Talk about a blueprint for film noir, Robert Siodmak’s Criss Cross lays down an impenetrably stark view of the Los Angeles underworld and one poor sucker who gets trapped in its web. What lured him there? A woman, duh. The title refers to the barrel of bluffs characters dip their heads into – bobbing for salvation. While film noir is known for its doomed heroes and hopelessness, Criss Cross transcends these motifs and reaches this surreal nightmare of despair, obsession, and betrayal unmatched in the golden era.
Burt Lancaster reunites with Siodmak in the role of Steve Thompson. About a year ago he divorced his wife Anna (Yvonne De Carlo) and since then he’s been drifting around in that drunken haze of odd-jobs 20-somethings fantasize about to this day. Now he’s back in LA, shacking up in his mother’s house on Bunker Hill. Before he settles in he heads straight for the bar he and Anna used to frequent. Not to look for Anna, he kids himself, just to, y’know, soak in their old hangout. He gets a handful of nickels from the bartender not to call Anna, whoa no why would he want to do that, just to have some nickels.
Steve is obviously in a state of denial about his longing to see Anna. He spends most of the film saying one thing and doing the other, a habit that turns out to be gradually more self-destructive as the film barrels along.
That night Steve returns to the bar, which is in full electric swing – contrasting how gloomy it looked when Steve was there earlier. There’s a great synch here of dramatic imagery and music as Steve spots Anna and watches her tear up the dance floor. The kick ass rumba music is performed by Esy Morales and His Rumba Band (the song “Jungle Fantasy”). This dance scene is also the screen debut of Tony Curtis, who dances with Anna then bounces. Hi, Tony!
Steve and Anna rekindle their romance – and the arguments that go along with it. Right away they’re bitching back and forth like a married couple again. Anna insists that she wants to get back together with him – to let bygones be bygones and remarry. Then, out of the blue, she marries local gangster Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea), a suave pimp-like character who carries a blade and has a gang of rotund hoodlums in his pocket. Steve is heartbroken and ruined, but Anna insists she didn’t marry out of love, but that she was bullied into it. When Slim catches the two together, Steve lies, explaining he came to Anna with a business proposal. A job. An armored car heist. And he needs Slim’s help.
Steve has just dug his own grave.
The film opens with the lead up to the climactic heist, then flash backs to how the couple got back together. In the opening, Anna and Steve are talking about their upcoming double-cross in a darkened parking lot. Anna pleads her case as she looks right into the camera. It’s a jarring moment – one that lets us see through Steve’s POV. We want to believe everything that’s coming out of this beautiful woman’s lips, just like Steve does. It’s easy to see how he could be played for the sap looking into those eyes. Have mercy.
Then the film flashes back to the present, at the heist’s jump off. The armored car heist is a jaw-dropping scene of bravura filmmaking. It honestly looks like a war veteran’s nightmare – someone who experienced the horrors of chemical warfare. Again this harkens back to the immediate post-war disillusionment and anxiety noir captures so well. Shit turns sour during the heist fast. Steve’s double cross becomes Slim’s triple cross, which leads to a volley of betrayals during the film’s final 15 minutes.
Then there’s the film’s ending. Mother of god, is there a more cynical ending in noir? In film history even?! I always thought the ending of Night and the City was as noir as it gets, but holy shit…Criss Cross‘ closing minute is devoid of all hope for every character. Parents should show their kids this film instead of Disney crap, let em know how the world really is. It’s a literal jaw-dropper of an ending that honestly left me kinda paralyzed with despair. Just…wow. But like all great noirs, the cold hand of doom was inescapable.
Lancaster is phenomenal here, like always. He gets to go to darker places in Criss Cross than he did in Siodmak’s The Killers and even Dassin’s Brute Force. Over the course of 90 minutes he becomes completely unraveled until he’s nothing but a hunk of meat in a cheap suit. The movie is told through his perspective, so we only see Anna as he does – meaning the audience is blind to her treachery until it catches up with Steve.
Criss Cross is as thematically bleak and visually dark as film gets. I highly recommend it to genre fans, but it’s not the best for a lazy Sunday afternoon watch or whatever. Make sure you’re prepared for a severe gut punch.
Robert Siodmak Power Rankings:
1. The Killers
2. Criss Cross
3. The Spiral Staircase
4. Phantom Lady
5. Cry of the City
6. The Dark Mirror
7. The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry
8. The File on Thelma Jordon
9. The Suspect
10. Christmas Holiday