Sunday, August 23, 2009


Yvonne De Carlo smolders as a sultry femme fatale who juggles both fall guy Burt Lancaster and bad guy Dan Duryea in “Son of Dracula” director Robert Siodmak’s “Criss Cross,” (*** out of ****) an above-average but predictable exercise in film noir that boasts gloomy atmosphere, a gritty urban environment, and solid performances. Burt Lancaster gives an exceptional performance as the vulnerable protagonist who cannot conceal his sentiments about the De Carlo character from anybody, even the supporting characters. Speaking of supporting characters, “Criss Cross” boasts its share and they take an active part in the proceedings. Percy Helton as a bartender, Alan Napier as a crime planner, Joan Minor as the lush, Griff Barrett as Pop, Isabel Randolph as the hospital nurse and Tom Pedi as Dundee’s accomplice all contribute memorably to the action. Tony Curtis appears briefly without credit as a gigolo dancing with De Carlo and Raymond Burr puts in a similarly momentary appearance as a gangster.

Although the film noir elements aren’t as oppressive as in Siodmak’s earlier and superior collaboration with Lancaster on “The Killers,” “Criss Cross” is unmistakably noir. For example, a larger number of scenes in “Criss Cross” take place during the day rather than at night. Siodmak never wears out his welcome here and the use of an extended flashback 14 minutes into the action that takes us back for important exposition is expertly integrated into the narrative. Siodmak stages the action nimbly without lingering unduly on anybody or anything. A Dresden-born German, Siodmak is a highly underrated helmer who has never received the well-deserved recognition accorded Fritz Lang. Mind you, Siodmak doesn’t have Lang’s cinematic flair with staging scenes, but his films are nevertheless robust.

Scenarist Daniel Fuchs, who later won an Oscar for “Love Me or Leave Me” (1955), based his screenplay on Don Tracy’s crime novel with tough guy dialogue and continuity supplemented by William Bowers that emphasizes the theme of fatalism so essential to film noir. Moreover, Fuchs received an Edgar nomination for his “Criss Cross” script. Everybody in “Criss Cross” is destined to lose in some way or another. Lancaster’s doomed character, however, suffers the greatest anguish by comparison. De Carlo’s siren is second in line. Surprisingly, Fuchs and Siodmak generate more tension among their scheming principals in the first half of the action than they do with the gripping armored truck heist in broad daylight during the second half of the movie. Interestingly, the police don’t figure prominently in “Criss Cross, though they hover on the periphery in the form of Lieutenant Frank Ramirez. The heist is still pretty engrossing material from its carefully planned stages to its skillful execution.

The production values of “Criss Cross” look first-rate. Universal doesn’t appear to have confined either Siodmak or the film--despite its B-movie subject matter—to claustrophobic studio sets. The armored truck set looks terrific, particularly when they load the truck up and leave with a tilting high angle shot that shows them exiting the building. “Champion” cinematographer Frank (later Franz) Planer’s evocative black & white photography is a considerable asset. Planer’s location lensing is top-notch in several scenes, especially the multi-layered Round Up Bar and later at the factory where the heist occurs. Planer does an exceptional job of photographing the Lancaster character after he winds up in the hospital with his arm in traction. An interesting slice-of-life moment occurs early in the movie during a conversation between two employees at the armored truck firm when they discuss about the competitive price of two grocery stores and how one store undercuts the other with their prices o soap and tomato juice that enhances the 1949 setting.

“Criss Cross” starts out suspensefully as we learn that Anna (Yvonne De Carlo of “Brute Force”) and Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster of “Elmer Gantry”) are hiding in the parking lot of the nightclub called The Round Up where they are necking. The story unfolds chronologically to begin with because Anna is married to notorious gangster Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea of “Black Bart”) who is looking for her at that very moment inside the Round Up. Dundee gives Anna the third degree later when she comes back inside about what she was doing. Steve cautions her earlier that they must be discreet or they could blow the entire set-up. Later, Steve enters the Round Up to gate crash on Dundee’s party. You see, Dundee and company plan to relocate to Detroit and he is giving a farewell party. Los Angeles Police Detective Lieutenant Pete Ramirez (Stephen McNally of “Winchester ‘73”) tries to dissuade Steve from butting in where he hasn’t been invited. Steve blows him off and moments later Ramirez gate crashes the party himself after Dundee has pulled a knife on Steve. Ramirez is Steve’s friend, though we never know the basis of their back and forth relationship. Whenever Steve calls Ramirez ‘lieutenant,’ Ramirez has him call him ‘Pete.’ When Ramirez is all business because Steve has crossed the line, he makes Steve call him ‘lieutenant.’

Steve drives an armored truck and Dundee and his henchmen plan to rob the armored track company that employs Steve. Sure, “Criss Cross” has the stock-in-trade message that ‘crime doesn’t pay’ and it is emphasized by everybody but the optimistic Steve. Initially, an armored truck official brags, “Nobody ever got away with the heist on an armored truck in 28-years. Matter of fact, they don’t even try any more.” Later, Finchley (Alan Napier, who played Alfred the Butler on TV’s “Batman”) objects to the robbery because they always end in failure until he listens to Steve’s inside idea. Vincent (Tom Pedi of “The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three”) raves about the interjection from another henchman that everybody on that robbery wound up dead or in the chair. Later, in the hospital, Ramiez reiterates the same message to Steve that you cannot rob an armored car and get away with it.

Initially, the armored truck robbery seems to be a spur-of-the-moment scheme by Steve to prevent Dundee and his henchmen from take reprisals against Anna for sneaking out to see Steve. The subplot about Steve and Anna is very interesting. They were married, but they divorced after two years. Steve leaves Los Angeles to get Anna out of his blood and knocks around the country performing odd jobs as a blue-collar laborer. Nevertheless, Steve is still smitten by Anna and she still has something for him. Eventually, Steve feels himself drawn back to Los Angeles and everybody from Ramirez, the bartender, the lush, Steve’s mom, and Steve’s brother’s girlfriend know that he has feelings for her. They rekindle some of their love but also their drama. As much as they rub each other the wrong way, they also rub each other enough that they get together. As it turns out, Anna has been dating a crime figure and she marries him, probably to keep herself in jewelry. Steve is as hopelessly drawn to Anna as she is to money. Anna mistakenly believes that she can manipulate Slim for his money as she can Steve for his love. Before long Anna realizes that Slim is a force to contend with and worries about Slim learning about how she is two-timing her. These two characters are puppets to their own mistaken notions of love and money. Nothing that they can do will save them from their mutual obsessions. Ironically enough, it isn’t the law that brings Steve and Anna to their demise but the jealous Slim.

Siodmak and Planer do a good job staging the heist. The criminals set off smoke bombs so that everything takes place in a kind of limbo with Steve trying to thwart the robbery after shooting breaks out that he didn’t want. The paranoia in the hospital scenes where Steve feels trapped is gripping as is the ill-fated ending that Anna and Steve meet at Dundee’s hands. Siodmak stages this final scene much the same way that he did the scene at the beginning of “The Killers” when the two hitmen knocked off the Swede. We see Slim enter the house where Steve and Anna are hiding and he fires his gun repeatedly at them off-camera. We don’t see the muzzle of Slim’s revolver belching smoke, we only see the smoke and his irate face as he watches them die in each other’s arms.

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