Monday, May 30, 2016

Noir Watch: Criss Cross (1949)



I just remembered that I'd failed to write up a movie I watched last week, 1949's Criss Cross, starring Burt Lancaster, Yvonne DeCarlo and the always hiss-able Dan Duryea.

The movie seemed to be trying to recapture a bit of the magic of 1946's The Killers, also starring Lancaster, with Ava Gardner as the twisty (and, let's be honest, dangerously sexy) femme fatale.  That picture is surely one of the purest examples of what we think of when we think about noir.  In Criss Cross, once again Lancaster plays a fellow who can be led astray by a good looking brunette - not stumbling across a mobsters' girl this time, but coming home to Los Angeles, trying to tell himself it's not so he'll see his ex, Anna (the terrific Yvonne DeCarlo), but to settle in and lead a domestic life with his parents and brother.  Get his old job back.  But before he's even made it in the front door of the family house, he's back at his old haunt, seeing how things have changed.



He runs into Anna soon enough, but she's married now, to low-life hoodlum Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea in low-simmer mode).  Eventually Slim catches Anna and Steve (Lancaster) together, and Steve quickly spins a yarn that he has an idea for a heist.  He is, after all, an armored car driver, and only an inside man could plan an armored car job.

The film is perhaps less artful than The Killers.  It lacks the fear of the framing sequence and feels less like fated doom than the first picture.  But as a bit of stand-alone noir, it works terrifically well, and DeCarlo, in particular, nails her part as the post-Jane Greer femme fatale who seems a victim, but is constantly seeking the next opportunity - unconsciously so, only able to reflect on her decisions after they've started to cost her.  It has terrific supporting characters, barflies and bartenders.  Steve's pal from his youth who is now the cop trying to talk Steve out of bad decisions.

Lancaster is only asked to play Lancaster, and that suits the movie perfectly.  He's the heart-broken tough guy, good in a fight, but who let himself get hung up on the wrong girl believing in her because that's what he does, contrary to the evidence.

Duryea has been mostly forgotten outside of noir-fan circles, but he was an electric character actor and villain in his day, and as I understand it, had quite the female following.  Girls like a bad-boy.  You can see the sorts of characters he plays show up in films all the time to this day.  If you can think of a volatile and unpredictable, yet somehow charming, gang-boss who might be waiting for the protagonist when he walks into his own living room:  Duryea.

And, yes, DeCarlo would go on to play Lily Munster.  And, yes, she was always good looking.  There's a bit of a question as to Anna's heritage, and the film seemed to want to say she was Hispanic - but never quite got there.  And I'm not sure if that was supposed to be an issue with Steve's family, or just that she was bat-shit.  Sometimes coding on these things from the 1940's eludes me.

While not as powerful as The Killers, Criss Cross is worth catching.  The heist elements are colorful and inform a bit of what shows up in subsequent movies, with a colorful crew of characters working together to pull the job.  And, of course, nothing goes right during a fascinating robbery sequence.  But it does feel a bit like a lot of the same sort of thing that they're still making today in big and small ways.

3 comments:

Bill Thompson said...

The jacket! You didn't talk about the jacket Lancaster wears in the beginning of the movie. It is the star of the show!

Ryan Steans said...

Holy smokes! YES. The funny thing is - as soon as I read your comment I had a full mental picture of that thing. Yeah, whoever was costuming him clearly wanted to make sure they made their mark. Now I can't find a picture of it anywhere, which seems kind of crazy. It's a piece of art.

Ryan Steans said...

Oh, wait. http://lileks.com/bleats/archive/04/1104/1102art/noirart/2.jpg