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Considered one of the best of the film noirs to come out of Hollywood in the post-war years, Criss Cross (1949) tells the story of an honest armored-car guard whose involvement with his scheming ex-wife, now married to a sleazy gangster, lands him in the middle of a tangled and disastrous robbery. With a twisting narrative full of double crosses and deceitful characters so typical of the genre, the film is also something of a blueprint for the "heist" or "caper" film, a subgenre of the gangster movie that would become so popular with John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956) right up to the present day with Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs (1992) and David Mamet's Heist (2001).
Criss Cross was slated to star up-and-coming actor Burt Lancaster, with a script by Anthony Veiller. It was also to be directed by Robert Siodmak, and produced by Mark Hellinger, reuniting the team responsible for the successful noir thriller The Killers (1946). Before it went into production, however, Hellinger died (in December 1947), and the board of directors of Hellinger's production company voted to sell the property and two other projects to Universal to pay off debts. Siodmak's and Lancaster's contracts came as part of the deal, but Lancaster didn't want to do the film without Hellinger. He was offered several ways out of his potential breach of contract, but none of them panned out. So in June 1948, Lancaster reported to the set, along with co-stars Yvonne De Carlo, Dan Duryea, and Stephen McNally.
Although based on a 1936 novel by Don Tracy, Siodmak and writer Daniel Fuchs reworked the story to include many of the elements of The Killers, an Ernest Hemingway story. Lancaster, not yet identified with the forceful, athletic action roles that would make him a major star in the next few years, once again played the well-meaning but somewhat dim-witted hunk easily duped by his obsession with a beautiful, two-timing woman. De Carlo, getting her first chance to show some real acting ability, took on the femme fatale role similar to the one Ava Gardner played in the earlier picture.
The expatriate Siodmak also borrowed heavily from Sturme der Leidenschaft (1932), a film he made in Germany before the Nazis came to power, forcing him into exile. Fully exploring the themes he dealt with throughout his career - characters driven by personal obsessions and an inexorable sense of fatalism - Siodmak brought a highly stylized German expressionism to bear on the complex narrative and realistic location shooting. Equally important to the film's look and influence is the rich cinematography of Franz Planer (billed as "Frank" in the credits), who had filmed Max Ophuls' Liebelei (1933) and Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948). Planer beautifully captured the texture of such memorable settings as Los Angeles' Union Station in the blazing summer heat; a bar that is crowded and lively by night and dingy and depressing by day; the shabby decay of the city's Victorian Bunker Hill section; and the stark contrast of light and shadow that was a hallmark of the German artists who did so much to shape the look and style of American film noir.
Criss Cross is also justly famous for its opening, which places the audience immediately in the middle of a fierce argument in full swing between Lancaster and De Carlo. Rather than the usual linear method of exposition, the device plops us into the middle of the story, with the background details revealed in flashbacks and the robbery and aftermath rushing headlong toward the tragic conclusion.
Although reluctant to do the picture, Lancaster got on well with Siodmak, who was patient with the often difficult young actor's brooding method. "He's just the same [as he was in The Killers], except a better actor," Siodmak said of Lancaster at the time. "He still fights me when he doesn't want to do a scene as I outline it. But he did that before, too, when he knew nothing about pictures. You have to give him a reason for everything. Once you do, he's easy to direct."
Lancaster also got on well with a young actor making his debut in an uncredited bit as an oily gigolo who dances a frenetic rumba with De Carlo - Tony Curtis. Although the butt of several of Lancaster's crazy practical jokes, Curtis realized the pranks were a sign of acceptance and fondness, and the two became fast friends. They worked together three more times: Trapeze (1956), Sweet Smell of Success (1957), and The List of Adrian Messenger (1963), the first two also produced by Lancaster.
The story was remade by Steven Soderbergh as Underneath (1995). Two other movies were released under the title Criss Cross, in 1992 and 1996, but they aren't related to this film.
Director: Robert Siodmak
Producer: Michael Kraike
Screenplay: Daniel Fuchs, based on the novel by Don Tracy
Cinematography: Franz Planer
Editing: Ted J. Kent
Art Direction: Bernard Herzbrun, Boris Leven
Original Music: Miklos Rozsa
Cast: Burt Lancaster (Steve Thompson), Yvonne De Carlo (Anna Dundee), Dan Duryea (Slim Dundee), Stephen McNally (Det. Ramirez), Esy Morales (Orchestra leader), Percy Helton (Frank), Alan Napier (Finchley).
BW-88m. Closed captioning.
by Rob Nixon