Tuesday, July 14, 2009

1949: Criss Cross (Robert Siodmak)

Released: January 12, 1949

Director: Robert Siodmak; Screenplay: Daniel Fuchs based on the novel by Don Tracy; Cinematography: Franz Planer; Studio: Universal International Pictures; Producer: Michael Kraike; Music: Miklós Rózsa

Cast: Burt Lancaster (Steve Thompson), Yvonne De Carlo (Anne Dundee), Dan Duryea (Slim Dundee), Stephen McNally (Detective Lt. Pete Ramirez), Tom Pedi (Vincent), Percy Helton (Frank), Alan Napier (Finchley), Griff Barnett (Pop), Meg Randall (Helen), Richard Long (Slade Thompson), Joan Miller (the Lush), Edna Holland (Mrs. Thompson), John Doucette (Walt), Marc Krah (Mort), Esy Morales (Rhumba Band Leader)

Now would this countdown be any fun if there weren’t some surprises involved? While maybe not a heart stopping surprise, I would venture to guess that I am one of the precious few that are likely to choose this one as the best film of 1949. I do so knowing full well that there are films that are quite properly deemed to be “superior” to this noir thriller or are seen as considerably more significant in the history of cinema. But as the translation of the Latin proverb says, there’s no accounting for taste and I have always considered this to be among the best films that Robert Siodmak ever directed and that Burt Lancaster ever starred in.

This is not to say that Criss Cross is a completely overlooked film. Quite the contrary, as it is commonly seen in lists of favorite noirs or crime films of the era. So while this may not be a complete shock, I’ll certainly be surprised if many (if any at all) concur with the selection.

There has already been a Siodmak-Lancaster collaboration included in this countdown, as Lancaster’s screen debut The Killers was selected as the choice for 1946. My love for that film hopefully came through in my review, making clear that I consider it to be among the best noirs that I have ever seen. Going against conventional wisdom, I actually think that in this follow-up effort the two combined to make an even better film. While The Killers may contain more iconic scenes and is routinely cited as being influential on later crime films, Criss Cross remains in my mind as Siodmak’s best film.

To be certain, there are obvious similarities between the two films. A cursory examination of the plot would lead one to believe that they are closely related – the nice guy turning to the underworld (who happens to be played by Lancaster in both instances), a doomed romance, a love triangle, double cross after a heist, use of flashbacks. Each of these elements is seen in both movies. Linking the two would be something of a stretch, however, because these elements are present in countless films noir. The fact that such similar stories and themes are played out in a vast number of movies, and yet The Killers and Criss Cross manage to distinguish themselves from any related films, is testament to the brilliant hand of Siodmak.


In Criss Cross, the focus is on Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster), who returns home to Los Angeles after some months away. He had fled the city in the face of a deteriorating marriage to Anne (Yvonne De Carlo). After returning to his working class neighborhood, reuniting with old friends and visiting old haunts, Steve cannot shake memories of his romance with his stunning ex-wife. While hanging around the bar that the couple frequented together, one night Steve spots Anne on the dance floor. There is obviously still chemistry between the two and they begin to move toward getting back together. However, Steve’s best friend Lt. Pete Ramirez feels Anne is a terrible influence on his pal and manages to drive Anne away from him. In an act equal parts spite and defiance, Anne runs off and marries flashy gangster Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea).

Even the marriage cannot keep the two apart. They continue their romance secretively, realizing that if Slim were to catch them there would be hell to pay. Despite their caution, Slim does manage to catch the two of them together in his house. Thinking fast, Steve manages to concoct a reason for his being alone with Anne. He tells Slim that he came to Anne in order for the opportunity to pitch a job to him. Steve says that he has planned a heist of the armored car company that he works for, using himself as the inside man needed to pull off the job. After the job is agreed to, the necessary scheming transpires, with Steve and Anne secretly planning to double-cross Slim and his gang and escape with the loot.


I will stop short of revealing how everything plays out from this point forward, but there are certain sequences that transpire that I can praise without revealing exactly how the film concludes (in case there are those that have not yet seen it). The heist sequence is fabulous, as Siodmak and cinematographer Franz Planer make use of smoke to convey the complete confusion and disorientation of the heist. Amidst this chaos, it is hard for both characters and the audience to make out who is who. Such confusion is how I would imagine such a tense situation to be and that is precisely the feeling that Siodmak and Planer are able to communicate to the viewer. The other obvious aspect of the heist is that it is somewhat brutal for its time, with guards and burglars alike being gunned down in similar brutal fashion.

Lancaster is his usual excellent self as Steve Thompson. I’m not sure whether I prefer his performance here or as the Swede in The Killers, but I do know that as Steve he creates an incredibly friendly character. He is pulled into the criminality because he is trying to save himself and Anne from harm, whereas the Swede willingly turned to the rackets. While I’ll admit to not having seen the bulk of Yvonne De Carlo’s work, this is as good as I have seen her. The Anne character is intriguing because of her ambiguity. Is she good or bad? Honest or conniving? Even among femme fatales that are horribly callous, there is at least a sense of what their true intentions are. Not so with Anne, who kept me guessing as to whether her loyalty was truly with Steve or if she was conniving with Slim.

The Siodmak-Planer duo must be commended for the portrayal of the city of Los Angeles. That opening flyover shot is great, as the camera swoops over and then descends into Los Angeles at night. The depiction of L.A., and specifically the Bunker Hill section of Steve’s home, has a very realistic quality, showing a working class area that is becoming more and more middle-class in the postwar boom. L.A. is a common setting for noir, but Criss Cross has a feel that makes it distinct from others set in the City of Angels. The underbelly of the city obviously exists, as embodied by Slim Dundee, but for whatever reason there is not quite the same darkness permeating every character as is seen in films such as Double Indemnity.

This lack of omnipresent darkness, however, does nothing to dampen the gloomy conclusion. Rather than type out a long interpretation, I’ll finish in the same way that the film does, with the memorable closing shot.



Rating: 10/10

Other Contenders for 1949: I’m betting that my first runner-up is likely to be the most popular choice for this year. While I prefer the previous year’s The Fallen Idol, I recognize that Carol Reed’s The Third Man is an outstanding film. Joseph Cotten is good in whatever role he plays, and considering the great script of The Third Man, he is able to shine. And who can forget the haunting shots of the shadows running through the streets of Vienna?

A film from this year that I don’t see discussed as much as I think it deserves is House of Strangers. Over at the Wonders in the Dark blog, in reviewing 1972’s The Godfather, Allan Fish pointed out the parallels between Puzo’s classic crime story and this Joseph L. Mankiewicz film. He is absolutely right, and this story of a banker’s fall from grace at the hands of his sons is great drama. In my opinion, it definitely deserves to be mentioned among the top films of the year. I’ve already written on my love of Jimmy Cagney and his great performance as Cody Jarrett in White Heat, but I’ll mention it again here as being worthy of consideration.

I also have to bring up the Ealing Studios black comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets, directed by Robert Hamer. This story of murder and revenge is played out so matter-of-factly that it can’t help but make me smirk every time that I watch it.

12 comments:

  1. My #1 Film of 1949:

    Late Spring (Ozu; Japan)

    Runners-Up:

    The Third Man (Reed; UK)
    Kind Hearts and Coronets (Hamer; UK)
    Les Enfants Terribles (Melville; France)
    Orpheus (Cocteau; France)
    Crows and Sparrows (Junli; China)
    Alias, Nick Beal (Farrow)
    The Reckless Moment (Ophuls)
    The Set-Up (Wise)
    White Heat (Walsh)
    The Heiress (Wyler)
    Gun Crazy (Lewis)
    Criss-Cross (Siodmak)
    Whiskey Galore (Mackendrick; UK)

    It's a tough, tough decision here, not to annoint either THE THIRD MAN or KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS, which are probably my two favorite British films ever, and two of my favorites, period. But Ozu's transendent film is one of the most emotional films in the history of the cinema, and it ranks with TOKYO STORY as one of the Japanese directors two mega-masterpieces.

    I like CRISS-CROSS a lot, but for me THE SET-UP is the year's greatest noir. Both Cocteau and Melville created masterpieces this year as I noted on the runners-up list.

    Your great love and understanding of film noir has again resulted in a banner review, which indeed as you say will certainly raise some eyebrows here! LOL!

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  2. Criss-Cross is one of the best noirs and boasts a spectacular robbery sequence as well as a great cast. But I have to go with The Third Man, which should at least be treated as an honorary noir. For me, this is the year when Anthony Mann really begins to make his move, as I would put Border Incident, Side Street and maybe even The Black Book on a best-of-the-year list, along with White Heat, Gun Crazy and Jules Dassin's Thieves' Highway. As for Ozu, I've only seen Tokyo Story and while I recognize his virtues I doubt whether they move me enough to rank him as highly as some do. Still, I ought to try more of his films, and Late Spring might make a good starting point.

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  3. I have had similar reactions to Ozu, Samuel... my limited experience with his films are hard for me to get into it. I just find my mind wandering as I feel unengaged with the story.

    Just a matter of personal taste I suppose, and like you I don't have a lot of Ozu experience. Now, that being said, the experience I have had hasn't exactly made me want to rush out to see more!

    I agree completely with both of your assessments of "The Third Man." It's a truly great film (and as Samuel said, among the best noirs).

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  4. Dave, another enticing review! I, unbelievable, to me at least, have not seen this film though not for the lack of trying. Every time it pops up on TCM, I forgot to record it or screwed up the recording getting the time or day wrong. I am going to have break down and buy the thing on Amazon. Anyway enough about my moaning.

    For Number #1 I have to go with The Third Man, the cinematography, the music, Joseph Cotton, Welles and Alida Valli plus a great story cannot be beat.

    #1 The Third Man

    and the best of the rest

    White Heat
    Adam’s Rib
    On the Town
    All the King’s Men
    Gun Crazy
    She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
    Champion

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  5. John -

    Wow, are you in for a treat! Knowing how much you like noir, and since I know that you liked The Killers, I think that you will really like Criss Cross. As I said, I actually think Criss Cross is Siodmak's best film (personal opinion obviously, but I stand by it).

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  6. I'm about as unfamiliar with Criss Cross as possible - the name is slightly familiar to me from browsing TCM listings and probably a sighting on a blog or two (I think Tony d'ambra reviewed it once). But I knew nothing of the plot and, needless to say, have never seen the film. So thanks for the introduction.

    I would definitely pick The Third Man as #1 though White Heat, on the strength of Cagney's dynamic performance - one of the best in movie history and certainly one of my favorites, maybe my favorite period - and Late Spring, my favorite Ozu, make a strong showing. I also saw two '49 films for the first time recently (not a coincidence, as I'm chronologically watching certain classics I feel I must see before assembling a list of favorite movies).

    Gun Crazy floored me with the electric Peggy Cummins performance and some stunning set pieces, particularly the scene where the rob the bank and the camera stays in the back of the car the whole time. There's an immediacy and a rawness to the work there which I haven't seen in any other 40s film and which seems to belong almost in a 60s work of verite.

    And Kind Hearts and Coronets was shrewd and amusing, even if the pill was fairly bitter at times. Watching Valerie Hobson and Joan Greenwood side by side in the movie, I was reminded of how right Allan Fish was when he suggest Greenwood for Estella in Great Expectations over Hobson. I've always felt she was absolutely wrong for the sly, sultry Estella - and indeed Greenwood would have been a phenomenal choice. Oh well.

    Speaking of Greenwood, Whisky Galore is another (relatively new to me) favorite from '49.

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  7. Criss Cross is definitely an example of a personal favorite that I simply had to choose. I don't know that I've ever seen anyone else ever rate it this high, in terms of the best of an entire year, but I find it to be that good. Then again, I'm a noir junkie... :-)

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  8. While choices like these make the year-by-year more fascinating; now I've got another movie to watch (as if I needed another one, ha ha...)

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  9. Deborah Lazaroff AlpiMarch 17, 2010 at 8:21 PM

    It is that good, and it's probably Siodmak's richest film (I should know, I wrote a book about him.) A very good choice. :-)

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  10. Dave:

    I do not want to go at length here because I am unsure if you read comments to old postings. But I think you are the only person that I have read who rates Criss Cross as high as I do. To me it is number 1. And as I have said in a comment to your Woody Allen posting, I have seen 99 of those noirs that you have listed.

    Gerald of Laszlo's

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  11. Gordon - Glad to hear it! I watched this one yet again while doing the noir countdown and it's still as great. Truly a masterpiece, not just of noir, but of 40s cinema (and all cinema) in general. Siodmak remains sadly underappreciated by the public at large.

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  12. One reason House of Strangers and The Godfather seem to have similarities is that both are essentially a modern retelling of King Lear, set in Little Italy, and with the kingdom to be divided between sons rather than daughters. Ah, those Archetypes will pull you in every time!!

    Harvey Canter, Tarzana, CA

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