This week’s Fridays With Yvonne De Carlo moves us from the wilds of the frontier to the urban jungle of late-’40s Los Angeles. Director Robert Siodmak, known for noir masterpieces like The Spiral Staircase (1946) and The Killers (1946), reteams stars Burt Lancaster and De Carlo – last seen in Jules Dassin’s Brute Force (1947) – for this by the numbers tale of love and swindling.
Steve Thompson (Lancaster) returns to Los Angeles in the hopes of winning back his ex, Anna (De Carlo). When Anna reveals she’s married to crook Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea), Steve concocts a scheme involving an armored car heist that’ll allow him and Anna to be together, forever.
You can take the girl out of the wilderness but you can’t take the wilderness out of the girl! It’s refreshing seeing De Carlo in clothes from a more contemporary time after our two previous journeys. Anna is the prototypical femme fatale albeit without nearly the agency and villainy of her craftier counterparts like Phyllis Dietrichson or Kathie Moffat.
In fact, Criss Cross shows why De Carlo was so adept in the Western genre. Her hardened voice and beguiling looks emphasized the harshness of frontier life, while simultaneously creating a goddess-like image that others would desire. It’s these characteristics you’d expect to translate easily into the noir field, but De Carlo sulks when she isn’t sitting in the corner taking in what’s happening. Her character and performance lack the fire of other fatales. The only moment De Carlo truly comes alive is while dancing in a nightclub during her reunion with Steve. Since we’re watching her from Steve’s eyes we see that feistiness and spirit which make her attractive.
There’s also an unspoken, sexually violent quality between Steve and Anna that’s attractive in what’s inferred. Anna talks about “all the good times we had together.” “And all the fights,” Steve says. For this couple, fighting and making up define their relationship. Unlike more sexually charged noirs, the likes of Double Indemnity (1944), there aren’t many romantic moments between Anna and Steve outside of this one, yet Anna is constantly the whisper in Steve’s ear.
For how limiting De Carlo’s performance is the character of Anna fascinates since Steve is the one blindly forcing their continued association. He returns to L.A. explicitly looking for her with no indication she wants him back; his family openly pushed her away from Steve, threatening her with jail if she stayed with him, but there’s no reason for this other than their preconceived judgments of her character. For Steve, he’s drawn to Anna through fate, mentioning how a clerk at the train station bent down for cigarettes, allowing Steve to see Anna is also in the station. Too often noirs place men on fate’s wheel and leave the woman turning it, but there’s an obsessive, frightening quality behind that Burt Lancaster smile. Is Steve stalking Anna? There’s no doubt the two are in each others’ bones, but Steve is the one worming his way in more than anyone.
With such intriguing relationship dynamics it’s frustrating how lackluster everything else is. The armored car plot plays out by the numbers – although fate, again, plays her tricks by turning Steve into a hero – and there’s little build-up before and after with everything nicely wrapped up before the 90-minute mark. A sturdy supporting cast is anchored by the always awesome Dan Duryea. He’s become one of my favorite noir villains, between this, Too Late for Tears (1949) and Lady on a Train (1945). He’s slicker than an oil spill and as slimy as they come but nothing compares to the film’s final frames – an ending so grim and bleak as to leave you terrified of Duryea and shocked at what he’s left you an accomplice to.
Rote, for the most part, Criss Cross is a rather clean and formulaic noir. And, when I say clean, I mean this isn’t grimy underworld of most noirs. Small apartments, seedy bars, even the warehouse where the armored cars are kept are as spotless and beautifully maintained as our stars. The overall feel of glamour seems meant to appease audiences for how simple everything is laid out.
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