Monday, July 6, 2015

Movie Review: Criss Cross, starring Burt Lancaster and Yvonne De Carlo (1949)

Yvonne De Carlo and Burt Lancaster in the opening scene of Criss Cross, 1949. Burt's jacket is really weird, it has a checkered pattern with black elbow patches and a black back. Did anyone really wear jackets like that in 1949?

Yvonne De Carlo and Burt Lancaster clinch for the cameras in Criss Cross, 1949. Get away from her Burt, that dame's no good for you!
Burt Lancaster was a star from the very beginning of his movie career. He made his electrifying screen debut in The Killers in 1946. Although his acting technique improved over the years, his charisma was readily apparent from the moment he first stepped onto the screen.

Before Lancaster made The Killers, his entire professional acting experience consisted of a single appearance on Broadway in the play A Sound of Hunting, which ran for three weeks in November, 1945. That fact always blows me away. You’d never know from watching The Killers how little experience Lancaster had. Of course, he had been an acrobat for years in the 1930’s, but that’s very different from being an actor. Lancaster was older for an actor who was just starting out. He turned 32 in November, 1945, and he was 6 months older than Tyrone Power, who had been a major movie star for nearly a decade. But Lancaster quickly made up for lost time. In 1947 Lancaster formed his own production company and took charge of his film career. 

Lancaster was an extremely handsome man. He was tall, athletic, and had thick wind-swept brown hair and magnetic blue eyes. Lucy Kibbee, the wife of screenwriter Roland Kibbee, who would go on to work with Lancaster on several movies, said of her first glimpse of Lancaster at a Hollywood party: “I grabbed Kibbee and said, ‘My God, there’s a Greek god sitting over there!’ He was so gorgeous and tall and beautiful and had this great body, physically above everyone in the room.” (Burt Lancaster: An American Life, by Kate Buford, p.83) 

Lancaster signed non-exclusive contracts with producers Hal Wallis and Mark Hellinger. Wallis wanted to change Lancaster’s name to Stuart Chase, but decided against it because there was a famous economist with the same name. Lancaster certainly didn’t look like he should have been called Stuart Chase. 

Criss Cross, from 1949, was Lancaster’s ninth movie, and in his filmography it followed the luridly titled Kiss the Blood off My Hands, which was the first movie that Lancaster’s production company made. Criss Cross had been a project of Mark Hellinger’s, and Lancaster was excited about working with Hellinger again. Hellinger had produced Lancaster’s first two movies, The Killers and Brute Force. When Hellinger died suddenly from a heart attack in December, 1947, Universal studios took over production of Criss Cross. Lancaster was not looking forward to making the film, as the script had changed a great deal since Hellinger had died. But Lancaster didn’t have much of a choice, as Universal told him he would be in breach of his contract if he didn’t make Criss Cross. 

On the set of Criss Cross, Lancaster was reunited with director Robert Siodmak, who had directed The Killers. The plot of Criss Cross was becoming very similar to The Killers as well, with Lancaster cast as the hapless film noir stooge who falls under the spell of a treacherous woman. The woman in Criss Cross was played by the stunningly beautiful Yvonne De Carlo. De Carlo had first met Lancaster at a casting conference in late 1946, and according to her autobiography, they began a short but passionate affair, which included an encounter where they made love in De Carlo’s backyard on her mink coat! (Against Type: The Biography of Burt Lancaster, by Gary Fishgall, p.57) 

Criss Cross opens with a tracking shot of Los Angeles from a helicopter, which eventually focuses in on a parking lot, where we met Steve Thompson (Lancaster) and Anna (De Carlo), caught in a passionate embrace. They are divorced, and she has married someone else, but they are passionately in love. Criss Cross then flashes back to Steve’s return to LA. He’s been traveling the country, trying to get Anna out of his system after their divorce. He thinks he’s been successful, but of course it hasn’t worked. When Lancaster goes to their old favorite club, look closely at the young, handsome guy with dark hair who Yvonne De Carlo is dancing with. It’s Tony Curtis, in one of his first film roles. Anna and Steve start dating again, even though all of their encounters seem to end with them getting into a fight. Anna also starts dating the gangster Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea), who she eventually marries. But when she runs into Steve again, they start an affair. Eventually Slim finds out about their affair, and Steve offers Slim a proposition: he will help Slim rob an armored truck. (Helpfully, Steve works for an armored truck company.) Of course, things go awry during the robbery, and it becomes clear that the plan was to double cross Steve. Steve gets shot, but he’s able to thwart the robbers from getting all of the money, and the newspapers hail him as a hero. As he recovers in the hospital, Steve is kidnapped by one of Dundee’s thugs. Steve bribes the thug to take him to Anna instead, who has all of the robbery money. Instead of being happy to see Steve, Anna lashes out at him, telling him he would only slow her down with his broken arm. Criss Cross ends bleakly, as Dundee shows up and shoots both Steve and Anna dead. 

Criss Cross is a good, gritty film noir, but for me it was too similar to The Killers to really be a classic. I think The Killers is just a better movie. But Criss Cross has all of the typical noir elements: interesting camera angles, a fatalistic and hapless protagonist, flashbacks, voiceover narration, a colorful supporting cast, and a cold-hearted femme fatale. 

Dan Duryea gives an excellent performance as Slim Dundee, the kind of slimy gangster that no one would want to run into. Stephen McNally is also very good as Pete Ramirez, a cop who tries to help Steve. Duryea and McNally both had interesting lives before they became actors. Duryea majored in English at Cornell University, and then entered the advertising business. When he suffered a heart attack in his late 20’s, he decided to pursue acting, which had always been his first love. Duryea had success on Broadway in The Little Foxes, and he reprised his role in the 1941 movie version. Duryea worked steadily in movies and television until his death in 1968. Stephen McNally had a successful career as an attorney before he quit in his late 20’s to become an actor. Like Duryea, McNally always found plenty of work in movie and on television. McNally retired from acting in 1980, and passed away in 1994.

After Criss Cross, Burt Lancaster would try harder to broaden his screen image, and he broke out of the tough guy mold with roles like the alcoholic Doc Delaney in Come Back, Little Sheba. I’ve always admired how Lancaster tried to show his full range as an actor. Just when it looked like he might be typecast as a film noir actor, he made a swashbuckling film like 1950’s The Flame and the Arrow, which showed a different side of his talent, and demonstrated what a great acrobat he was. With his roles in Come Back, Little Sheba in 1952, and From Here to Eternity in 1953, Lancaster was finally taken seriously as an excellent dramatic actor. Lancaster was never afraid to play against type, and in many films he downplayed his charisma and his athletic physique. Slowly but surely, one film at a time, Lancaster expanded his range, to the point where he may have been the most versatile leading man of his generation.

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