Tuesday 10 August 2021

Movie Review: Criss Cross (1949)

A film noir featuring ill-fated lovers, snarling rivals, and a daring theft, Criss Cross is always breathless, often exhilarating, but also flawed.

In a Los Angeles parking lot, lovers Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster) and his ex-wife Anna (Yvonne De Carlo) plot to meet after he participates in a heist the next day. In flashback, Steve recalls his past eight months.

After divorcing Anna he drifted across the country, but returned to Los Angeles purportedly to care for his mother (Edna Holland), but really because he could not stay away from Anna. He reconnects with his friend Detective Pete Ramirez (Stephen McNally), secures a job as an armoured car driver, and reunites with Anna at their favourite hangout, the Round-Up club.

Although they bicker constantly, Steve and Anna start dating again and discuss getting remarried, despite his mother's vehement disapproval. Suddenly, Anna abandons Steve and marries mobster Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea). She soon regrets her impulsiveness and they resume what is now an affair, but Slim starts to get suspicious. Steve conceives of a daring armoured car heist as a distraction.

Criss Cross features several quite brilliantly memorable scenes. In a dream-like state, Steve observes Anna dancing (with an uncredited Tony Curtis) at the Round-Up, as flutist Esy Morales and his band perform Jungle Fantasy. The surprisingly violent heist sequence is a chaotic collision of explosions and improvisation as plans are abandoned and reformulated on the fly in the thick fog of smoke bombs. The bar at the Round-Up is a living room away from home, bartender Frank (Percy Helton) and a perpetual barfly (Joan Miller) providing a comfortably familiar environment for life's turning points.

The good moments continue, as director Robert Siodmak takes a deep breath and slows everything down for a stupendous hospital scene delving into mortal fear triggered by helplessness and guilt. And the ending, once witnessed, is unforgettably bleak.

While the movie frequently sparkles, it is also beset by gaping weaknesses. The Daniel Fuchs screenplay is unevenly paced, with Steve and Anna never provided the opportunity to demonstrate their strengths as a couple before the mean bickering takes over. Criss Cross is fundamentally about Steve risking everything for his love of Anna, but what is on the screen is less love and more infatuation and a need to possess, allowing Anna's character the freedom to wriggle towards an understandable pursuit of independence.

The heist appears wedged into the doomed romance, both the introduction and resolution of the hold-up leaving behind some gaping holes. Steve suggesting the crime on a whim is extraordinary and out of character, and the aftermath is a layer cake of dim decisions and unexplained actions, including how the stolen money ended up where it did after the shooting stopped.

Siodmak fills Criss Cross with all the noir adornments. Crisp nighttime cinematography, stark light sources, smoke, narration, flashbacks, and close-ups surround flawed characters stepping on each other to eke out an advantage, intrinsically aware nothing worthwhile can be gained without an equivalent spectacular loss.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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