Aesthetically, Robert Siodmak’s roots in German Expressionism are crucial to the formation of the film-noir world as we know it today and Criss Cross has to be one of the most diverting additions to his repertoire. Once more he’s paired with his star from The Killers (1946) Burt Lancaster with another raging score from Miklos Rozsa and yet again there is a heist involved. However, whereas the film inspired by Hemingway’s original story was a story about a washed-up boxer — a humble Citizen Kane if you will — with some criminal elements mixed in, Criss Cross is all thriller. It represents the subset of film-noir that is the heist film, but it would hardly be film-noir without something going terribly wrong. This event is integral to the plotting as is the love triangle that becomes the main axis of the ensuing action.
The location shooting throughout L.A. is put on display in the opening shot when the camera swoops down on a parking lot right outside a lively nighttime watering hole known as the Round Up. In these early stages, Siodmak reels his viewers in with a seductive close-up of Yvonne De Carlo looking straight at Burt Lancaster, her lover, except in looking at her man she’s also staring directly at the audience as well with those earnest eyes of hers. And from that point on her role as a femme fatale is cemented for good.
We know she’s undoubtedly nothing but trouble and yet we cannot help but be strung along with Lancaster. After all, someone that beautiful cannot be all bad, right? They never are, right? And we spend the rest of the film grappling with these questions, although the worst is always inevitable. So it goes with Criss Cross.
However, for the audience to try and understand the stakes of the story, most of the great film noirs develop the character’s pre-existing life as much as they magnify the moments of immense conflict. Criss Cross begins in the middle but soon flashes back to when Steve Thompson (Lancaster) first returns to Los Angeles, the sparkling city where his family lives as well as his former wife Anna (De Carlo). And despite the sirens going off and the chiding of friends and family including his mother and his concerned cop friend (Stephen McNally), he finds himself attracted to her once again like a moth to a flame.
He’s soon infatuated once more, embroiled in passion and at the same time petty bickering, tied up in complicated knots as Anna is also seeing the gangster Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea) who doesn’t take kindly to having another man around. In immaculate fatale fashion, Anna plays everyone off with a certain degree of vivacity and at the same time deadly innocence. One moment lively and carefree, the next biting and selfish. You can never pin her down and Steve never does. Still, he’s devoted to her. He goes half-way on a heist with his bitter rival just to save face and subsequently finds himself knee-deep in corruption that he never dreamed of, all because of a girl.
But aside from dealing with a guilty conscience, he still must survive a vengeful gangster. The number of crisscrosses isn’t all that important, only the fact that they happen and on numerous occasions. The film finishes up with a gloriously fatalistic ending that while abrupt, in typical Classic Hollywood fashion, still delivers a satisfying final conclusion, going out just as it came in, with a rewarding dose of noirish intrigue.
Echoing the words of Proverbs, “The lips of an adulterous woman drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil; but in the end, she is bitter as gall. Her feet go down to death.” That about sums up Criss Cross: an exhilarating and altogether deadly exercise from Robert Siodmak. Those questions still burrow into the back of our mind to the very end. Was Anna really insidious or just misunderstood? We’ll never know exactly. But perhaps the results speak for themselves. Anyways, that’s for each individual to judge on their own.