Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster) returns to his home town ostensibly to reconnect with his family, but it’s really just an excuse to revisit his old haunts in an attempt to reconnect with his ex-wife, Anna (Yvonne De Carlo), and inevitably she appears in one of the old clubs they used to frequent. He finds her dancing a sultry rhumba (with an astonishingly young Tony Curtis, no less) that only confirms her credentials as the target of his desire, and when he then discovers she is dating crime-boss Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea) it’s clear his frustrated desires will only further cloud his reason. Refusing to accept advice when all his friends and family try to warn him away from her, Steve seems to have forgotten why they divorced in the first place. Having failed to start afresh someplace else he has returned unable to accept that she’s all wrong for him. He’s a typical noir ‘hero’, doomed from the start and we’re here just to witness his ruin.
Anna, meanwhile, seems to see in Steve fresh opportunity and when she subsequently marries Slim, it seems clear that she perhaps provoked Slim into proposing once he learned that her ex was back on the scene and interested in her again. Steve of course never knows when he’s beaten, and a crime caper unfolds through which he thinks he can finally win Anna back.
Robert Siodmak’s Criss Cross was a reteaming of the director with actor Burt Lancaster, having both worked together a few years earlier in The Killers (1946), a film widely considered one of the finest film noir ever made, and which I first saw just a few weeks back. That earlier film benefited from a fascinating premise spinning from an Ernest Hemingway short story, a great cast including Lancaster, Ava Gardner and Edmond O’Brien, and was a visual feast of moody expressionistic lighting that would pretty much define film noir. Criss Cross lacks the startling premise of The Killers, and also its cast, and to be honest, is nowhere near as impressive visually- and yet for me it works so well, as a work of cold precision film-making, that it ranks up there with The Killers and in some ways surpasses it.
While Lancaster and Criss Cross co-star/romantic interest Yvonne De Carlo lack the intense chemistry that Lancaster shared with the smouldering Gardner, I actually found that to be one of this films strengths, as its clear throughout that while Lancaster’s character Steve Thompson is smitten by his ex-wife Anna, unable to move on after their divorce, Anna has clearly moved on and is only using Steve for her own gains. The lack of chemistry is part of the plot rather than a misstep of casting: it’s pretty much all one-way. Indeed its archetypical noir, Steve trapped by his doomed romantic yearnings in a web of fate he cannot escape and the ending is one of the bleakest things I have seen: the last shots (sic) as grim as anything I can remember.
In my mind, Anna is working Slim and Steve against one another but some read the film as Anna less the cunning femme fatale and more an unwitting romantic fool like Steve, both of them haunted by the good times of their failed marriage and, stuck in unfulfilled lives, both unable to walk away from each other. I’m not so sure of that; maybe it is just that lack of intense chemistry but Anna always seems a bit more aloof- or maybe I’ve become just too suspicious of women in these noir (the prettier they are, the badder they are). I think I need to watch the film again and perhaps give Anna a little more credit.
Criss Cross doesn’t look as moody and visually striking as The Killers but that just seems to demonstrate the almost relentless efficiency of Criss Cross. Its a more realistic, rather than as hyper-stylized a film than The Killers. Its comparatively routine, linear narrative is also to its benefit, as I found Lancaster’s character here more developed and convincing than the one he played in The Killers. We had to piece together that character from the Citizen Kane-like recollections/flashbacks of others, but here it’s much easier to appreciate that Steve is a fool, and we can understand why- he just can’t get Anna from under his skin, his romantic need (or perhaps nostalgic yearning for something that possibly never really existed other than in his head) blinding him to his gradual doom.
Again, that ending- my goodness, what a brutal, jaw-dropping conclusion, when the stunned realisation of what just happened dawns. They really don’t make films like they used to, but thank goodness they did, because Criss Cross is quite utterly brilliant.