Criss Cross (1949)

Hitting the grounds of Bunker Hill running, Criss Cross (1949) opens with great excitement in the midst of several dramas.

There’s a fight at a night club ― or is it a fight? There’s a panicky couple of lovers ― Burt Lancaster and the incredible and much loved Yvonne De Carlo ― and there is a sizeable team of men, who have clearly come together with larceny in mind.

One long flashback and many moments of indecision from Lancaster’s character ‘Steve Thompson’ later, and the movie concludes with its high-octane combination of heist-gone-wrong meets triple-cross.

In Criss Cross, Robert Siodmak made a restless film noir, giving the story an exciting structure that raises the drama higher than it might otherwise be. The art here is in complicating something that might under other circumstances be quite straightforward.

One way this is achieved is through some regular film noir favourite tropes, moves and signals.

The first of these is the idea of returning. This isn’t just a favourite theme in film noir, and it is the start of many a good story. But film noir does use this to a great extent. Thus the flashback commences with Burt Lancaster’s character returning to Bunker Hill ― full of melancholy ― full of wisdom ― full of questions ― replete with memories ― weighed down with experience ― and looking for a lost love.

Back to BUNKER HILL for Burt Lancaster
"The Hill Street Portals"

The next stylistic marker is the voice-over. Whether we know it or not, the morose voice over of the lost male, much favoured by film noir directors, introduces to the audience a psychological attachment. These voice-overs, when they are not police procedural or introducing with authority, the idea of the dangerous and haphazard urban life, are nearly always weary with life, with experience, and usually quite restless in their search.  

Another interesting adaptation which came full on in the 1940s, and probably began the slide of American culture towards true counter culture, is the fact that the film is set almost wholly in criminal circles.

Burt Lancaster’s character is a film noir classic ― a sap ― the hapless fall guy who can’t help himself ― the restless male, unsure at times why he has turned to crime ― irremediably drawn to the one woman who will let him down. He goes to the night club where the rhumba band is thumping, and he gazes longingly at lost love Yvonne De Carlo. Everybody's shaking faster and faster, except poor Burt Lancaster. Doom is in the air, again and again.

Yes, it’s a partial reprisal of The Killers for Burt Lancaster, and never more so when we find him lying still on a bed, smoking and staring at the ceiling.

As for the heist, there is a fair dollop of kooky stuff included in the script at which points various individuals state that it is absolutely impossible to rob armoured cars ― it’s kooky because two guys carrying four sacks of money across an open yard is not much of a take ― even if they have six-shooters in their hands. 

It’s amazing in fact that the six men that overpower the two guards make such a botch of it, and that one unverified phone call is enough to take the third guard off the job for the entire shift. But hey.


The jury is out when it comes to the dialogue in Criss Cross. Snappy, colourful, hard-boiled dialogue isn’t as easy to create as it sometimes sounds, and it all depends on who close you stick to your clichés. Go too far, and you end up with strange speeches such as this:

"A man eats an apple. He gets a piece of the core stuck between his teeth. He tries to work it out with some cellophane from a cigarette pack. What happens? The cellophane gets stuck in there too. Anna? What was the use. I knew that somehow I'd wind up seeing her that night."

Perfect film noir foils - the atmospheric dive bar, the maudlin male returns, the descent into crime, the double cross, the double-double cross - and the fact that in this urban world that has been created around you, you are lost and as good as dead. 

Hero, you may yearn for love, but it's not the answer. It's worse than that, because unless you're going to buy the big lie and settle in to a conformity of living, your alienation is going to lead you further down, further than you thought you could go. 

Male confusion and the film noir norm

An interesting insight into domestic abuse is portrayed in Criss Cross. In fact, it's not even made erotic, which is credit to Robert Siodmak and Burt Lancaster. Instead it's a drive, it's a part of that insane drive to doom, all wrapped up in the smiling face of Dan Duryea.

Evidence of domestic violence in CRISS CROSS (1949)

Ain't no hood like a Dan Duryea hood

I'm sure there are books, websites and festivals dedicated to the connection between film noir and the Bunker Hill area. It was by all accounts not a pleasant area, and had plenty dilapidated rooming houses and hotels which were probably very much 'real life film noir'. There is quite a good Bunker Hill Section on this site: American Film Noir.

Here Yvonne de Carlo captures the mood in a scene in which she watches the big double-double-cross unfold:

The narrow-gauge, funicular railway called Angels Flight was built on  Hill Street in 1901 to ferry the folks up and down the steep incline of Bunker Hill. During the years of this area’s gradual decline — it was mostly demolished by 1966 — the Bunker Hill neighbourhood perfectly stood for the mean streets of film noir  — here seen as the backdrop to a long day of heist planning.

Criss Cross is one is Burt Lancaster’s farewell-to-film noir movies. After Criss Cross, Lancaster entered his swashbuckling phase, and after that would be found for a while almost exclusively in military uniforms and cowboy gear.

The entire Burt Lancaster film noir cycle is pretty short in fact, and effectively runs as follows:


1946: The Killers ― Ole "Swede" Anderson         

1947: Brute Force ― Joe Collins

          Desert Fury ― Tom Hanson        

1948: I Walk Alone ―Frankie Madison  

          All My Sons ― Chris Keller           

          Sorry, Wrong Number ―Henry Stevenson           

          Kiss the Blood Off My Hands ― Bill Saunders      

1949: Criss Cross ― Steve Thompson     

          Rope of Sand ― Mike Davis

But then, the truthfully canonical film noir cycle itself doesn’t extend much further in either direction and is usually said to start around 1940 ― give or take a year ― and complete about 1956 ― within the same dimensions.

Burt Lancaster of course returned in one of his best ever roles as J.J. Hunsecker in 1957’s Sweet Smell of Success, certainly classifiable as film noir. 

And that’s him out, possibly until 1973, in the Dalton Trumbo penned Executive Action, although we’d also like to include 1961’s The Young Savages, directed by John Frankenheimer. It’s not film noir, but it does extend the crime genre to cover issues such as gangs, poverty, ethnic bias, and the incapacity society has to deal with forces far beyond their control, as well as the general politics of the justice and policing system.


So much of the grit and greed and human failure of criminal and romantic life is summed up at the climax of Criss Cross

It's not just that crime, nor love, won't pay, it's more than that. 

Robert Siodmak and team ramp everything up in Criss Cross and figure out the most deadly, dying-in-your-arms and hopeless climax imaginable, here even with the backdrop of the ocean, tying up another film noir fable in a big old beautiful - but dead - bundle of romance and death.


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And one final note: spotters will be pleased to find within Criss Cross, both Alan Napier, who was Alfred on "Batman," and Tony Curtis, in an uncredited role ― dancing with Yvonne De Carlo in the above mentioned doom-laden nightclub scene.


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