been away trying to forget his marriage, which went bad after seven months. But absence made his heart grow fonder, and he thinks of his ex-wife (Yvonne DeCarlo) as a piece of apple core that gets wedged between the teeth and can’t be dislodged, even with the cellophane from a pack of smokes. Ah, romance….
Lying to himself, he starts hanging around their old joint, The Round Up, hoping to spot her. Neither a ritzy club nor a down-and-out dive, it’s a blue-collar night spot divided down the middle, with the bar and phone booth on one side and, on the other, the tables and dance floor. It’s there he sees her again, doing a smoldering rhumba with young (and uncredited) Tony Curtis to the insinuating flute warblings of Esy Morales. She’s ready to get back together, and so is he, but pride gets in the way; in retaliation, she marries flashy gangster Dan Duryea.
But Lancaster and DeCarlo keep bumping against each other, like cellophane and apple core. When Duryea confirms his suspicions by catching them together, Lancaster weasels his way out of a very tight corner by saying he’s planning a job for them – knocking over the armored truck company he drives for, with himself as the inside man. He rationalizes his complicity away by thinking he and DeCarlo will abscond with their share of the loot.
The brutal heist, filmed in a fog of smoke bombs, goes awry, with lives lost on both sides. Lancaster’s arm is smashed, but he winds up acclaimed a hero
- if one strung up by pulleys attached to his hospital bed. Only his
erstwhile friend, a police lieutenant (Steven McNally) figures out the role Lancaster really played, and disgusted by his thick-headedness, warns that he’s not safe from Duryea’s henchmen, even while he’s recuperating. He’s right: Lancaster finds himself being abducted to the oceanside rendezvous where DeCarlo is waiting – and for a final reckoning with Duryea.
Siodmak’s establishes full command from the movie’s first shot – a stunning aerial glide over Los Angeles at night, swooping into the parking lot behind The Round Up where Lancaster and DeCarlo are trysting – to its last, a darkly poetic pietà. Characteristically, he fragments the narrative through flashbacks, counterposing the hopes of Lancaster’s return home with the desperation into which he has fallen. He also slows down for virtuosic sequences that only a great director could bring off: a long scene when the heist is being plotted, with the bored DeCarlo smoking cigarettes (`It passes the time’) while the Angels Flight funicular railway criss-crosses the window behind her; and an equally long one in the hospital, involving a cranked-up bed, a tilted mirror on the bureau, and a visitor in the corridor
- a good Samaritan who turns out to be his worst nightmare.
Criss Cross displays almost documentary-style familiarity with the details of post-war life, when prosperity was finally trickling down to working stiffs. Lancaster’s sporty duds showed a new, liberated look that would become the standard for men’s casual wear for half a century (and counting), and DeCarlo, at the high-water mark of her career, looks as smashing in her slacks and barettes and print dresses as no woman has since. Siodmak catches the excitement of disposable cash in callused hands, but isn’t condescending about it; but overzealous love for it, however unaccustomed, is still the root of all evils.
Another German expatriate like Siodmak, Franz Planer photographed the movie (and it’s probably his finest hour, too). He shoots the armored truck from a vertiginous, almost abstract angle as it invades a huge industrial plant, or savors the shadows hurtling across its hood as it speeds across an ironwork trestle. Nor does the living scenery get short shrift – close-ups of both DeCarlo and Lancaster are voluptuous (and Duryea’s especially fearsome).
As he was able to do in The Killers, Siodmak keeps the integrity of the script, never lightening the tone or taking refuge in sentimentality. The blend of crime and doomed romance, the tug-of-war between passion and self-interest, finds perfect balance here. Of course, it’s the simplest and most infallible recipe for film noir. As DeCarlo says, `Love… love! You’ve got to watch out for yourself.’ If only she’d said it a little sooner.