The film opens with a magnificent opening aerial shot, the camera roaming over the Los Angeles night soon descending on our two doomed protagonists, Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster) and his former wife, Anna (Yvonne DeCarlo) embracing passionately in a nightclub parking lot. The sultry Anna promising Steve they will be together, the way it was meant to be. The eyebrows of knowing film noir lovers will be raised, because as you know, in this dark world, a woman’s promise of eternal love to a man is a death trap with no way out. Steve is the prototype film noir sap, head over heels stuck on a dame who is no good, pure evil, only he is too blind to see. Blinded by love and sex, he is a pawn in a game he does not even know he is playing, while all the dame sees is dollars signs. Men are only there to be used by this kind of woman. Love? Love is a loser’s game. Her motto, as she tells the dumb sap late in the film, “you have to look out for yourself.”
The story is told in flashback with Steve looking back on the events leading up to the heist now set in motion. He just returned to Los Angeles after a long period away claiming he came back only for his family; his elderly mother, and his kid brother who is getting married, and not for his ex-wife, Anna. He gets his old job back as a security guard for an armored truck company. But fate, bad luck, call it what you will, intercedes and Steve finds himself one evening at his old hang out, a nightclub dive, and there she is dancing on the floor, spinning, twisting to the beat of the hot Latin music of band leader Esy Morales. In a series of close-ups and cross cuts we view Steve standing off to the side watching as Anna, on the dance floor, with her partner a young unknown Anthony “Tony” Curtis, (1) dances wildly to beat of the rhythmic music. We watch Steve slowly being sucked into old desires thought long gone. When the dance is over, their eyes finally connect. They talk, she wants to get back together, Steve plays it tough, he wants nothing to do with her, it’s over… or so he says.
Old feelings die hard and they are soon together again. His mother warns Steve to stay away from her, Steve’s old friend, Inspector Pete Ramirez (Stephen McNally), warns him too, she’s no good, but the warning falls on deaf ears. After a chance meeting at L.A’s Union Station the two lovers are back together. Steve’s friendship with Ramirez falls apart when Steve discovers he told Anna to get out of town. The couple makes plans, then without warning, she takes off, marrying Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea) a small time creepy hood. Still, the two lovers can’t stay away from each other. Anna goes to see Steve at his place; they are caught together by Dundee and his men. To cover up their indiscretion, Steve utters they were discussing a potential robbery scheme of the armored truck where Steve works. They would do the heist together with Steve as the inside man. Dundee buys into the plan and the plan is set into motion. The night before the heist, Steve and Anna firm up their own plans to meet up and run off together after the robbery.
Back in current time the well planned robbery is set in motion only Dundee and his men double cross Steve. They shoot him. Wounded, he retaliates; the robbery is botched with only a portion of the money stolen and Steve ending up a hero with a picture in the newspaper. Hospitalized, Steve is set up and duped by Dundee into leaving the hospital with a guy who works for him. He leads Dundee to the hiding place where Anna is waiting.
Ever the dope, Steve still doesn’t get it. For Anna, it was never about love, it was always about money. While Steve looks on shell shocked, Anna packs her bag planning to get out before Dundee arrives, but she is too late. In walks Slim with a gun in his hand. The dame and the dope have reached the end of the line. So has Dundee as police sirens are heard in the background and we are left with the final image of the doomed lovers on the couch….dead.
Neither Burt Lancaster nor director Robert Siodmak wanted to make this film after the premature death of producer Mark Hellinger who also produced the earlier noir classic, “The Killers,” which both men worked on. Lancaster biographer Kate Buford (2) points out, Lancaster was tired of playing doomed saps (The Killers, Sorry, Wrong Number); he wanted to move on to more heroic types roles like “The Flame and the Arrow,” “Jim Thorpe, All American” and “The Crimson Pirate.” In some ways it was too bad because Lancaster was perfect as a physically, tough, good looking guy who had a vulnerable Achilles heel …in this case, a double crossing woman named Anna. For the director, with Hellinger out of the picture, Siodmak gained more freedom and changed the storyline, based on a novel by Don Tracy, changing L.A. locations to the more blue collar working class area known as Bunker Hill, adding touches here and there and in the process creating a classic.
Yvonne DeCarlo, who previously co-starred with Lancaster in Jules Dassin’s “Brute Force,” is probably best remembered today as Lily Munster from the 1960’s TV show, “The Munsters.” DeCarlo was an exotic beauty, though the Latin sounding name is pure fiction, with almond shape eyes and full lips. While her career was long, her list of memorable films is short. Dan Duryea repeats the kind of role he perfected in so many films (Scarlet Street, The Woman in the Window, Too Late For Tears), that of the sleazy, slime filled low-life. Though we have seen it so many times before, he is always fascinating to watch. A very young Richard Long plays Lancaster’s kid brother.
Upon its release, film critics were not kind. The New York Herald-Tribune said, “Lancaster is almost forced into a near parody of his previous dumb brute portrayals. He is given the thankless job of holding down a responsible job at as an armored car policeman and at the same time appearing stupid enough to be led by the nose by a floozy to an improbable group of criminals and his death.” Critic Thomas M. Pryor at the New York Times called the film, “tedious and plodding at times, due partly to Mr. Siodmak’s indulgence of a script that is verbose, redundant and imitative.”
However, over the years, “Criss Cross,” has gained a reputation as a film with a hard bitten cynical outlook and fatal ending. The film contains a leading man who is the classic sap, one of the most treacherous of femme fatales, a woman to die for, and a creepy underworld scumbag hoodlum, appropriately portrayed by Dan Duryea. Mix in the voice over by Lancaster, the dark low key lighting, brilliant composition and you have the perfect mix for a classic film noir.
In 1995, Steven Soderbergh directed, “The Underneath,” a loose remake, with Peter Gallagher and Alison Elliott in the lead roles.
(1) A few years’ later Lancaster and Tony Curtis would co-star in the brilliant “Sweet Smell of Success” directed by Alexander MacKendrick.
(2) Burt Lancaster: An American Life – Author Kate Burton.