Noir at Its Zenith: Criss Cross (1949)

The big studio film noir hit its peak during the final years of the ‘40s. What had started slowly at the beginning of the decade and burst open in 1944 became feverish and brilliant during 1947–49. Few films represent this zenith better than 1949’s Criss Cross, a personal noir favorite. 

Criss Cross is one of the most noirish film noirs ever to noir. It’s as essential as Double Indemnity (1944) and Out of the Past (1947). It’s the best movie from director Robert Siodmak, who helped usher in the grand age of film noir with Phantom Lady (1944) and The Killers (1946). All three films, by the way, are currently streaming on Criterion Channel as a Siodmak noir trilogy. 

“Tell the truth, Steve. Didn’t they work you for the prize sucker of all time?” This is the acute observation Steve Thompson’s old friend-turned-cop Det. Pete Ramirez makes as the final act of double-crosses begins. The line encapsulates one of the commonest film noir stories: the sap who gets dragged under because of his blindness, often because of the fatal allure of a right-but-wrong woman. 

In classic noir structure, much of the story is told in a flashback from the point where everything is speeding for the cliff. Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster) is driving an armored car on the way toward a heist he helped plot; he scavenges through his memories of how he walked into this trap. (Of course it’s a trap. The title told us this already.) Steve recalls coming back to Los Angeles and seeing his ex-wife Anna (Yvonne De Carlo) again. Their marriage was turbulent but ecstatic; the excitement rushes back when Steve returns, even though he and Anna know their passion will end the way it did before. Anna tries to manage her way out with a marriage to Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea), a gambler with all the wrong connections. But Dundee’s viciousness drives her back to Steve. When Dundee catches the two together, Steve offers the worst kind of distraction to rescue them: he proposes to work as the inside man for an armored car robbery, setting the table for a full course meal of noir tragedy. None of this can go right—and if you’re a film noir lover, it goes wrong in the most satisfying ways.

Criss Cross is so packed with noir themes and situations that it feels like reading a syllabus for Film Noir 101 class. Los Angeles locations. A Miklós Rózsa score declaring bombastic doom from the opening aerial shots. A misguided sap ruined by feverish love for a woman with her own agenda. A meticulously planned robbery that goes violently awry. A small-timer villain who is also in deeper than he can handle—and is played by Dan Duryea as a bonus. Sexual subtext (Anna is drawn to Steve’s virility, while Dundee takes out his sexual frustrations on Anna with beatings and later ends up physically stunted himself, walking with a cane). The seedy dive with the hostile barman (great, hoarse-voiced character actor Percy Helton) and the affectionate lush perpetually perched on the corner stool, hoping for relief from her tedious life. A mess of sad-sack supporting characters who imply noirish tragedies on the margins, notably Alan Napier as the professorial plotter of the armored car hold-up who only wants a line of credit at the liquor store so he can drown out the hinted failures of his life. It’s all here: concentrated end-of-the-decade film noir.

Criss Cross doesn’t have the shadowy visual intensity of some of Siodmak’s earlier movies. This might be due to a change in photographers from Woody Bredell to the Austrian Franz Planer, who later shot Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Rather than lean on the shadowy impressionist look of Phantom Lady and The Killers, Siodmak and Planer use brighter naturalism to match the Los Angeles location shooting and the mundane aspects of Steve’s life before the walls close in. The harsh shadows begin to take over only in the last twenty minutes, starting an impressive scene in a hospital room that prepares viewers for the darkness of the finale. 

Although Siodmak employs a more naturalistic style, his scene compositions and camera movements remain exceptional. He uses high camera placements to create a sense of a maze-like world. As Steve drives the armored car into its destination, the camera gazes from above at the vehicle maneuvering into a tight composition of buildings: the fatalistic trap. The heist itself is shot with noir visual obscurity of a different type—not from shadows but from smoke. The double-cross and multiple deaths play out among the fog from smoke bombs and thieves wearing gas masks. It’s a marvellous sequence that has a feeling of a war-movie nightmare.

I can never say enough good about Dan Duryea as a noir villain. He excelled at both Western and crime film bad guys because he could project an oily charm belying a penchant for sadism and insecurity. This isn’t his best noir part; he has less screen time than in Scarlet Street (1945) and a thinner character to play than in Black Angel (1946). But Slim Dundee is a darker and more sinister figure thanks to Duryea’s performance. Dundee is always dressed in stylish suits that are too big for his frame or his self-image, as if his ambition to be a big shot is on the verge of swallowing him. The tragic mistakes of Steve and Anna may be the center of the story, but the final images are of Dundee as the realization of how the tragedy has also ensnared him sours his sneering features. Duryea’s expression of fatalism and fear is as searing a closing shot imaginable for a noir.

I couldn’t craft a “10 Favorite Classic Noir” list, at least not one I believe could live up to so exclusive a title. But if I had to create a short list of essential noirs for newcomers to help them understand the style, Criss Cross would be one of the first I write down. My idea of “Essential Viewing.”