Life and Death in L.A.: Lovesick Wanderer Returns ... to a Double Cross

Thursday, November 16, 2023

Lovesick Wanderer Returns ... to a Double Cross

Burt Lancaster, Yvonne DeCarlo, "Criss Cross" (1949).

This article contains spoilers.

By Paul Parcellin

The magnetic attraction between Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster) and Anna (Yvonne DeCarlo) is the stuff that drives “Criss Cross” toward its dramatic and deadly conclusion. Steve returns to town after two year’s absence and the first thing on his mind is rekindling their romance. In fact, it’s probably the only reason that he returned. As much as he tries to convince himself that he’s not interested in seeing Anna again we know it’s just a matter of time before the two get together. 

They’re the volatile kind of couple that seems to thrive on getting into scraps, making up and starting the cycle over again. Complicating matters is gangster Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea), who is also pursuing Anna’s affections. We believe in Anna’s sincere feelings for Steve, and just when it seems that they’re going to pick up the pieces of their broken marriage — they divorced two years previously — they quarrel and she runs off to Yuma with Slim to get hitched. It’s a revenge marriage, perhaps, or maybe it’s all about the money, but one thing’s certain: there’s precious little warmth between her and her gangster hubby.

That should have been the end of their love triangle, but she and Steve can’t seem to stay away from each other. In voice-over he says it’s fate that keeps bringing them together, and for a while it seems that way. By chance, he glimpses her at Union Station seeing Slim off on an extended trip and that’s enough to set the wheels in motion for a disastrous outcome. Like Lancaster’s role as Swede in “The Killers” (1946), he plays an affable but naive gadabout who is putty in the hands of the people around him whom he mistakenly thinks he can outsmart.

Steve, we learn, has many good qualities, but sound judgment isn’t one of them. He can’t resist getting involved with Anna, despite efforts of Steve’s mother and his longtime buddy Det. Lt. Pete Ramirez (Stephen McNally), who feed him well meaning advice that he stubbornly ignores. 

There’s something boyish about Lancaster’s Steve. We see it when he returns home and throws a ball to his dog and romps like a school kid after dismissal from class. He overlooks the long-term consequences of his actions when it’s extremely unwise to do so. Getting involved with a gangster’s wife is the beginning of his downfall, and when Dundee catches Steve and his wife together, Steve dreams up a heist scheme on the spot to explain why the two of them are alone upstairs. Steve works for an armored car company and he’s got a bright idea about robbing a truck he’ll be guarding when it’s full of payroll cash. 

DeCarlo, Dan Duryea, an uneasy marriage.

It’s a bold move and almost comically unthinkable for someone as devoid of criminal experience as is Steve. But it’s also a clever move considering that he pulls it out of thin air just to save his hide. Dundee wants to know why he’s coming to him for help and Steve bluntly answers that he’s the only crook he knows. Dundee is taken aback but still interested. 

This turn of events abruptly shifts the film’s tone from a tale of clandestine love to a straight-up heist movie. Dundee is well aware of the shenanigans going on behind his back, but is intrigued by the possibility of scoring a lot of cash, and he has plans for Steve once the robbery is over. Of course, Steve has plans for Dundee, and the outcome of this caper hinges on who is more successful in double crossing the other.

Apart from the tense give and take among the main characters who appear along side a bevy of terrific character actors, the city of Los Angeles is a character in itself. Director Robert Siodmak makes the most of the once stately homes that serve as a backdrop to the story. The old neighborhood Steve returns to is the Bunker Hill section of the City of Angels, a setting for many a noir. For appreciators of the city’s architecture that decades ago fell to the wrecking ball, “Criss Cross” is a stunning timepiece that treats us to tasty morsels of vintage eye candy. 

Stairways leading to double- and triple-decker dwellings, looming Victorian homes that are just this side of shabby and the views of City Hall and its surroundings could make anyone nostalgic for the Los Angeles of decades ago, even if they were born long after those once-majestic buildings were leveled. There’s even a scene in a rundown apartment with Dundee’s mob working out the details of a robbery in which we see through the windows in the background the two cars of the Angels Flight funicular gliding up and down the steep incline of Bunker Hill. 

The film opens with a nighttime aerial view of Los Angeles City Hall, the towering building that then also housed the L.A. Police Dept. It seems ever present in the background, a kind of center of gravity around which the characters in this story orbit. It also serves as a reminder that justice is awaiting those who follow criminal pursuits. 

Siodmak’s non-linear way of telling the story begins with the camera panning across the flickering lights of the city, bringing us to a dance hall parking lot where Steve and Anna are carrying on a clandestine affair while Dundee waits inside for Anna. 

We get the setup in short order. Anna and Dundee are married, there’s a big job worth six figures in the works and Dundee is more than a bit suspicious that Steve is after his wife. Later, we see Steve driving toward a rendezvous spot where the armored car stickup will take place. Then in a long flashback sequence we see what brought him to this juncture in his life. 

Burt Lancaster, Tom Pedi, caught in the crossfire.

The film’s final portion focuses on the robbery’s aftermath and the duplicitous Anna, who bears the responsibility of causing Steve’s downfall. But is she really deserving of the blame? Considering that the robbery wasn’t her idea and that the choices that she’s left with are not good, she opts to save herself and that’s probably not a bad idea. Steve, the romantic, says he never cared about the heist money, he only wanted to be with her. But then there’s Dundee to contend with, who, like Steve, sustained severe wounds in the botched robbery. Wounded or not, Dundee is coming after them and she decides to grab the dough and split. 

Up to that point we never doubt her feelings for Steve, but when the chips are down she observes “You have to watch out for yourself.” It’s a cold slap in the face to Steve, but her moment of clarity comes a little too late and she pays the price for not being more discriminating about the company she keeps. So does Steve. It’s not the heroic ending that Hollywood movies normally proffer, but it’s consistent with noir’s cold, cynical view of the world. Like Steve, we don’t see Anna’s true nature until death comes knocking at the door. Then all bets are off.


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