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.
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.