Saturday, November 5, 2016

Stubs - Criss Cross (1949)

Criss Cross (1949) Starring: Burt Lancaster, Yvonne De Carlo, Dan Duryea. Directed by Robert Siodmak. Screenplay by Daniel Fuchs. Based on the novel "Criss Cross" by Don Tracy. Produced by Michael Kraike. Run Time: 87 minutes. U.S. Black and White Film Noir, Drama, Crime

While RKO and Warner Bros. may be closely associated with the film noir genre, they were far from being the only studios making such movies. All of the majors, including independents, were in the film noir business. One of those newly minted independents was Valley Studio, being formed by producer Mark Hellinger and his close friend, Humphrey Bogart. Hellinger was a former New York journalist turned film producer. He had come to Hollywood as an associate producer after the success of a film based on one of his own stories, The Roaring Twenties (1939).

At Warner Bros., Hellinger worked on such films as It All Came True (1940), Torrid Zone (1940), Brother Orchid (1940), They Drive by Night (1940) and High Sierra (1941), several of which starred Bogart. But Hellinger was unhappy at the studio, having personal and professional conflicts with its head, Jack L. Warner. Hired away by Darryl F. Zanuck, Hellinger went to work at 20th Century Fox in 1941. While Hellinger would return briefly to Warner Bros., he would end up at Universal, where he would produce The Killers (1946), Brute Force (1947) and The Naked City (1948), which would be released after his death.

But Hellinger was already planning his next move. He had purchased Don Tracy’s novel, Criss Cross, for his new production company with Bogart. Hellinger had already borrowed Burt Lancaster from Universal, whom he’d worked with on The Killers and Brute Force, and wanted for the lead. He also had signed director Robert Siodmak for the project, whom he had also worked with on The Killers. He even had his own story ideas for the film, having chosen a racetrack setting. But that was probably as far as he got. Even though he was only 44, Hellinger was in ill health, no doubt a result of his work hard party hard lifestyle.

On December 21, 1947, Hellinger died from a coronary thrombosis. While that spelled the end of Valley Studio, it didn’t mean the end of the adaptation of Criss Cross. Universal purchased the rights to the book from Hellinger’s estate and Lancaster and Siodmak were already committed to the project. Anthony Veiller was announced as the screenwriter, but he would be replaced by Daniel Fuchs. Likewise, the original producer, Jules Schermer, was replaced by Michael Kraike, just before the film went into production in mid-June 1948.

Shooting would take place on locations around Los Angeles, including Union Station, Angel's Flight, Bunker Hill, Terminal Island and a Spring Street hotel. By the end of July, filming would be finished. The finished film would be released to the public on January 19, 1949, a little over two years after Hellinger’s death.

The film opens with a clandestine meeting between
lovers, Steve (Burt Lancaster) and Anna (Yvonne De Carlo).

The film opens in the parking lot of a bar called the Round-Up. Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster) is meeting with his married lover, Anna Dundee (Yvonne De Carlo), reassuring her that they will be together. When Anna goes inside, her husband, Slim (Dan Duryea), is waiting for her. When Steve enters, he’s stopped by his friend, police lieutenant Pete Ramirez (Stephen McNally), who is seated at the bar. Pete tries to stop Steve from going further into the restaurant, but Steve can’t be persuaded. He goes into a backroom, where Slim is hosting a private party to celebrate his move, with Anna, to Detroit the next day.

Anna's husband, Slim (Dan Duryea), is throwing a farewell party before moving to Detroit the next day.

Pete is approached by patrons who want him to break up the ensuing fight, but by the time he bursts into the room, there is a knife on the floor and Steve is standing over Slim, who is supine on the floor. But neither wants to press charges and there is little that Pete can do.

What Pete doesn’t know, is that while Steve and Slim don’t like each other, the altercation was as much staged, as it was real, to fool him. The two are actually planning an armored car robbery, which is set to happen the next morning.

While there is usually a crew of three, one of the guards gets a call at the last minute that his wife is ill. Even though it is against regulations, Steve and Pop (Griff Barnett) leave to do the run a man short, which is part of Steve’s plans. It is obvious that Pop and Steve are more than just co-workers, that they’ve been friends for a long time.

The man in the back is supposed to be the third guard on the run but gets a call about his wife and leaves.

The movie then flashes back eight months, through Steve’s thoughts, to set up what has led Steve to the robbery. It begins with his return to Los Angeles after drifting around the country for two years, trying to forget Anna. He tells everyone that he’s come back home to take care of mother (Edna M. Holland) so that his younger brother can get married, but he knows it’s because he can’t get Anna out of his head.

He goes down to the Round-Up, their old haunt, and sees her dancing on the floor with another man (Tony Curtis, in his film debut). Steve watches from across the crowded room and is about to leave when Anna recognizes him. She calls him over and the two talk. You can sense the love the two still have for each other, but their tender moment is disrupted when Slim shows up.

Tony Curtis makes his film debut in Criss Cross, dancing with Anna at the Round-Up.

But the passion between Steve and Anna won’t go away and the two begin to see each other, even though she is still with Slim. This distresses both his mother and his lifelong friend Pete, since they both know how manipulative she can be. Then one night, Steve learns that Anna has married Slim in Yuma. Mad, but Steve still can’t stay away.

When he runs into her at Union Station, after Slim has taken the train to Las Vegas without her, the two meet again in secret. She tells Steve about how miserable she is with Slim, who had been pursuing her ever since her divorce from Steve. Slim hits her and she shows Steve the marks on her back as proof. She tells Steve that she only married Slim because Pete had threatened to arrest her and send her to prison if she continued to see Steve.

Anna shows Steve the marks on her back from her husband's abuse.

Later, at the Round-Up, a drunken Steve takes a swing at Pete for what he did to Anna. Pete admits to what he did and warns his friend not to cross Slim. But Steve doesn’t take the warning and continues to see Anna. One day, she comes to Steve’s house when he’s alone and tells him that Slim has found out about their affair and is returning from Vegas. She’s a little late with the warning, because, as they discover, Slim and his crew are downstairs in the Thompson’s parlor, making themselves at home.

Thinking fast, Steve tells Slim that he had Anna come to his house so she could help him find Slim to discuss his plans for an armored car robbery. Slim is not interested since no one has been able to rob an armored car for nearly thirty years, but Steve is insistent that it can be done with an inside man. Steve wants half the money and for Anna to deliver it to him. Slim reluctantly agrees to that and the two begin planning the heist.

Steve makes sure Anna is part of the planning of the heist.

While he’s not to be a part of the actual robbery, Slim needs Finchley (Alan Napier) to be involved in the planning. They meet in an apartment house near Angel’s Flight and work out all the details of the crime in an overnight session. Part of the plan is to broadcast Slim’s leaving for Detroit on the same day as the robbery and to even throw a going-away party at the Round-Up the night before. One condition Steve has is that there is to be no shooting. He doesn’t want anything to happen to Pop.

One condition Steve has is that nothing happens to Pop (Griff Barnett).

Back to the present, with Steve driving the armored car and Pop in the back still worried, not only about any cars that might pass but also about regulations. When they get to the company, we can see Slim’s men are all around, some are pretending to be sewer workers on their lunch break, one is driving an ice cream truck that is to be used in the escape, another is driving a tanker truck that will be used to prevent the police from chasing the getaway car, etc. Everything seems to be in place when Steve arrives at the appointed location. There is an explosion and tear gas is released. Slim’s men wear gas masks and things seem to be going according to plan.

In a cloud of tear gas, Slim's men move in.

But Pop, who isn’t in on the plans, begins to shoot at the robbers, who return fire, fatally wounding him. Steve, enraged that Pop has been hurt, returns fire as well. He, too, gets shot and is badly wounded. Slim and his gang make their escape before the police can arrive.

But the heist doesn't go according to plan and Pop and Steve are both wounded.

When Steve comes to, he’s in traction in a hospital bed and is considered to be a hero by everyone but Pete. Being a police detective, Pete has figured out that Steve was somehow involved and warns him that Slim will be after him since Anna has disappeared. Steve knows this also means that she has the money and should be waiting for him in a cottage in Palos Verdes.

Panicked, Steve asks Mr. Nelson (Robert Osterloh), whom he believes is there to visit his sick wife, to watch the door for him during the night. It is not until the next day that Nelson reveals himself to be working for Slim. Cutting Steve out of the traction restraints, Nelson literally drags him, apparently unnoticed, out of the hospital.

On their way to meet with Slim, Steve offers Nelson a bribe to take him instead to Palos Verdes and for $10,000 he does. But Anna is not happy to see Steve and knows Nelson is working for Slim. After she pays him off, she begins to pack. She tells Steve that in his condition, he’s not strong enough to go with her and she’s not tough enough to stand by him.

Slim shows up before the lovers can leave their hideout in Palos Verdes.

But before she can leave, Slim arrives. It is a foregone conclusion that Slim will kill them and he does. But as he leaves, we can hear the police sirens closing in. There is no happy ending with Criss Cross.

There is no happy ending and both Anna and Steve are murdered.

This is one of the better film noirs I’ve seen recently. It starts with its stylistic look and use of different camera angles, such as shooting down from above as the heist sets up or the rearview mirror shot of a car following, but ultimately not threatening the armored car. And there are the shots of Los Angeles that cinematographer Frank Planer captures, such as Angel’s Flight running in the background while the robbers plot their heist in an apartment house. When you see a film like this, you realize when used effectively, Los Angeles provides a great location for many such stories.

One of the shots in the film that set up the tension.

Next, the acting is also top-notch. It is no wonder that Hellinger wanted Burt Lancaster for the role of Steve. Not only is Lancaster athletic and good-looking, but it should not be overlooked that he was really a very good actor. Even up to the very end, you always believe, through Lancaster, that Steve thinks Anna still loves him. He is doing this so he can be with her, but she is not as committed to him as he is to her.

Yvonne De Carlo, who would be better known for her role as Lily Munster on that short-lived TV show, makes more than a respectable show here. She is just beautiful enough to be believable as the love interest to a regular guy like Steve as well as the moll to a low-level gangster like Slim. While it seems that her predicament is more through circumstances than planning on her part, her reaction and her speech when the chips are down is pure femme fatale. She is telling a hapless Steve goodbye while she packs up to leave him to die.

Yvonne De Carlo as Anna in Criss Cross.

Dan Duryea usually seems to play a villain who is more bark than bite, such as Waco Johnny Dean in Winchester ’73 (1950); he’s only tough until a bigger boss shows up. That’s not the case here. Slim is at least the top dog in his inner circle. Duryea always seems to play a schemer and just as in this film, even though he thinks he has all the bases covered, there is still a weak side that he can’t defend. He is really a great character actor who never seems to get his dues, but like in so many of his films, his character is a very important lynchpin around which the movie revolves.

Dan Duryea plays villains very well.

The story itself is compelling. Though we see the men planning the robbery, we don’t actually see much of it due to the use of tear gas. This is a nice plot device to get around the Production Code’s ban on showing how to actually commit a crime. It makes for a memorable heist.

Crime is an essential ingredient for a film noir, whether it is murder or robbery or both. I can’t think of one that isn’t about either the committing of a crime (real or imagined) and/or dealing with the aftermath of a crime (real or imagined). When Steve first mentions the idea of an armored car robbery, it seems to come a little bit out of left field. As first presented, Steve seems to think it up as a quick way of explaining why he’s shirtless and alone with Anna. But Steve is hoping to use the money to get her away from Slim. Again, this is a theme we see repeated in other films, such as Roadblock (1951). As in that film, the “hero” turns villain in order to get the girl he loves away from her bigger villain boyfriend/husband. What helps separate Criss Cross above Roadblock, which is a good film noir in its own right, is that Anna turns out to be as bad as feared and shows her colors as a true femme fatale, while Diane in Roadblock is not presented as such.

I had seen Criss Cross several years ago, perhaps during TCM’s earlier flirtation with a Summer of Darkness and it was as good the second time I saw it. For anyone who likes film noir and/or Burt Lancaster, Criss Cross is one that should not be missed.

Taken from Trophy Unlocked:

Be sure to check out our Film Noir Review Hub for reviews of other films in this genre.

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