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Criss Cross (1949)

by on 2012/03/06

“A girl puts on a piece of silk, and the next thing that happens, a young fellow like you is sure he knows exactly what he’s doing.”

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A certain young fellow named Burt Lancaster (Field of Dreams) appears in Criss Cross as Steve Thompson. A sometime drifter and occasional armored delivery guard, his story is told through double narratives, one set within the other as a flashback. This approach shows us an end and its beginnings, and we wonder how both extremes will ever be reconciled.

We know he begins in a roundabout search for a now-estranged love, Anna (Yvonne De Carlo). We also know he will later be involved in a scheme with a rival for her affection, an abusive reptilian gangster, Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea). How and why do these competitors come to cooperate, and what causes and effects surround their underworld adventure?

The spark between Lancaster and De Carlo is as threatening as exciting, and justifies multiple meanings as suggested by the word “electric”. Their early reunion is a playful encounter effectively conveying their history. We see a similar arc in the relationship of Thompson and Pete Ramirez (Stephen McNally), an old family friend who has since become a cop.

I want to mention another pair of performances. While Thompson’s mother (Edna Holland) is mostly a background presence, she is prominently featured in a single remarkable scene, both off-putting and insightful. I was struck as well by Alan Napier (Alfred from the Sixties’ Batman) in a minor, but pivotal, role as a strategist forced into crime by his weakness for drinking.

The movie’s not a long commitment, and it doesn’t need to be. Despite flashbacks, two threads, and nonlinear structure, Criss Cross isn’t complicated. It does it all without fat or filler, yet is blessed with substance and grace notes alike . . . unknown motives, paranoia, a twisting narrative, and themes of trust and the price of selfishness. It’s even got a plotted-out heist, appealing to the planner in me.

Everything is shot with the requisite trademarks of the era: reflections, shadows, first person perspectives, unusual overhead angles and, my favourite, a blurred dissolve on a swig of alcohol. Urban Los Angeles, a weary voice-over, jazz and a touch of exotica — in a rhumba rendition of “Jungle Fantasy” — it’s all the usual suspects you’d expect. Black and white, blah blah blah, grainy stock, say no more, chiaroscuro, yadda yadda. You can guess the rest.

As I watched this film I thought a shorthand might help, a way of suggesting a prospect meets the minimums for a solid noir. Criss Cross is exactly such a prospect. Which is not to say it isn’t more; it’s quite exceptional. It just seems a shame to list out its specs when I could as easily say, “Let’s not waste a lot of our time. You should really stop reading and see it.”

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Not Rated

88 minutes

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