Fabulous Films of the 1940s Blogathon: Things I Love About Criss Cross (1949)
Whenever I think of quintessential noirs, those features that offer the purest representations of the era, Criss Cross (1949) is one that comes immediately to mind. It’s got it all – urban setting, flashbacks, voiceover. Ever-present atmosphere of doom. Unforgettably fatal femme, fittingly gullible anti-hero. A titilating opening. And an absolutely perfect end – perhaps my favorite in all of film noir (and that’s saying something!).
Criss Cross tells the story of an armored car truck driver who teams with his ex-wife and her husband, a gambler with underworld connections, to steal his company’s payroll – with disastrous results, as hinted by the film’s apt title. I’m here to tell you, there’s a whole lot to love about this fabulous 1940s film noir feature, from the first-rate cast to the unforgettable dialogue, and so much more! First off, there’s . . .
The opening. The film begins with stolen kisses and furtive whispers in a nightclub parking lot. We quickly learn that the couple behind the kisses – Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster) and Anna Dundee (Yvonne DeCarlo) – are having an affair. We also discern that they share some sort of rocky past, which is made clear by Anna’s earnest declaration: “All those things that happened to us. Everything that went before. We’ll forget it. You’ll see – I’ll make you forget it. After it’s done. After it’s all over and we’re safe, it’ll be just you and me. You and me. The way it should’ve been all along from the start.” We really don’t have a clue about the specifics behind Anna’s cryptic vow, but this opening sure as heck makes us want to find out.
Familiar supporting cast. It’s fun recognizing various supporting cast members – Steve’s kid brother was played by Richard Long, who was later seen in TV’s The Big Valley and Nanny and the Professor. Also in the cast was Alan Napier, famed for his role as Alfred in the Batman series, and a young Tony Curtis can be seen in a walk-on (or a “dance-on,” if you will), cutting a rug with Yvonne DeCarlo in an early scene. They’re all like old friends!
Flashbacks and voiceovers. I admit it – I’ve got a thing for ‘em. And Criss Cross offers us a nice, leisurely peek into the past, during which we learn that Steve and Anna were divorced almost a year earlier, but try as he might, Steve hadn’t succeeded in getting her out of his system. We learn further that, after he returns to town after an extended sojourn, Steve and Anna pick up where they left off – but their reignited romance is interrupted when she abruptly marries gambler Slim Dundee (the always awesome Dan Duryea). The flashback is narrated by Steve, complete with appropriately ominous allusions, as he informs us that “from the start, it all went one way. It was in the cards.” And speaking of “in the cards . . .”
One of the most common characteristics of film noir is an overarching, pervading sense of inescapable destiny, and Criss Cross has it in spades. Anna feels it – she tells Steve in one scene, “I want to cry. I wish we’d never met.” Steve’s best friend, police detective Pete Ramirez (Stephen McNally), feels it; when he talks to Steve in the hospital after the botched armored car heist, he regrets that he didn’t intervene: “I shoulda been a better friend. I shoulda stopped you. I shoulda grabbed you by the neck. I shoulda kicked your teeth in.” Even Steve can feel it. Recalling his first night back in town, he muses: “A man eats an apple, gets a piece of the core stuck between his teeth. He tries to work it out with some cellophane off a cigarette pack – what happens? The cellophane gets stuck in there too. Anna – what was the use? I knew one way or the other, somehow I’d wind up seeing her that night.”
Anna Dundee. Anna is the kind of femme fatale who always keeps us on our toes. We don’t know who she is, really. Is she the anxious, concerned, and devoted lover we meet in the first scene? Or the flirty good-time girl that Steve finds in the nightclub when he returns to town? Is she the bitter woman who matter-of-factly explains to Steve why she married Slim Dundee, or the frightened victim who sobs on Steve’s lap as she reveals her husband’s abuse? The cool liar who barely bats a lash when her husband catches her alone with an undershirt-clad Steve? Or the pragmatic dame who, in the final analysis, shows us – and Steve – that she will always put herself first? Anna is like the surprise in a box of Cracker Jack – you never know what you’re going to get, and it’s not always something that you want.
Percy Helton. Whether the film is of high-quality or bargain basement-budget, any noir goes up a few notches, in my estimation, when Percy Helton is in the cast. In Criss Cross, the pint-sized, oddly voiced character actor portrayed a judicious, compassionate bartender – the kind of guy who knows when your girl is stepping out on you, and offers you a free shot of bourbon before he breaks the news.
Slim Dundee. The coldest cat this side of the North Pole. My favorite scene is when Slim pays a surprise visit to Steve’s house after learning that Anna is there. When Steve walks into his living room, Slim and two of his henchmen are seated there, calmly enjoying a few beers from Steve’s icebox. Slim doesn’t shout or get physical – in fact, he doesn’t even look particularly angry. And when Anna joins the group, Slim speaks to her in an almost convivial, conversational tone: “Hello, baby. You know – it don’t look right. You can’t exactly say it looks right, now, can you?” At one point, he even smiles. He’s a whole lot scarier this way.
Steve Thompson. Steve is one of the most naïve guys I’ve yet to encounter in film noir – you can’t help but want to give him a big hug and then bop him upside the head for being so stupid. But I doubt that a knock on the noggin would have made a bit of difference – that’s how dense Steve was where Anna was concerned. I mean, it’s not like he’d just met Anna – he was MARRIED to her, for cryin’ out loud. And he DIVORCED her! And when he returned to town, he was warned against getting involved with her again, not just by his best friend, but by his own mother. (“You know, Steve, you’re a very nice looking boy. Out of all the girls in Los Angeles, why’d you have to pick on her?”) Even Anna says to him, “I wish you’d never seen me.” To that, Steve should’ve replied, “The feeling is mutual,” and got the heck out of Dodge, if you know what I mean.
And, finally, the lines. My favorite changes with each viewing – right now it’s this gem from Mama Thompson: “What makes you think I don’t understand? I understand. A girl puts on a piece of silk, and the next thing that happens, a young fella like you is sure he knows exactly what he’s doing.”
That’s it. The many reasons why Criss Cross is one of my favorite 1940s movies, and one of my favorites from the film noir era – it’s a double threat! If you’ve seen it, treat yourself and see it again. And if you haven’t, you simply must check it out. You know why. Do I have to tell you why?
You only owe it to yourself! (But you knew that.)
This post is part of the Fabulous Films of the 1940s Blogathon, sponsored by the Classic Movie Blog Association (CMBA). Do yourself a favor – click the blogathon picture and check out the wealth of great posts being offered on various CMBA member blogs as part of this fantastic event!