Posted by Gary George
MEMO from the desk of MARK HELLINGER...The above note is in reality all supposition on my part. I've found documentation in several places that mentions the fact that Mark Hellinger began working on Criss Cross while completing The Naked City, and just before he died of a heart attack at the age of 44. By most accounts, screenwriter Daniel Fuchs was given only a very basic, verbal version of Hellinger's vision for the film.To: Robert Siodmak
Subject: Burt's next film
This is in regard to a follow-up film to your success with The Killers. I now have a script from a 1935 novel by Don Tracy, titled CRISS CROSS, that I believe will fill the bill. Burt Lancaster owes me a third picture according to our contract, and he is on-board, but at this juncture, Ava may be a problem.
Please meet with me at your earliest convenience to further discuss additional details.
I've always found Hellinger's choice of source material for what became Criss Cross very interesting...in the November 2003 issue of FIRSTS (a book collectors magazine), there is an article by Kevin Johnson titled SOME TOUGH NOIRS... detailing several of the books made into films noir. From the article:
"Criss Cross was Don Tracy's first book... published in 1934... Tracy was a regular contributor to the pulps of the 30's and 40's...his first four novels were all noirs. The book is, in the words of The Mysterious bookshop's Otto Penzler, "pretty bad." With clunky dialouge, racist overtones and a very dated style, it seems hard to believe that Criss Cross could have become such an important film. Partial credit belongs to Don Tracey, whose personal experiences resulted in the story's interesting content. Tracy worked both as a guard on an armored car and as a night-club manager, professions that figure heavily in the progression of the story. Criss Cross (the book) is far from sublime, and it's certainly no masterpiece." What I find most interesting...why and how did Hellinger choose the little known Tracy novel from FIFTEEN YEARS prior...especially if it was as bad as the article makes it sound? Regardless, screenwriter Daniel Fuchs more than did his part to turn the book into a film noir masterpiece, with some of the most snappy dialogue in the canon. There is a very telling line, issued by Edna Holland (playing Burt's mother, and talking about her former daughter-in-law)..."In some ways she knows more than Einstein," that should be a tip-off to things to come in the film, but is so artfully done that doesn't give anything away. The script also has bits of humor, which is unusual for noir, and especially for a film this bleak in theme...there is a very funny bit done at "The Roundup," a bar where much of the action takes place. Film foir fan favorite Percy Helton really has it working when he asks Burt Lancaster about being a "checker" for the state liquor board."Regardless of how Hellinger, Fuchs, and Siodmak got Criss Cross from book form to the screen, this is THE FILM NOIR that I recommend to all noir neophytes as the place to start, even though it is number two on my list of great ones (Out of the Past being first, but a more difficult watch for the newbie). From the incredible opening aerial shot (perfected by the very fine director of photography Franz Planer, working arguably at his zenith here), where the camera takes a night-time look at Los Angeles before zooming in on our doomed protagonist and his femme fatale (Burt and Robert Siodmak)...well, you just know that you're in for something very special.
I don't usually summarize film plots in my NOTW, as I find it to easy to give away plot points and inadvertently include spoilers. In the case of Criss Cross, the actual plot really isn't what is so fascinating...the real story is about love, betrayal, obsession, and fate...all of the things that make for the best films noir. I will mention that there is a robbery, but saying that Criss Cross is about a robbery is like saying The Godfather is about organized crime. All of this is not to say that Criss Cross doesn't have an interesting plot-it does-and the actual robbery secquence is very well handled by master noir director Robert Siodmak...but there is soooo much more going on here. At about fourteen minutes into the film a flashback occurs, and that goes on for well over an hour. Not long after we're returned to real time, there is a scene in a hospital that is a tense as anything in the best of Val Lewton's work!
The cast of Criss Cross is a virtual "who's who" of film noir, with easily recognizable faces throughout. It has been said in some reviews that Burt Lancaster, as "the prize sucker of all time" was miscast...but I heartily disagree. This may well be his best work in film noir, and after doing 8 noirs in a row, it was his last until 1957.
Apparently, Ava Gardner, who found stardom along with Burt in The Killers, was considered for the part of Anna in Criss Cross...and the reason she wasn't used is a bit unclear. Shelly Winters was also a strong contender for the role...however, I will remain eternally grateful to the Gods of casting that Yvonne De Carlo landed the role. I can't imagine anyone bettering her work here...her sexy, offbeat good looks and combination of sweet and tough are just perfect for Anna. I would be tough to argue that this is not the high water mark of DeCarlo's acting career, although she went on to work for many more years. In my opinion, Ava would have been far to imperious for this part, and Shelly Winters far too trampy. One of the top acting scenes in the film have Yvonne's Anna showing in-love Burt the bruises that her husband has given her...a move that seals the deal of doom for Burt. This scene is VERY reminiscent of one in Human Desire, with Gloria Grahame and Glenn Ford, done a few years later by Fritz Lang.
Dan Duryea, as the gangster de jour, hits many high notes in a role he was born to play...although after this most recent look at the film, I realize that he didn't have as much screen time as I had remembered (this is a tribute to Duryea, an actor who always made the most out of any part he played). A note should be made here about the wardrobe in Criss Cross...this is the film with the COOLEST CLOTHES in all of film noir! Duryea wears the hell out of that white tie on black shirt look that later became de riguer for all gangsters of the fifties. Burt only wears a suit and tie in the beginning of the film, opting instead for a very sharp black turtleneck and THE GREATEST JACKET IN FILM NOIR HISTORY! No kidding, this two-tone, belted number sported here by Lancaster is, imo, the most standout piece of wardrobe in all of film noir. Along with this casual, working class neighborhood look, Yvonne De Carlo is actually seen wearing slacks (and how!), which is something I can't recall seeing on any other woman in film noir.
Continuing with the character actors in Criss Cross, I mentioned earlier the great work here of Percy Helton, who steals several of his scenes. In a very famous cameo, an unbilled Tony Curtis is seen dancing (very "gigolo-like") with Yvonne DeCarlo in an early scene. Stephen McNally is fine in a small but important part as a cop who is really responsible for setting things in motion in the plot. Alan Napier (who later played Alfred on tv's BATMAN)is fun to watch here as the "mastermind" of the crime. John Doucette and Tom Pedi, with their distinct voices and recognizable mugs, get to utter more than just their usual few inconsequential lines, and they stand-out as Duryea's henchmen.
Criss Cross is also a very historic film, in the sense that it shows many Los Angeles locales as they were in the late 1940's...most notably, Angels Flight and Bunker Hill (both now gone, I believe), and a great look at Union Station as it was then. There is also a fun bit of dialogue between two characters discussing the price of groceries at the local market that should give those familiar with current prices pause...not to mention several indications of the nickel phone call and .25 cent beer.
I'll finish up here, appropriately enough, with a few lines on the end of the film...and staying with my edict to give the least amount of spoilers possible, all I will say is that it is in my top two favorites in all of film noir, and that Fuchs and Siodmak in no way compromised the "noir theme." It is the last two minutes or so where DeCarlo really shines, plainly stating her somewhat bent philosophy on life and love, that really make this ending work. If I have even a remote quibble regarding Criss Cross, it would be that it doesn't feature the usual amount of darkly lit scenes that some of the classic noirs do...but this is total nitpicking on my part. Criss Cross is a great film, in my opinion, and not just a great film noir. As a testament to the quality of Criss Cross, just check out the "remake" The Underneath ('94), filmed by no less a director than Steven Soderbergh. Not a bad film by any means, but not a patch on the original.