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Blu-ray Review

DVD cover

Criss Cross (1949)


Starring: Burt Lancaster, Yvonne DeCarlo, Dan Duryea, Stephen McNally, Esy Morales, Percy Helton and John Doucette
Distributor: Eureka Entertainment
RRP: £19.99


Certificate: PG
Release Date: 22 June 2020

In the late 1940s author Robin Robertson was living in cheap downtown LA quarters in a giant old Queen Anne apartment house while he covered movies being shot on location there in the post war docu realist style. One morning he came out of his dilapidated old apartment house to find Burt Lancaster right there on the hilly sidewalk. The star was in the middle of a shoot. Robertson would compile his downtown LA movie experiences, friendship with directors and poetic descriptions of it all into a book of blank verse poetry, The Long Take; the finest book on film noir I have ever read because it stares straight into the abyss of noir: the American dream as inexorable nightmare. The picture Lancaster was shooting was Criss Cross. Its director was Robert Siodmak.

Criss Cross was not received with acclaim when it premiered in 1949. It was a stiff drink with no chaser. Only hardcore fans dug it. Through the years its reputation grew until scholars of noir, a word nobody knew in 1949 because French connoisseurs like Godard and Truffaut hadn’t coined it yet for Cahiers du Cinema readers - and hip Americans were almost a decade away from absorbing the etymology and its cool.

Lancaster’s charisma as working man Steve Thompson is lanced with a fatality of weakness: Yvonne De Carlo’s Anna Dundee, his former wife. We instantly know who dropped who in the divorce. Anna’s now married to Slim Dundee, a slimeball leader of a gang of hard case armed robbers. Dan Duryea is immediately believable in a role he had already come to specialize in.

At the start of Criss Cross we are in a sky high view of downtown night-time Los Angeles, descending into a shadow cloistered parking lot where Anna is in Steve’s arms. Something’s about to happen. An armoured truck robbery. Steve is the inside man. He drives the truck. They plan to steal half the loot from Dundee and his gang.

Lancaster is hours from being behind the wheel where he’ll have flashback memories of how he re-hooked on Anna, how he found his way into the Dundee gang’s brainstorming for a big score, how he sold Slim on robbing an a money truck, which had never been done before. But Steve brings a new element to the impossibility: an inside man. Him. He becomes a co-player with Dundee who knows Steve is still intoxicated with the fragrance of Anna. They hate each other but this is business.

The flashbacks lay out the steps of how Steve got to this day. They embed his destiny as foregone fate. The stuff of noir.

The robbery is a smoke shrouded disaster of silhouettes and death. Steve is wounded and left behind with a shot to his shoulder and a plaster cast on his whole arm. He is deemed a hero. Anna is gone.

The third act is one of the most fascinating studies of a Prometheus bound in all film, let alone noir. No spoilers from hereon, except to say this is noir.

Eureka has delivered an image of breath taking subtlety for that is what’s required to discern the shadows within the shadows of cinematographer Franz Planer’s night shots. The texture and dimensionality of indoor shots constantly overloads us with detail. Siodmak’s pacing doesn’t allow us to jog, we have to run to keep up. Miklós Róza’s score may not have quite the deterministic heft as his composition for Double Indemnity but it’s still a competition of greatness vs near greatness.

Eureka’s bag of extras is worth a half day’s contemplation in its own right. Absorbing this lore and literacy will only make the film’s viewing and re-viewing all the more satisfying. First there’s the new audio commentary by noir expert Lee Gambin and actress Rutanya Alda; a significant video piece by Adrian Martin, full of fresh perspectives, something not easy to pull off with a seventy year old classic; and an essay Barry Forshaw on a Key Film Noir with fulsome backgrounds on all the major players; plus a new essay by Kat Ellinger: You Really Loved Her, You Know I Did Too. Robert Siodmak, Doomed Romance and the Noir. We learn how Siodmak kept control in the studio machine. Also, there’s a new essay by Adam Batty, Criss Cross, a lifetime study of Burt Lancaster’s iconography.

I love this movie.


John Huff

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