Director: Robert Siodmak
Screenplay: Daniel Fuchs
Based on a Novel by: Don Tracy
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Yvonne De Carlo, Dan Duryea, Stephen McNally, Alan Napier, Percy Helton, Tom Pedi
Running Time: 87 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
Robert Siodmak was among the illustrious group of European émigré filmmakers who left their home country for Hollywood during the rise of Nazism in Germany. Like many of his peers, his first work in the US was on B-pictures. Some quickly moved on to bigger and brighter things after making their breaks, but Siodmak stuck with genre pictures for a while, particularly the dark crime thrillers that would later be classed as film noir. The Killers (1946) is his most famous work, but he made a number of great examples of the genre. I, for one, have enjoyed all of his films I’ve watched (and often reviewed).
Another well-loved title of his is Criss Cross, which came at the tail-end of a run of film noirs he made during the mid-to-late 40s. Eureka have taken it upon themselves to release Criss Cross on Blu-ray in the UK as part of their Masters of Cinema series, and, being a fan of the genre and director, I was quick to snap up a screener to review it.
The film opens in the middle of the story, but to describe it chronologically, it concerns Steve’s (Burt Lancaster) complex relationship with his ex-wife Anna (Yvonne De Carlo). He left town for a couple of years after their break-up but returns home due to a desire to see Anna again, though he refuses to admit this. When he does bump into her ‘accidentally’, he finds her happy to see him but currently dating a notorious gangster Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea). Anna claims it’s nothing serious and she and Steve rekindle their relationship. However, after the pair clash, Anna ends up marrying Slim. This infuriates Steve, who tries to win Anna back. He succeeds, but Slim catches them together.
The only excuse Steve can think of on the spot as to why he was meeting Anna is that he had an idea for a major heist and wanted to run it past Slim. The gangster doesn’t buy this initially, until Steve explains that he works as a driver for an armoured car service and he has an idea for an inside job that could get them a huge sum of money. Slim becomes interested after hearing this and Steve helps his gang pull off the heist. What could go wrong?
On the surface, this has all the ingredients of textbook noir; dark, psychologically complex subject-matter, moody atmosphere, tough-talking, flawed characters and a doomed central romance. However, it does do things a little differently when you dig deeper.
For one, its leading lady isn’t quite a traditional ‘femme fatale’. She leads the hero to his downfall, like many femme fatales, but she doesn’t scheme or manipulate to do so. The problems largely come from Steve’s compulsions towards her and she is as much a victim as he is by the end.
Its position as a ‘fatalist’ noir, which many have claimed this to be, along with a number of other noirs, is also questionable. The bleak, inevitable path to destruction is there (which is perhaps more in line with nihilism), but in terms of ‘fate’ leading characters to their downfalls, the film is trickier than it seems. Lancaster’s character talks much about fate leading him on in his occasional voiceover narration, but really he’s always looking for Anna or for trouble, not stumbling into it. He’s deluded and actually causing his own downfall due to his obsession. His wholesome family and moralistic police officer friend Pete Ramirez (Stephen McNally) even try to warn him and lead him down the ‘right’ path, but he shuns them. A twist, later on, reveals their meddling did help push Anna towards Slim though.
Also helping Criss Cross stand apart from the crowd is its structure. It begins somewhere in the middle of the story, then jumps back to fill us in on the back story, before catching up to the present again to finish things off. This isn’t a new technique of course, but the flashback is of considerable length, with its own twists and turns rather than just a quick 10-minute tangent to fill us in on a vital aspect of the main story.
As is to be expected from Siodmak, the film is stylishly executed too. Alongside cinematographer Franz Planer, he crafts some beautiful, often quite expressionistic imagery. Great use is made of light and shadow in high-contrast night scenes, but the film also makes good use of daylight. The film’s pivotal daytime heist scene, which is thrillingly executed, culminates in a stunning smoke-filled violent showdown, which lies somewhere between the light and dark.
The cast is also excellent. Lancaster is tough and hard-talking on the surface but also expresses a great vulnerability. De Carlo backs this up with an equally fascinating character. Duryea is more one-dimensional, but that’s largely what is called for in the role and if you want a nasty, unlikeable villain in a film noir, it’s hard to beat Dan Duryea.
What I enjoyed most about the cast though were the minor players that populated the film. Largely played by Hollywood’s go-to character actors, there are numerous memorable turns, such as the honest but timid bartender Frank (Percy Helton), the clueless but opinionated barfly ‘The Lush’ (Joan Miller) and the alcoholic criminal mastermind Finchley (Alan Napier).
Overall then, it’s a tough and gripping noir in the classic mould, with enough extra touches to set it apart from the pack. With a great cast, atmospheric cinematography and complex chemistry between the leads, it’s a fine example of the genre and further evidence of Robert Siodmak’s mastery of it.
Criss Cross is out on 22nd June on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. The picture quality is great, with an image that’s nicely cleaned up with rich details. Audio is decent too.
There are a handful of special features included in the package:
– New 4K digital restoration from the original camera negative
– Uncompressed LPCM monaural audio
– Optional English SDH subtitles for the main feature
– New audio commentary by film author Lee Gambin and actress Rutanya Alda
– New audio commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin
– Screen Director’s Playhouse radio adaptation from 1949, featuring Burt Lancaster
– Isolated music & effects track
– Theatrical trailer
– A collector’s booklet featuring new writing by film historian Kat Ellinger; an essay by Adam Batty; archival writing and imagery
The dual contributor commentary is a mixed bag. Lee Gambin is a pleasure to listen to, with an initially analytical track leading to some production and cast and crew details later on. However, we suddenly shift to Rutanya Alda after about half an hour. She largely just praises and fawns over the cast, which I found less interesting to listen to. We jump between them a couple of times as the track goes on, which is a shame as I’d have preferred a full commentary from Gambin and possibly a separate 15-minute interview with Alda, whose contribution felt less vital. Still, the track is very good overall.
Adrian Martin’s commentary is excellent all around though. He provides rich analysis and illuminating background information. He makes a few mentions of Stephen Soderbergh’s little-known remake of Criss Cross, named The Underneath (1995), as well as discussing the many changes made in adapting Don Tracy’s original novel for the screen.
The isolated music and effects track and radio adaptation aren’t the type of features I rush to listen to, to be honest, but others might beg to differ. The radio plays can be quite interesting to hear a different cast tackle the material, I suppose.
The booklet makes for a good read, as usual, being packed with essays on the film and its makers. So, a fine package all around.