Sunday, July 28, 2019


Universal Pictures, 87m 43s

Why are some people compelled to do the wrong thing when they know they are doing the wrong thing? The driving force behind director Robert Siodmak's uncompromisingly downbeat film noir CRISS CROSS is life's painful predictability in the face of supposedly random events. Good or bad, randomness gives shape to our lives, both in terms of insignificant things as well as how our days might come to an end. The way human lives interlock may be based largely on chance, but the resulting decisions people make probably are not. A pure distillation of the noir form, CRISS CROSS explores how fate might dovetail with genetic destiny.

In the film's opening segment, Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster) and Anna Dundee (Yvonne De Carlo) meet clandestinely in the parking lot of the Round Up Café owned by her husband Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea). Later inside the club, an argument between Steve and Slim almost turns violent, but when policeman Pete Ramirez (Stephen McNally) arrives on the scene, all witnesses go silent. Steve and Slim have an armored car robbery in the works, and do not want personal differences to spoil the potentially massive take.

Successfully pulling off this type of heist is thought to be an impossibility by the film's characters that are schooled in such matters. It is said an armored car holdup has not been attempted in 28 years, and those involved all got the chair for their efforts. What makes this battle plan different is the band of criminals is led by Steve, who recently has returned to his old job as a driver for Horten's Armored Car Service. Once the caper is in motion, the inside man Steve reflects upon the curious past events that led to his involvement with known criminals he dislikes. While he is driving the vehicle scheduled for robbery, the film dissolves into flashback form. "It was only eight months ago that I came back," he recalls.

Two faces of Anna

Steve drifted around the country before his instinctive return home, where he knew he would find his ex-wife Anna. After a sustained attempt to forget her, he succumbs to his hardwired attachment to her. Clearly in a state of denial, he tries to convince himself and others he has come home to assume a head-of-household role in the family home. It's a lie. Like a soldier coming home from war in a foreign land, he has returned to reclaim the woman he lost, even though on some level he understands they are not meant for each other (both recall constant bickering). But in respect to film noir's most dominant axiom, the power of fate cannot be bargained with, and Steve is aware of that, too. "It was in the cards, or it was fate, or a jinx, or whatever you want to call it—but right from the start." Soon after his return to LA, Steve surveys the rumba club for his former wife, with whom his obsession persists. He finds her. They start dating again, but before long she turns her back on him in what looks to be a permanent move. Anna's self-serving ways frustrate Steve, but his emotional investment in her never fades for long. He seems all too eager to serve as a scratching post for Anna. Via narration, he reveals awareness for his hopeless addiction, and even pleads for the viewer's empathy:  "Every place you go, you see her face. Half the girls you pass are her. Did it ever happen to you?"

Anna is introduced as an unfaithful wife, and her character does not improve much as the story unspools. Steve's marriage to her yielded seven months of wreckage. His mother openly dislikes Anna, as does his old friend Pete. When she displays evidence of being physically abused, whether one should take her side or not seems open to debate. She is concerned only with taking care of herself. What's good about her? Well, as portrayed by Yvonne De Carlo (yes, Lily Munster), Anna is one of the most luscious-looking film noir femme fatales, especially on the packed dance floor at the rumba club, where her irresistible combination of awkwardness and sex appeal is apparent (notice an uncredited Tony Curtis as her dancing partner in this sequence). The bond between her and Steve is sex, nothing beyond that. Despite all their squabbles, they both enjoyed "the making-up part" as Anna describes it. But in the end, "You always have to do what's best for yourself," she summarizes.

CRISS CROSS opens with Anna's vision of a bright future for her and Steve. Because this is film noir, even the first-time viewer is sure to be suspicious of that prediction. Steve believes her, and thinks he knows Anna better than his family and friends do. Of course he will be dead wrong. Throughout the film, characters read other people with confidence, only to be proven wrong more than right. Steve mistakenly assumes the robbery take will win him Anna for good. A front-page newspaper story christens Steve a hero, which he most certainly is not. Steve thinks Mr. Nelson (Robert Osterloh) has a concealed weapon under his jacket, which he doesn't. That discovery prompts Steve to believe Nelson is on the level, though he isn't. Pete is correct when he assumes Steve has returned home looking for Anna, but later badly misunderstands Steve's level of involvement in the heist attempt. Pete errs again when he envisions Anna and Slim united after the heist. Pop (Griff Barnett) suppresses his better instincts and tragically follows Steve, who leads them into a doomed operation. Steve feels he has assurance Pop will not be hurt, another error in judgment. Bartender Frank (Percy Helton) figures Steve for a "checker" (an investigator for the state liquor board). Barstool babe (Joan Miller, credited as "The Lush") makes the same flawed deduction, and later mistakes Steve for a racetrack loser; she claims she can size up anyone. Like most people in the film, her perceptions prove either misleading or completely inaccurate in an upside-down post-WWII society.

The photoplay is rich with exterior footage around Los Angeles, including Angels Flight Railway, Bunker Hill, Commodore Schuyler F. Heim Bridge and Union Station. Director of photography Franz Planer (credited here as Frank Planer) makes the most of set designs as well, with the scenes at the club among the most atmospheric. I particularly like the use of low camera angles in the club's entrance area, which work well to emphasize a sense of entrapment when Steve returns to his old stomping grounds. Some of the other noir motifs are more subtle. For example, there are multiple instances of men walking with canes, an important component of film noir grammar (compromised masculinity). In terms of dialog, good lines aplenty were baked into the screenplay by Daniel Fuchs, who adapted the 1934 novel of the same title written by Don Tracy. Casting is superb from top to bottom, with Burt Lancaster locked in as Steve, another of his great film noir protagonists along with the characters he portrayed in THE KILLERS (1946), BRUTE FORCE (1947), I WALK ALONE (1947) and the fascinating SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957), in which he portrayed one of the genre's great villains. The always reliable noir icon Dan Duryea (THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW [1944], SCARLET STREET [1945], TOO LATE FOR TEARS [1949]) offers one of his most controlled performances as the story's least admirable male character.

Newly released on dual-layered Blu-ray from Shout! Factory as part of their Shout Select product line, CRISS CROSS is reissued by way of a new 4K scan of the original nitrate negative, framed at 1.35:1 (though the packaging states 1.37:1). The transfer is acceptable, but falls a little short compared to alternate Blu-ray releases of this title, as documented by physical media analyst Gary Tooze [Criss Cross (1949)]. The Shout! Factory incarnation reveals its limitations most obviously during the heist sequence, when protracted instances of tiling and ghosting noticeably corrupt the presentation. The screen captures below compare the surprisingly soft look of this new Blu-ray edition to the Universal Pictures Home Entertainment DVD released in 2004. This Blu-ray disc hardly offers a quantum visual leap. I actually prefer the more textured look of the DVD presentation.

Shout! Factory Blu-ray

Universal DVD

A worthwhile supplement from Shout! Factory is the commentary track by film historian Jim Hemphill, though it too has technical problems. On three separate occasions, Hemphill calls for cuts that for whatever reason did not take place. Those imperfections aside, Hemphill shows a lot of passion for a film noir title he rightly ranks highly. He sees the character Steve as more of a self-destructive personality than a victim of fate; perhaps all of Steve's fatalistic notions are nothing more than convenient excuses. That is a fair reading, though I see Steve's behavior as more of a genetic issue; he is predisposed to follow Anna and there is nothing he can do about it. Another good line of analysis from Hemphill is that Anna does not always look the glamorous noir vixen. When she wears slacks, the wardrobe transition adds a dose of realism to the story. A student of the Robert Siodmak oeuvre, Hemphill correctly notes the filmmaker's work often featured strong women and weak men, i.e. PHANTOM LADY (1944), THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF UNCLE HARRY (1945) and THE KILLERS (1946, Lancaster's debut). Other bonus material includes a theatrical re-release trailer (2m 19s), an immense collection of production stills (14m 8s) and a poster & lobby card still gallery (6m 9s).

The same source novel by Don Tracy was called upon for THE UNDERNEATH (1995), directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring Peter Gallagher, Alison Elliott and William Fichtner. As Hemphill mentions, a different director adds new dimensions to the same basic story material, while many similarities to CRISS CROSS remain. I encourage fans of the film noir classic to seek out the Soderbergh interpretation, another classic in its own right.