CRISS CROSS

 (Robert Siodmak, USA, 1949) 88 minutes

CRISS CROSS

Director: Robert Siodmak
Producer: Michael Kraike
Screenplay: Daniel Fuchs
  from a novel by Don Tracy
Cinematography: Franz Planer
Editor: Ted J Kent
Music: Miklós Rózsa
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)

Reviews and notes

I'd call this one of the great films noirs, except that greatness seems like an odd concept to evoke when you're talking about a genre so often obsessed with failure – failure in love, failure in money, failure in crime, failure to see what's going on or where you're heading. Burt Lancaster plays another in his late 40s line of doomed losers (cf Siodmak's The Killers, 1946; Jules Dassin's Brute Force, 1947, etc) – Steve, an armoured-car guard who can't get his no-good ex-wife out of his system, even when she dumps him to marry a notorious crook. Trapped between his need for her, her need for money, and the husband with his crew of heavies, his way out is to propose being the inside man on a heist. What could possibly go right? Part of the pleasure of the film comes from the way it complicates a fundamentally simple set-up. The narrative has a twisty flashback structure, the plot is studded with little surprises, and as the title suggests, loyalties are highly unstable. But nobody – his mother, his policeman best pal, the audience – has much trouble working out what's going on with Steve or what's going to happen to him. There are terrific performances from Yvonne De Carlo, sulky, untrustworthy and irresistible as the ex; and Dan Duryea as her new squeeze – vicious and sarcastically domineering, but also uncomfortably aware that he's maybe not as virile and attractive as Lancaster ("Swell-looking, well-built man like that," as a despairing barfly notes). If you watch carefully, you can spot Tony Curtis in his first screen role, swinging with De Carlo to the jazz flute and Latin rhythms of Esy Morales and his Rhumba Band.
- Robert Hanks, Sight and Sound, September 2020.


Robert Siodmak's Criss Cross (1949) combines complexity of narrative, a realism born of location shooting, and Siodmak's expressive stylization. The opening aerial shot of Los Angeles sets the tone for what proves to be a fascinating chronicle of lower- and middle-class life in the western metropolis. Much of the action in Criss Cross takes place in the shadow of the funicular railway (Angel's Flight) in the Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles.

Criss Cross attains a kind of formal excellence, due to the tautness of its complex narrative structure, the uncompromising nature of its resolution, and the inexorable character of its Germanic fatalism. The film opens in medial res with Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster) and Anna (Yvonne De Carlo) sharing a furtive kiss in the parking lot of the Rondo Club. The reason for their secrecy soon becomes obvious. Anna is married to Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea), a local tough guy who is giving himself a farewell party in a private room at the club. Gradually the audience becomes aware that Steve and Slim, obvious rivals, are connected in a robbery scheme. The action continues the next day as Steve, driving an armored truck, picks up a huge cash payroll at the bank. During the forty-minute run to the plant at San Raphelo, Steve reviews the intricate chain of circumstances that brought him into the robbery. By opening in the middle, the audience is forced to accept the central situation — the robbery — as reality, and the contrived circumstances leading up to it are given additional credence.

The success of Criss Cross's fatalistic mood depends to a large extent on the complex relationship between Steve and Anna. Anna is a creature of dazzling insincerity, another in the seemingly endless succession of 1940s femmes fatales. The archetype is, of course, Mary Astor hiding her Machiavellian designs behind a mask of gentility in The Maltese Falcon (1940. Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1943) was of a tougher, less bourgeois breed, which reappeared with subtle variations in Siodmak's The Killers (1946, Ava Gardner) and in Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past (1948, Jane Greer). Anna definitely belongs to this second class of fatal women, although her essential coldness and grasping ambition are accompanied by immaturity, a general ineffectualness, and vulnerability. Her hold on her ex-husband Steve depends on his feeling sorry for her. She is, in fact, persecuted by the police (at the instigation of Steve's mother), and tortured by Slim. But she finds it difficult to overcome the specter of divorce, with its overtones of betrayal and failure, that divides her from Steve and reflects the film's central theme of treachery.

Anna is always seen from Steve's point of view, for Criss Cross, like a Chandler novel, is set firmly in the first person. Steve narrates his flashbacks, supplying additional motivation and coloring events with his own fatalism. Siodmak complements the first-person nature of the script (by Daniel Fuchs) with a number of subjective shots that make crucial thematic points. Steve's loneliness is expressed in a shot of his brother and future sister-in-law kissing in a corner of the dining room, seen from Steve's point of view on the living room couch. A far more frightening example of the same technique occurs after the robbery goes haywire and Steve ends up in the hospital with his arm and shoulder in traction. Here Siodmak uses numerous subjective shots that force the audience to participate in Steve's nightmare situation: lying helpless in the hospital bed waiting for Slim's vengeance, playing a cat-and-mouse game with a traveling salesman (Adam Williams) who turns out to be one of Slim's hirelings. The "salesman" snatches Steve from the hospital in a scene that can only be described as a paroxysm of pain. The ever-venal Williams is too easily bribed to take Steve to Anna instead of Slim, and the executioner is not far behind.

The role of Steve Thompson is so important to the film that those offended by Lancaster's mannerisms may not enjoy Criss Cross, in spite of a number of excellent character portrayals: Percy Helton, the rotund bartender with a voice like wood rasp; Dan Duryea, with or without an icepick, the ideal pimp and small-timer of the decade; Tom Pedi, Slim's henchman Vincent, who delivers his dialogue with a greedy verve ("That's the ticket"); John Doucette, another of the gang, with a dour voice to match his somber personality; and Alan Napier, Finchley, the alcoholic mastermind of the big "heist".
- Tom Flinn, The Velvet Light Trap, No.5 (1971), republished in Kings of the Bs, EP Dutton & Co, 1975.

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