Illicit passion, greed, robbery and murder collide
Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster) is a hardworking armoured car driver with a fatal attraction to his ex-wife Ann (Yvonne DeCarlo), who’s now married to notorious hoodlum Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea). Unable to stay away from her, Steve has a secret tryst with Anna, only to be discovered by Dundee. To cover up their affair, Steve convinced Dundee that he only met Anna to her Dundee’s help in robbing an upcoming payroll shipment he will be driving.
Criss Cross begins with a tremendous uncut tracking shot from the LA skyline, into the city, right down to a parking lot where Burt Lancaster, and his astonishing jacket, is preparing to leave Yvonne DeCarlo’s Anna. She isn’t looking forward to being on her own for a few weeks. I wasn’t expecting this to be a lockdown movie, but I can sympathise.
Outdated jacket fashion aside, that superb opening immediately puts you in mind of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. The similarities could end there, it’s such an audacious shot, but this is a Robert Siodmak film. Consequently, the tight pacing plays on your nerves right up to the suitably grim and punchy conclusion. Steven Soderbergh remade it as The Underneath in 1995, but this original is the far superior version.
Siodmak was a superb director. His reputation seems to slip through the cracks between other Noir directors like Welles or Fritz Lang. But he made The Killers, also with Burt Lancaster, a reference text for the genre. Criss Cross isn’t as ambitious as that film, but shares DNA with it and Double Indemnity; a sophisticated narrative looks back, and in on itself, to create a distinctly melancholy mood. At the centre of that narrative is a doomed heist, a superbly tense action set piece that haunts the film even before it happens. Throughout, Miklos Rozvla’s ominous, occasionally Dracula-esque score perfectly accentuates the atmosphere.
Burt Lancaster is on top form and perfectly cast as the nice guy despite an intimidating bulk that makes the bad guys think twice. I don’t think Lancaster ever gave a bad performance, always wringing potential out of every character. Yvonne DeCarlo is an excellent Femme Fatale. Clearly more unhinged than the ice maiden trope elsewhere in the genre. And Dan Duryea’s slick villain is a curious mix of being a very capable threat, despite also being as befuddled by Anna as Steve is.
Criss Cross is a gem. You’ll likely see how it’s going to play out almost from the first scene, but that’s part of the fun of Noir and this is a very fine example.
The new 4K transfer for the film’s 1080p UK Blu-ray debut is sourced from the original nitrate and is a wonderful success. The image is bright and stable throughout. A healthy contrast makes the most of gloomier scenes.
Commentary with film author Lee Gambin and actress Rutanya Alda. Gambin is rather intense and prone to being dramatic. Alda is less uptight but often wanders off with anecdotes and trivia which are fun, but don’t relate to the film so it’s hard to follow a thread.
Commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin is more balanced, letting the film lead him and its a great listen. He makes a compelling case for this to be Siodmak’s finest film.
Also included is the Radio Play, which so often followed films of the era. It’s a lot of fun as Burt Lancaster reprises his role.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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