Lawrence Russell

Criss Cross (1949) dir. Robert Siodmak writ. Daniel Fuchs (from the novel by Don Tracy) cine. Franz Planer (special photo by Ted J. Kent) edt. Ted J. Kent music. Miklos Rozsa (with Esy Morales Rhumba Band) star. Burt Lancaster (Steve Thompson), Yvonne de Carlo (Anna), Dan Duryea (Slim Dundee), Stephen McNally (Lieut. Pete Ramirez), Richard Long, Meg Randall, Tom Pedi, Percy Helton, Grif Barnett, Alan Napier


the inside man

This crime drama is typical of the period when motivated characterization is still a consideration, and the execution of the heist becomes a science rather than an act of mere highway brigandage. You might marvel at Yvonne de Carlo's bad-girl beauty or Burt Lancaster's animal vitalism... but what you remember is Siodmak's brilliant choreography of the armored-car robbery. Like a scene from a gas warfare attack, this desperate act is both a reflection of the science of human genocide and a metaphor of urban alienation.

Criss Cross: Dundee masks up

When it happens, the robbery comes as a shock, even though you've been prepared for it, even ride into the action with the armored car as driven by the "inside man", Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster). You've even been a witness to the gang's plotting of the crime, but the essential details have been withheld. There's no dress-rehearsal, no reconnaissance, no acquisition of weapons, no real warning of the reality and the modernity of the violence when it suddenly happens.

The gang plots just as you see gangs plot heists in the movies that follow -- White Heat, The Asphalt Jungle, The Killing, et. al. An older man with a basic weakness is brought in to mastermind the logistics -- this time it's an old alcoholic who's bribed with a bottle in hand and an account at the local liquor store, a figure you will recognize as the model for Doc, the old sentimentalist in The Asphalt Jungle. The robbers aren't just dealing with the capricious hand of Fate, of course, but also their own internal need for treachery, the realization of separate agendas. This is no surprise, as the crime is an alliance between two sexual adversaries, Thompson and Dundee.

The story is told using a frame narrative, where the present sandwiches the past. Thompson returns to his folks' home in L.A. after drifting around the Louisiana-Texas oilfields for three years, trying to shake off the effects of a short, seven month marriage... but of course he hasn't shaken it off, for the first place he heads to is The Roundup, a bar and club where he used to hang out. It's not long before he sees Anna (Yvonne de Carlo) dancing the rhumba... their eyes lock and once again they resume their torrid romance, much to the displeasure of Steve's mother who immediately starts to sabotage it.

Criss Cross: Yvonne de CarloHis mother might be right, as Anna's character is a bit suspect. An uneducated tough chick who uses her looks to get by, she has another suitor already in the wings, the criminal Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea) who either owns or rents the club. Typical of his ilk, he's surrounded by two or three hoods, two of whom have names -- Walt and Vincent. He wears tuxedos, drives a big convertible, is homicidally possessive. So why does Anna suddenly and unexpectedly marry him? Because, as Steve's mother says, "she knows more than Einstein"? Maybe. But it also turns out that Mrs. Thompson uses Pete, the boyhood friend of Steve who is now a cop, to stymie a re-elopement... and, in response, Anna elopes with Dundee.

As sex triangles go, this one is par for the course. While it appears Anna loves Steve, she really loves herself. She begins seeing Steve on the side, unable to break the old habit. As their affair progresses, all the parties become more desperate. When Dundee catches Anna at Steve's house, Steve is forced to invent a story to legitimize the event. "It doesn't look good, Anna," says Dundee as he falsely relaxes with a beer in the living room. Thompson says she's here because he wants to do a "job" with Dundee. Suspicious, bemused, Dundee says, "Why me?" Steve replies, "Because you're the only criminals I know."

The job he has in mind is a six figure heist of an armored car -- something regarded as impossible at the time (1948). But as Thompson has been rehired by his old firm, Horton's Armored car service, he will be the inside man.

Criss Cross starts just prior to the robbery. Using an omniscient Citizen Kane pan, Siodmak zooms in over the L.A. cityscape to the desperate lovers kissing in the parking lot outside The Roundup. They plan to double-cross Slim Dundee, take all the loot and run away together.

But of course Dundee has a double-cross of his own his mind. When Steve and his co-guard Pops arrive at the industrial plant in San Rafael and unload the sacks of money, a gas bomb explodes, creating a convenient fog in which to stage the heist and the double-cross. Dundee pulls on a gas mask, starts shooting. Pops is killed and Steve, realizing things have gone bad, throws his money sacks back into the armored car. Dundee tries to stop him and both struggle like combat troops in a gas warfare attack. The scene is eerie, a sinister tableaux of impressionism, an inter-zone of life and death.

This action is the centre-piece of the film. While the armored car provides its own novelty, it's the contemporaneous violence which excites your attention. The tools of modern warfare have now become part of the criminal modus operandi. Students of film might find an interesting comparison here to the armored car robbery at the beginning of Michael Mann's Heat, which no doubt took Siodmak's choreography into consideration. The gas masks become N.H.L. hockey masks and the killings become pandemic.

And Anna? What man wouldn't die for this beautiful piece of work. Still, you might have problems with the ending, despite the solid characterizations and motivations. You might also find Lancaster's V.O. less than satisfactory -- disembodied, his voice seems ineffective. It could be the writing, it could be the recording mix, or it could be Lancaster, even though he is effective as the drifting Steve Thompson, the inside man.

© LR 2000


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