The best thing about Eureka’s Masters Of Cinema series is getting the opportunity to discover classic older films that have been nigh on impossible to see up until now. Latest in the series is Robert Siodmak‘s film noir masterpiece, Criss Cross – a film I’ve wanted to see for years.
Siodmak made some of the best film noirs – Cry Of The City, The Spiral Staircase and The Killers to name a few – but Criss Cross stands out as his quintessential work in the genre. An iconic film with three commanding central performances and a compelling story that draws you in and doesn’t let go until the final coda.
The plot itself isn’t particularly original, but the beauty is in the execution. Burt Lancaster is an armoured car driver who is unable to get over his sultry ex-wife Anna (Yvonne DeCarlo) and gets unwillingly drawn into planning a heist for her husband, Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea) but double cross after double cross ensures that nothing goes according to plan.
Burt Lancaster is great as the downtrodden hero – his face is the perfect fit for noir, and it has to be said he had a knack for playing perpetually doomed anti-heroes. He makes the switch from alpha male confidence to haunted resignation so easily, both here and in The Killers and Brute Force. Elsewhere Yvonne DeCarlo makes for an unusually sympathetic femme fatale. Yes, at the end of the day her duplicity shows through as you would expect, but there is an undeniable logic to her decisions that makes it difficult to condemn her too much, at least when compared to the likes of Barbara Stanwyck and Ava Gardner.
The standout performance though is Dan Duryea as the ostensible villain, Slim Dundee. Having made his name playing sleazy heavies in The Woman In The Window and Scarlet Street, this might be his best role. His slow, dry delivery and silky voice make him a genuinely menacing baddie, but he is also all too human. He’s horrible for sure, but his love for his wife is genuine, if obsessive, and his facial expression in the final scene is both chilling and utterly devastating.
The supporting cast is also brilliant, with Siodmak getting memorable cameos from Stephen McNally as a sympathetic detective, Alan Napier as a professional heist planner, and Percy Hilton and Joan Miller as regulars at the bar. More than most noirs, this film has a real lived in quality to it, helped immeasurably by the quality of all the supporting players.
The entire film is infused with an almost oppressive fatalism, combined with a structure that’s almost poetic – beginning and ending with similarly framed shots of the ill-fated couple, with matching dialogue. There are several standout scenes, including the thrilling heist sequence, complete with gas masks and smoke bombs, and a brilliant, incredibly tense scene with Lancaster in hospital. Bed bound, he strikes up a mundane conversation with an ordinary looking visitor, while trying to gauge whether or not the man has been sent to kill him. The fourth wall breaking moment where DeCarlo gazes pleadingly into the camera has been described by film noir expert Eddie Muller as “The defining moment” of the genre, and it’s hard to disagree.
The Killers is probably Siodmak’s most well-known film, and maybe more original in its plotting, but Criss Cross is a tight, economically told thriller that still packs a punch. It might lack some of the more satisfying plot machinations, but the atmosphere, hard boiled dialogue and career defining performances from the three leads make this one of my new favourite film noirs.
A commentary from film author Lee Gambin, and actress Rutanya Alda, an analysis of the film from film scholar Adrian Martin, Theatrical trailer and a collector’s booklet featuring new writing by film historian Kat Ellinger, an essay by Adam Batty, archival writing and imagery.