There’s something inherently delicious about a 1940s film noir, from the plumes of cigarette smoke to the gorgeous shadows of the monochrome cinematography. And that’s before you get to the colourful characters, from the seductive femme fatales to the irredeemable criminal rotters who would do anything for love, including whatever it is Meat Loaf refused to do. German-born filmmaker Robert Siodmak was known for his mastery of this genre, including for the 1949 thriller Criss Cross.
Getting a new release via Eureka’s ‘Masters of Cinema’ label, Criss Cross is a relatively slight noir following the lovesick Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster). He returns to LA and hopes to rekindle his relationship with old flame Anna (Yvonne De Carlo), despite the fact she is now married to notorious local crook Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea). When their affair is discovered, Steve improvises a criminal plot to rob the armoured truck company for which he works as a driver, promising Slim a big payday.
Inevitably, as this is a film noir, there’s a selection of mishaps and double crosses along the way, with the path to lucrative criminality inevitably littered with land mines. This is certainly a handsome and visually elegant film, with DP Franz Planer finding real beauty in cramped, darkened rooms and the smoky bullet ballet of the botched heist, picking out moments of shock and violence within the chaos.
Unfortunately, the movie never quite has the energy and wit of something like Billy Wilder’s magnificent Double Indemnity — arguably the high watermark of the genre. While Lancaster and De Carlo are believable as lovers, they lack the crackling chemistry of the best noir duos. Duryea is the standout as the loathsome Slim — every inch the mediocre, fragile man compensating for his own shortcomings with macho posturing and psychotic violence.
Siodmak’s measured tone, though, prevents the true thrills that the story seems to be searching for throughout. Criss Cross runs to less than 90 minutes, but still feels glacial and plodding, as if the script — penned by noir veteran Daniel Fuchs — is stretching every sinew in order to reach feature length. Without any sort of meaty dynamic between the two leads, the movie finds itself in search of something to plug that gap.
But that’s not to say that there’s nothing to enjoy. When it finally kicks into gear with its climactic heist, Siodmak rises to the occasion with a compelling action set piece and a rapidly unravelling arsenal of final reversals, as one would expect given the title’s promise of knotty betrayal. It’s too little, too late though for a movie that, beyond its considerable visual style, does not feel like a shining example of its genre.
Dir: Robert Siodmak
Scr: Daniel Fuchs
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Yvonne De Carlo, Dan Duryea, Stephen McNally, Tom Pedi, Edna Holland
Prd: Michael Kraike
DOP: Franz Planer
Music: Miklós Rózsa
Run time: 88 mins
Criss Cross will be released on Blu-ray in the UK via Eureka Video from 22nd June.