Romantic, obsessive Steve Thompson is drawn back to L.A. to make another try for Anna, his former wife. However, Anna belongs now to the L.A. underworld. Steve believes he can rescue her, ignoring the advice and warnings of people who would try to save him. He commits himself to a dangerous course of action that quickly takes everyone somewhere unintended. Written by
Burt Lancaster, hot off his success in "The Killers," where he burned up the screen with the smoldering Ava Gardner, paired up again with director Robert Siodmak to make this noir hit with yet another sultry and exotic leading lady, this time the stunning Yvonne de Carlo. In this role she proves she's not just a decorative sex symbol and gets to strut the acting chops I've always suspected her of possessing. For those who are only familiar with her as Lilly Munster on the famous TV show, it is a treat to see her at her youthful beauty and in one of her best roles. Although I believe Gardner to be the more beautiful of the two, I couldn't imagine her pulling off this role (at least at this stage of her career; she later developed much more depth) as impressively as de Carlo does, who in my view is (or at least became, in this movie) the better actress. Lancaster also proves that his star-making performance in the aforementioned "The Killers" was not a fluke, and despite the two films' possessing a surface similarity--sexy dame double crosses love or lust-strucked sap with fatal consequences, which, of course, would describe many noirs--Lancaster makes a unique, interesting and multi-dimentional dupe in both roles. He exudes typical male 'traits' of toughness, masculinity and jadedness but yet is susceptible to the more typical 'female' qualities of vulnerability, sensitivity, lovelorness and hopeful, but ultimately futile, optimism in his refusal, or inability, to become completely cynical and hard-bitten, even at the end. In "Criss Cross" he plays the divorced Steve Thompson, who has recently returned to San Francisco where his ex-wife Anna remains, trying to convince himself of every reason in the book for moving back home except the real one--his lingering, potent love and strong attraction for her which still persists. He moves back in with his family and gets his job back at an armored-car company, all the while playing what will turn out to be a dangerous game--going back to their old haunts where he pretends he has no desire to see Anna, when he knows sooner or later he will. The situation proves to be all the more risky when he discovers she has married Slim Dundee, an abusive, big-shot gangster. But despite this extremely dangerous, untenable situation, he is unable to resist when Anna's siren song beckons, luring not only him, but her husband, into her lethal web and complex scheme with cold-blooded precision.
The three principals give riveting performances: Lancaster's Steve--the viewer can feel his painful uncertainty in knowing he should not and must not get tangled up with his ex again, and yet he must; he is so in love (or lust) that there really is no other option for him. De Carlo's Anna in my view is the most difficult role in the film to convincingly portray--despite her despicable, heartless, self-serving actions, she still remains likable and even heartrending in her justifications. She convincingly displays vulnerability and anguish but at the same time is completely venal and selfish, willing to use the two men who love her and then discard them. We get the feeling that she *may* be good at heart, but really and truly has lost her way, has assessed she's too far gone to ever go back, and so she will plow on ahead determinedly, consequences and feelings and people's lives be dam*ed. The scene where de Carlo is with the men as they plan the heist is reminiscent of the one in "The Killers" where Ava Gardner is with the criminal gang--it is obvious they are no mere decorative dames, molls who remain in the background; they play an active role with the big boys, but they have something up their sleeves. As for Dan Duryea as Slim, despite his seeming, or in fact playing, the same kind of roles in all the movies I've seen him in, that of the smarmy, slimy, sleazy character who possesses many of the most undesirable, worst traits in humankind--mean, petty, greedy, cowardly, sneaky, etc., he remains puzzlingly fascinating and even likable, and he does not fail here. His character here is the kind of person no man, and woman, crosses without consequence, and like Lancaster, who loves Anna to the end, Slim is dead set upon paying her back what she has reaped, but despite the fact that all that she's done to him, he still loves her as well. In fact, his feelings for her and the devastated, shellshocked look on his face at the end brings to mind that song, or at least the famous line I've heard somewhere, "I loved her but I had to kill her."
Lancaster, de Carlo and Duryea were such an electrifying trio that it's a shame the three never made a movie together again (in fact, Lancaster and de Carlo's chemistry was not limited to the screen, the two were lovers during filming). But perhaps it's just as well as it would be a challenge to surpass this example of film-noir excellence. The ending is one of the most stunning and shocking I've seen, and the final shot of Lancaster and de Carlo presents an almost artfully arranged, beautiful but devastatingly tragic tableau. Look for Tony Curtis (looking like a gigolo) as he makes an appearance in a small role as de Carlo's partner during a zesty, lusty rumba. And keep an eye out for the dramatic, stylish, minimalist ensemble Duryea wears in one scene consisting of an all-black suit with a retina-scalding white tie--talk about fashion being way ahead of its time, Duryea sure looks sharp! Fascinating noir, recommended also as a companion piece to "The Killers."
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