Criss Cross (1949) is a romantic triangle told noir style involving three poor souls who can’t help being themselves. There’s a heist in there, too.
This is my entry into the Classic Movie Blog Association fall blogathon: “Blogathon & the Beast” featuring characters battling, or losing the battle, with their primal inclinations. In my house, we’ve always called that being your own worst enemy. But there are enemies aplenty in this yarn, to be sure.
Burt Lancaster and Yvonne De Carlo are in their prime here as both stunningly photogenic and emblematic of the scowling hopelessness of fate in film noir. Dan Duryea, a favorite sniveling baddie, is the third point in the triangle. Love and betrayal go together like a horse and carriage. Or something like that.
The story is set in Los Angeles (where else?) with an aerial shot over the credits of a misty twilight, as we move toward the Bunker Hill section of town that is no more. Like director Robert Siodmak’s camera shots, the streets are always at a treacherous angle. We get lots of location views, including Union Station, and the famous Angel’s Flight funicular, which we covered previously here in The Turning Point (1952) and in this essay specifically on the Angel’s Flight in movies.
Burt provides occasional narration, and the plot is revealed drip by drip, so we are always left off balance and wondering. He is returning home to L.A. after a year of travel about the States, working here and there, coming back to his mother’s house to renew acquaintance with his younger brother, played by Richard Long; his boyhood pal police detective Stephen McNally; and the bar and nightclub where he used to hang out before he went into a self-imposed exile.
The reason for his exile and the reason for his return appear to be the same: Yvonne De Carlo.
The movie starts with great energy by plunking us down in the middle of a crisis. Miss De Carlo and Mr. Lancaster, clutching each other between parked cars in the parking lot of the night club, seem to infer that there’s a plan about to the hatched, and she wishes it were all over. He tells her to wait in a secluded cottage by the beach many miles away, and they must not be seen together.
“It’ll be you and me, the way it should have been from the start.”
Inside, gangster Dan Duryea, smarmy even in an immaculate white dinner jacket, is curt and suspicious when Yvonne enters, badgering her with questions. Aha! She’s his wife and she’s messing around with Burt!
Burt’s old pal Stephen McNally sticks his nose in and warns Burt off her and they argue. He wants to prevent a fight between Burt and Duryea, but he can’t. They fight, and when he attempts to arrest Duryea for having a knife, both men act like nothing’s wrong. They don’t want the cops involved. They both go out in the alley at a dirty old iron set tub to wash. They don’t have a men’s room?
Here, Duryea, his gang, and Burt have a splintered discussion that clues us in to their mysterious behavior. The fight is fake. They are setting up the cops. But how, and why?
We next see Burt at his job, an armored car driver chatting with his work pals, including old man “Pop” who is his partner and rides in the back of his truck with the money. They are headed out on a highway, and we see over Burt’s shoulder in the back of the truck is a rifle. Director Siodmak is meticulous in dropping foreshadowing hints.
But as Burt drives and his mind wanders, we finally get the required noir flashback to tell us the whole story.
Burt has returned to sunny L.A. after a year spent trying to his get ex-wife out of his system. Yvonne De Carlo. He swears he’s over her, but we see he’s not. His worried mother, who never liked Yvonne, sees he’s not. His interfering pal, Stephen McNally, sees he’s not. Most especially, a delighted Yvonne De Carlo sees he’s not.
He goes to old haunts trying to accidently run into her on purpose, and finally encounters her at the nightclub dancing a vigorous rumba with Tony Curtis is his first film role.
After a verbal and psychological tug of war between them, Burt wants to get together again, is eager for it, but she disappears and afterward he finds out she has married Dan Duryea.
But why? Especially when after several months he stalks her again and she haughtily barks at him, but eventually breaks down and says she had no choice. Stephen McNally threatened to run her in and send her to prison on trumped-up charges if she didn’t stay clear of Burt. So she married Duryea, who treats her badly. One look at the bruises on her back, and Burt is steadfastly her hero again, ready to fight the world to protect her and defy family and friends, heaven and earth, to keep her to himself, where he will make her safe and happy. She is a tragic figure. So is Burt, by virtue of his big, stubborn heart.
The movie is full of favorite character actors in bit roles, including Percy Helton as the bartender, Griff Barnett as Pop, John Doucette as one of Duryea’s mob. We have to feel at least a little sorry for Joan Miller for being known in the script and on the credits only as “Lush,” though she does get a few good scenes on her barstool.
The dynamics shift again when Duryea and his gang surprise Burt and Yvonne at Burt’s mother’s house, and we think for a moment Burt is going to be fitted for cement shoes, but Burt surprises everyone with a hastily thought-up excuse to not only diffuse the situation, but to also hatch a plan for his intended escape with Yvonne.
He tries to interest Duryea in a heist of the armored car he drives. Burt will be the inside man in the crime. Duryea bites, and they proceed to have a meeting in an empty apartment right next to the Angel’s Flight funicular with an expert to help them plan the heist: dapper Alan Napier, who we can see without much explanation, is an intellectual loner, with his books, his chessboard, his educated speech and demeanor, and his weakness for alcohol. Everyone here has a weakness.
He plots out the scheme with mathematical precision, while the gang hovers about drinking beer, and Yvonne De Carlo watches morosely, tensely, clearly fearful of the consequences and not being able to get away with Burt.
The ploy involves driving the armored truck at a specific time and location, passing by an ice cream truck to be used to take the loot away, a couple of plants at a manhole who will discharge smoke bombs at the right moment, plenty of firepower, and some gas masks. Burt’s only requirement is that Pop not get hurt, and they all agree.
It’s a nice bit where the gang member who poses as the ice cream truck man pulls a kid away from the traffic about to be hit by the armored car at the last minute.
But things go wrong, and Pop is killed, and Burt tries to save what’s left by firing his gun on the baddies. He is shot, too, and he wakes in the hospital, told he is a hero because he saved half the payroll.
Only his pal, cop Stephen McNally suspects Burt was in on it. He warns him that Duryea will be after him. Burt tells him to shove off, but spends an anxious night worried that any sound in the hospital corridor will mean one of Duryea’s boys has come to get him.
There’s a nice duality between two scenes with dressers: Earlier in the apartment when the gang is planning the heist and a few of them sit playing cards around a dresser for a table. The dresser has supports for a mirror, but the mirror is missing. Later in his hospital room, Burt is riveted on the dresser with a tilted mirror, trying to see the man sitting in the chair in the hall.
A terrific suspenseful scene with Robert Osterloh, who plays a man visiting his wife in the hospital—who turns out not to be quite that, and we find ourselves with Burt and Yvonne reunited at the secret hideaway, because Burt bribed Osterloh to get him there.
Now that Burt’s got everything he wants—Yvonne and half the money from the heist—he thinks his troubles are over and he’s outsmarted everyone. “I just wanted to hold you in my arms, to take care of you.”
Yvonne, who was never stupid, blows up at him. Osterloh, she says, will run right back to Duryea and tell them where they are. How could he be so stupid? She packs her things, and the money, and briskly and in no uncertain terms, without an ounce of guilt, tells him she has to look after herself. Everyone does. It’s just how people are. She’s going to leave him there, helpless and injured, and broke.
Poor Burt is gobsmacked. For such a clever, quick-thinking guy, he never thought of this. He never thought she was really as mercenary as everyone said.
Duryea shows up, just like Yvonne knew he would, and plugs them both, and Burt’s last sensation is of holding her in his arms when she claws at him for protection.
Then with satisfaction, Duryea turns away, and then a look of horror as we hear approaching sirens. Osterloh has sold him out, too. With all the bribes he’s taken just this night, he’s got to be filthy rich.
Criss cross. Every betrayal merits a double-cross. In the film noir world, it’s just the way things are. Yvonne De Carlo knows it. Burt can’t help being who he is, even after hard lessons. Duryea and his boys know no other life. All of them fight the beast within.
Except maybe Pop. He’s a nice old fella.
For more great blog entries in CMBA’s “Blogathon & the Beast” have a look here.
Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Movies in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century and Hollywood Fights Fascism and Christmas in Classic Films. TO JOIN HER READERS' GROUP - follow this link for a free book as a thank-you for joining.