Saturday, May 19, 2012

Tonight's Movie: Criss Cross (1949) at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

I felt an especial sense of satisfaction attending tonight's screening of CRISS CROSS at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. CRISS CROSS is on my list of 10 Classics to see in 2012, and I really wanted my first viewing to be in a theater. I'd attempted to see the film on standby at the TCM Classic Film Festival, but although I was first in line, the seats were all filled by passholders.

I was thus thrilled when LACMA announced that CRISS CROSS would be shown in its series The Sun Sets in the West: Mid-Century California Noir, little more than a month after I'd missed out on the TCM screening. Even better, CRISS CROSS was shown with another film I've been wanting to see, EXPERIMENT IN TERROR (1962). Ironically I think I may have enjoyed EXPERIMENT IN TERROR even more than the long-awaited CRISS CROSS, but the films combined for an outstanding evening of film noir in the Leo S. Bing Theater.

Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster) returns to Los Angeles after an absence of several months, but he's been unable to shake his feelings for his mercurial, greedy and stunningly beautiful ex-wife Anna (Yvonne DeCarlo). Steve tries to rekindle the flame, but Anna abruptly marries mobster Slim (Dan Duryea).

Despite warnings to Steve by his old friend Pete (Stephen McNally), a police detective, Steve can't seem to stay away from Anna, and when Slim catches Steve with his wife, Steve has to think of a good excuse fast. Unfortunately, the best idea Steve has is to claim he'd wanted Anna to deliver a business proposal to Slim, that they work together on the heist of the armored truck Steve drives for a living. (A review at Film Noir Blonde raises an interesting question: just how long had Steve been mulling over the robbery idea?)

This film about obsession and compulsion has many interesting layers, with much of the story told in flashback. The lead actors are all compelling, particularly DeCarlo and Duryea. DeCarlo was surely at the height of her beauty, with seriously great hair and a perfect wardrobe by Yvonne Wood; the scene where she dances at a nightclub with bit player Tony Curtis (!) is unforgettable. Her performance matches her looks; in particular, her final scene is a real jaw-dropper, superbly done. I've always been able to take or leave Lancaster, finding him dull, but he's fine in this.

CRISS CROSS is surely one of the most beautiful of all film noir titles, filmed in gleaming black and white by Franz "Frank" Planer. As a Southern Californian, it's a real thrill to see such beautiful shots of 1940s Los Angeles, including Union Station, Bunker Hill, and the Angels Flight Railway. There's a great scene where the crooks are plotting and the railway can be seen running up and down the track through the window; I'm not sure how the shot was accomplished, but it looks fabulous and gives the film a great sense of time and place. Robby's post on the locations at his blog Dear Old Hollywood is must reading for fans of the film.

If I had a problem with the movie, it's because I have somewhat of an aversion to stories focusing on "stupid people doing stupid things." There's not a sensible or honorable character among the three leads, no one the audience can actually root for. That said, this is as good a movie about stupid people as one will ever find, and it's fascinating trying to understand the characters and their motivations.

CRISS CROSS was directed by Robert Siodmak, the veteran of many film noir titles including PHANTOM LADY (1944), CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY (1944), THE KILLERS (1946), and CRY OF THE CITY (1948).

Daniel Fuchs' screenplay was based on a book by Don Tracy. IMDb lists William Bowers (CRY DANGER) as having done uncredited work on the script.

The supporting cast includes Griff Barnett, Richard Long, Alan Napier, Meg Randall, and Edna Holland. The musical score was by Miklos Rozsa. The running time is 83 minutes.

CRISS CROSS was released on DVD in the Universal Noir Collection; it can rented via Netflix or ClassicFlix. It was also released on VHS.

Much has been written about this great movie; starting points for more reading on the web include good posts at Riding the High Country, Twenty Four Frames, Noir of the Week, and Sunday Matinee.

November 2016 Update: I had a fantastic experience seeing the movie again in Union Station, where some of the movie was filmed!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

First, thanks for the link Laura.

It must have been great to see this on the big screen, as it was originally intended. I find the movie a near perfect one, and thought the characters, Lancaster's at least, were symapthetic enough. I guess he does play it dumb, but that's where the pathos and everyman quality comes from. For me, if his character had been sharper or more calculating, then much of the film's power would have been drained away. There's a feeling, by the end, that you're watching what's essentially a big kid in emotional terms see his hopes and dreams ground to dust before his half-believing eyes. Lancaster had a real talent for connecting with that kind of gullible innocnece.

3:53 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Colin!

It was definitely a great experience. :)

Really enjoyed your take. It's interesting to me to try to reconcile the big kid you describe with the man whose dreams included a heist, which doesn't seem very childlike or innocent (grin) -- but was done in order to achieve his dream of having enough money to satisfy Anna. I always like reading how others such as yourself see the characters as it's interesting to consider and also gives food for thought for repeat viewings.

Best wishes,

4:03 PM  
Blogger KC said...

"this is as good a movie about stupid people as one will ever find"--that line made me laugh out loud! I love how you go to all these screenings. That is truly the way to see movies.

8:49 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks, KC! I'm glad you shared my sense of humor about that, LOL.

I truly am fortunate being able to attend so many screenings, over the past couple years especially. It's a great experience -- nothing can compare to a pristine, gleaming print on a huge screen! The movies seen in this way also somehow seem to burrow deeper into the memory banks. :)

Best wishes,

9:16 PM  

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