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 . . .

Furtive parking lot kisses. It doesn't get better than that.

Furtive parking lot kisses. It doesn’t get better than that.

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!

The flashback begins . . .

The flashback begins . . .

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.”

Which Anna is this?

Which Anna is this?

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.

"It don't look right."

“It don’t look right.”

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!

~ by shadowsandsatin on February 20, 2013.

25 Responses to “Fabulous Films of the 1940s Blogathon: Things I Love About Criss Cross (1949)”

  1. Karen, This is a great choice, primal noir! Lancaster made some great noirish films (THE KILLERS, BRUTE FORCE, I WALK ALONE) during his early days and this is on the list. You’re right about his character Steve Thompson being one of the most naive guys in noir. He’s a true sap for the dame. Dan Duryea as Slim Dundee is as slimy as can be (no one play slime better than Duryea). I also like the location shots that give us a great feel of place and time. Excellent stuff!

    • Thanks, John! I’ve always loved Criss Cross, from the first time I saw it. Lancaster, DeCarlo, and Duryea are an unbeatable trio! I agree about the location shots — for some reason, I especially like seeing the view of the street from inside the drug store. It just looks like you can step right into 1940s Los Angeles!

  2. This is a fantastic movie!! On my first viewing of the film, I was shocked by the ending…LOVE it!

    Yvonne DeCarlo is a stunning beauty in this film. As one who knew her from The Munsters fame, I never realized just what a beautiful woman she was…until this film showed me.

    As for Dan Duryea, I have seen him referred to as “the heel with appeal.” I definitely agree with that. Even though he’s usually a slime ball, there is something appealing about him. I don’t think there’s anyone in all of films who can say “Baby” quite the say he can!

    Great review!

    • Hi, Patti — I love that description of Dan Duryea — “the heel with appeal.” So fitting! And I totally agree about Yvonne DeCarlo. I was introduced to her as Lily Munster — imagine my surprise when I discovered her films from the 1940s!

  3. “The always awesome Dan Duryea.” Ain’t that the truth?

    Whenever I see Percy Helton I recall that he was a child actor in the theatre and I spend most of the movie trying to imagine what he was like as a kid.

    “Criss Cross” is indeed a dandy.

  4. This is a great noir. Loved your cute puns, similies and metaphors–your English teachers would be proud! Lancaster and DeCarlo had a lot of chemistry, didn’t they?

  5. First off, I love your photo captions! But more importantly, you’ve done justice to a seminal film noir. And, as you pointed out, the supporting cast of familiar faces only adds to the fun. I’m not a huge Dan Duryea fan, but he’s excellent in CRISS CROSS.

  6. Super review Karen – this is also one of my favorite noirs, and I really admire Burt Lancaster in the role, and DeCarlo is fabulous also as the femme fatale. Thanks for choosing this classic for the Fabulous Films of the 40s blogathon.

  7. Yippee! Your delicious post did total justice to a yummy noir. Really – I loved every word. Well done!

  8. The dance sequence between DeCarlo and a young Tony Curtis is one of the hottest and most erotic of the 1940s cinema. A great post on one of the great noirs.

  9. Like Lana Turner, what a shame Yvonne DeCarlo didn’t make more noirs! Universal put her in westerns and adventures instead!

    Love Criss Cross…three of my favorites bits: Duryea’s black suit and white tie….slick! Esai Morales and his band playing that rhumba for DeCarlo and Curtis to dance to. And the entire sequence in the hospital. Director Siodmak really racks up the tension.

  10. One of the most memorable noirs and so a great choice for the 40s blogathon. Robert Siodmak directed a number of impressive film noirs in the 40s, and this one is for me edged out only by “The Killers.” He really had a knack for that style. You did a great job of showing how this film fits right into the noir classification. Definitely Yvonne de Carlo’s finest hour (although she gave a mighty impressive comic peformance in the Alec Guinness film “The Captain’s Paradise”). And any post that manages to work Percy Helton into a discussion of the film’s exemplary cast is a post after my own heart!

  11. A great post on this compelling film. Love the cast, especially Duryea in just about anything.

  12. The Queen of Film Noir strikes again! So glad you chose a film that you’re so fond of.

    The first time I saw this film as a kid with my mother, I didn’t understand it at all nor did I like it very much. Luckily I gave it another try a few years ago and I’m glad that I did and I can certainly see why it’s one of your favorites.

    Great performances and and characters that you really find yourself intrigued by.

    A wonderful review and addition to the Blogathon.

  13. Really enjoyed your write-up. Although I have not seen this film, it’s another one to put on my list.

  14. Reblogged this on filmcamera999.

  15. So…I start reading your post…voiceover – LOVE-flashbacks-LOVE-Richard Long-ADORE!!! What a crush I had on him, Karen!! Nanny and the Professor! I have a Big Valley DVD set only for him. Yeah, yeah, Barbara Stanwyck is awesome too but – hubba, hubba, Richard Long!! Oh, Lancaster’s OK too.

    I cannot believe I’ve never seen Criss Cross! I left your post mid-way to see if it’s included in a noir set I have but it’s not. MUST fix that immediately.

    Great read!


  16. Karen, CRISS CROSS is another film I heard about backwards, in that I saw Steven Soderbergh’s remake, THE UNDERNEATH, before I even heard of CRISS CROSS! Judging from your stellar review and those amazing stars, I’m gonna have to give this my undivided attention ASAP! I’m a sucker for flashbacks myself, so I’m especially looking forward to seeing this. I love the dialogue about the apple core, although my smart-aleck side is tempted to make wisecracks about dental floss! 🙂 Can’t beat that cast, either, seeing the sexy pre-MUNSTERS Yvonne DeCarlo and Dan Duryea, the “heel with appeal” himself, though by all accounts, Duryea was actually a nice guy in real life; he was even a Scoutmaster! 😀 Great post, as always!

  17. CRISS CROSS also has a wonderful soundtrack composed by Miklos Rózsa, THE composer of film noir soundtracks. As in Double indemnity Rozsa’s music from the beginning of the film adds to the sense of impending doom.

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