Criss Cross is in some ways derivative of Robert Siodmak's own The Killers from two years before, but it doesn't matter. Enlarging on ideas at the core of film noir - helpless characters struggling in a web of fated romantic confusion - it's almost as satisfying as Burt Lancaster's debut picture, even if he seems to be repeating many of the same moves. Proving that superior noir is a matter of style over content, director Siodmak assembles a prototype tale with one of the most uncompromised bleak endings in the movies.
With its fated flashback structure and romantically plaintive narration Criss Cross is the quintessential noir saga of the tainted loser. Steve Thompson can't stay away from the one woman everyone agrees is poison for him; for her he abandons his pride and breaks the law.
Steve has a lot in common with the sadsack 'hero' of Edgar Ulmer's Detour; he's the victim of circumstances entirely of his own making. Indecision and bad communication result in Anna's marriage to the wrong guy. Chauvinistic meddling has a part in it too; Pete Ramirez harrasses Anna just because she's an unpredictable single woman. 1 The overall mood of fatality makes worrying about who did what to who irrelevant, just as Anna and Steve can't remember the things they fought about when they were married. Steve has a fog of romantic illusion clinging to him like a forgiving shroud; unlike Detour's Al Roberts, he doesn't spend his time whining about his own misfortunes. As Steve is disabused of his notions of trust and romantic loyalty, he accepts culpability for his sins and waits stoically for retribution. A true romantic, nothing matters for Steve after he's lost The Girl.
In a way then, Criss Cross fills in the character gap left outstanding in The Killers, the big question why the Swede awaited his execution with such calm. The Swede is remembered in patchy, Citizen Kane - like memories, whereas Steve Thompson's every misstep is covered in the first person. His wistful narration tips us off that his story isn't going to end happily.
Critics were still ragging on Burt Lancaster's supposed lack of acting talent in this his third or fourth film; it's true that Burt led with his rugged looks (his undershirt scenes predate Brando by a few years) but his acting style is wisely based on underplaying and muted reactions. Enough of Steve's inner feelings come through his attempt to put on a macho front, and there are plenty of great moments. When he drunkenly baits the bargirl at the Roundup Bar (Joan Miller), he behaves like a petty version of the tormenting hit men in The Killers.
Yvonne De Carlo is another femme noir original. Although Anna shows her true colors in the bleak finale, throughout most of the picture she exists as an idealized love object, almost an erotic hallucination. She's introduced in what's commonly referred to as a 'steaming rhumba number,' which in 1948 was considered an almost abstractly edited dance number. 2 Unlike Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity or Jane Greer in Out of the Past, Yvonne DeCarlo is not a femme fatale but the innocent (at least in the film as finished) catalyst for the mayhem in the third act. She's a luscious object of desire presented as simply as Ann Darrow in King Kong - just possessing her is motivation enough to justify grand larceny and murder.
Dan Duryea's Slim Dundee is almost as sympathetic as the hero. He obviously is equally in love with Anna and willing to be made a sucker over her. There's something in his "Baby, it don't look right" when he catches Anna and Steve together that shows his heartbreak, and his suspicions about Anna's motives and "trips to the parking lot" are more than justified. Slim Dundee is what he is and gives both Anna and Steve the benefit of the doubt at every dubious turn of events. When Anna shows Steve the marks she says are from Slim's beating her, we almost don't know whether we believe her. Slim is definitely dangerous, but we mostly see him being relatively patient and tender with Anna. Until the last scene, at least.
Although Criss Cross contains a heist (as does The Killers) it is not a full-fledged Caper film. The focus is on romantic tragedy and greed is only a partial motivation. The robbery scene is nicely sketched (beginning with a disorienting, twisting downshot from high above the targeted armored car) but plays out under the fog of a smokescreen that blends with the fog of Steve's hospital anaesthesia. Both of those 'fogs' are nothing compared to Steve's own fog of romantic reverie (implied by the dreamy flashback that soft-peddles Anna's image). Disillusion is likened unto coming out from under an anesthetic, to feel the full pain of a major injury. Physically crippled and aware that he's done grievous injury to those he loves, Steve is going to get a bigger jolt when he finally connects with Anna.
The final reunion takes place at an "end of the world" limbo, a seaside shack reminiscent of the oddly fantastic conclusion Fritz Lang's Moonfleet. The matte with the crooked tree reminds of Jack Arnold's bleak land and seascapes in the series of science fiction movies that would follow from Universal-International. It's just enough of a stylistic change to lift the annihilating conclusion out of the pulp gutter - this doomed trio play out their roles like Greeks on an ill-fated quest. The shock of the film's last image is its lack of romantic embellishment. I'm surprised that anybody approved such a complete downer of an ending. Of course, it makes Criss Cross as fascinatingly morbid as any film noir on the books.
Criss Cross is a great picture for actor spotting. Sam Fuller favorite Gene Evans has several lines as one of Lancaster's fellow bank guards. The grim bad-guy with the gravelly voice John Doucette (wonderful in his bit in The Fountainhead) is one of Slim Dundee's henchmen, and the amusing Tom Pedi (later in a key part in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3) is equally apealling in his enthusiasm ("That's the ticket! That's the ticket!"). Both of them add up to a pretty pitiful criminal gang. Stephen McNally has the thankless role as Lancaster's cop friend who may or may not have tried to do him a big favor. Robert Osterloh is the creepy kidnapper seen through Steve Thompson's crooked hospital mirror in one of the best paranoid scenes ever. Nurse Beatrice Roberts played the same character in The Killers, and we're told that Raymond Burr is hidden in there somewhere as well.
In one of the most credited "uncredited" appearances in movie history, Tony Curtis is recognizeable on screen for only two seconds or so, making a very positive impact as DeCarlo's dance partner.
Robert Siodmak's classy direction relies on a mix of naturalistic and stylized environments. Union Station and Angels' Flight make iconic appearances. The Roundup Bar is an ugly dive made exotic only by Esy Morales' music and the presence of Yvonne DeCarlo. Camera angles are unforced and noir lighting effects are kept in check yet the spell of doom lies heavy upon every frame, leading to that final scene by the sea. All we need to see is DeCarlo standing in a windowed alcove watching the heist being plotted, posed sideways with a cigarette, to know that she can no longer be trusted. For once, she looks like a waiting animal.
Siodmak is rarely acknowledged as a master illusionist; in Criss Cross there's a terrific shot where Lancaster's Armored truck exits an interior stage set at Universal. The camera tilts up to show a view through a window of the truck climing a ramp to the street; the window-view is a cleverly timed and aligned rear projection.
Universal's DVD of Criss Cross is the top feature in their July noir collection; the B&W image is sharp and expressive, only yielding a slight bit of compression grain in the foggy smokescreen scene. The soundtrack is typical of the period, with dialogue placed way louder than music to insure clarity, but the big rhumba number takes over the screen with its heavy rhythm.
Criss Cross is well-documented in books on film noir so the lack of a commentary or extras isn't as painful as it might be, but it still places the Universal series slightly behind the Warner set. The dramatic original trailer emphasizes the "double-double cross" as the film's motif.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Criss Cross rates:
1. Actually, Ramirez' eagerness
to strongarm Anna with threats of prison point to seamier possibilities - Anna might be much more
than a vivacious neighborhood girl> Maybe she's a prostitute or involved in other kinds of vice in the
source story. In Criss Cross Anna is sort of an innocent dumbbell, and Steve's detective
"friend" Ramirez takes a huge part of the blame for the story going sour. However, even if Anna
really is a bad dame, the film paints her as Steve sees her - a rhumba vision of erotic nirvana.
2. It's sort of a less-frantic followup to Siodmak's wild jam session in
Phantom Lady, where Elisha Cook Jr. plays the drums.