Criss Cross – Film Review
Weaving its way through love, betrayal, power struggles and a multitude of themes, Criss Cross twists the film noir genre with its bleak, intriguing tale of ill-fated romance interwoven with criminality.
Criss Cross is a masterclass in taut tension and it is also an exercise in economical filming. Its duration is only one hour 25 minutes and its themes are revealed instantly. However, the use of flashbacks criss-crossing the past and present serve to subvert the typical film noir elements. The apparent femme fatale is present, there is a lover, there are some discussions of escape to a place of sanctuary, a heist and a husband plus acts of violence but Criss Cross deconstructs these classic film noir ingredients to thrilling effect.
Steve played by Burt Lancaster is in the handsome leading man territory but despite his good looks he is particularly bitter and this aligns with the bleak tone embedded within Criss Cross. The film does provide several swooning romantic moments with close up shots with Steve’s lover, Anna. The difference in Criss Cross is that Anna is Steve’s ex-wife and described from the outset as being ‘a bad one’ by Steve’s mother and police officer friend. Perhaps such warnings seem a tad overbearing but as a post war narrative this may be reflective of the attitudes felt in the country in that period of reconstruction.
Elements of the sexism rife in that period creep in as women are patronisingly told to go and ‘powder their noses’ and some men in between working joke about the various shopping techniques their wives have devised. The delineation between men’s work and women’s work is obvious during Criss Cross with a mere handful of women having speaking roles, others form part of a crowd seemingly focusing on gossip when fights break out. The outliers are Anna and one woman who is literally seen propping up the bar from time to time, who is equally not developed as a sympathetic character.
Criss Cross unveils these elements in a non-linear style through a series of flashbacks from the moment that Steve returned to his former life. There is the impression that he seems haunted by the past as those encountered on his journey often remark whether he will be re-visiting the old haunts. Some of those places are ones that were previously frequented with Anna. Despite Steve’s brusque appearance and demeanour there is a vulnerability surrounding him which is exploited by those within his life.
Such vulnerability also seems to attract the attention of those operating within the criminal underworld. ‘Dundee’ who is akin to a cardboard cut-out gangster is now espoused to Anna and along with being embroiled in criminality, he is in possession of a jealous streak. The camera pans between Steve and Dundee providing this insight into their rivalry but equally focuses on Anna’s face, with a Hollywood leading lady style of close up, to accentuate this fear. Such technique is effective but also provides that insight into the mesmerising star quality effect that Anna has on Steve for which he would be willing to make Dundee an offer he cannot refuse, when found in a compromising position.
Criss Cross is dramatic, epic and stylish with sweeping scores adding that Hollywood glamour. There are scenes that will leave you breathless with the framing of the cinematography where views of the ocean can be mesmerisingly witnessed from a character’s point of view through an ajar door. Such flourishes add a beauty to an otherwise bleak tale.
None of the characters seem likeable but whilst layers of complexity can be attributed to the personas of Anna and Steve, the same is not true of the criminals who are thinly developed and subscribe to that gangster trope.
Equally, there is a layer of moral ambiguity evident in all of the characters which subverts the typical premise within the film noir genre. This level of corruption displayed within the characters may be symptomatic of the post war uncertainty of the era where changes were in effect for the country. As the tagline suggests, there is plenty of double crossing which adds to the suspense of the film. The literal criss-crossing of the characters within the film’s rhythm, akin to a dance, is also a marvel to watch.
The rhythm in Criss Cross shifts tone over the course of the film, the first half seems pre-occupied with establishing the protagonist Steve’s motives for returning to his hometown with plenty of moments for those slow, close-ups highlighting his rugged looks and a voiceover emphasising his dulcet tones. As such, the tone overall is uneven as the second half with its tense build up will keep you on the edge of your seat until its dramatic climax.
Director Robert Siodmak employs romantic flourishes in Criss Cross but this is not a romantic film; there are several obstacles preventing Steve and Anna from being successfully re-united as lovers in life. It is very well executed and compelling with Shakespearean elements but Criss Cross seems to advocate that notion to ‘trust no-one’ thereby delivering a dose of cynicism within its outlook.
Criss Cross is that masterclass in creating suspicion from a few furtive glances and quick edits which make the film a delight to watch. Reminiscent of Le Corbeau in this exercise of developing suspicion, there are some memorable but bleak quotes from Anna that people should effectively watch out for themselves rather than trusting others.
Criss Cross evokes the full range of emotions melding love, loss, betrayal, anxiety, anger and despair which provide that sense of foreboding throughout. However, Criss Cross in the midst of such simmering emotions will leave you wanting more following its climactic denouement which may also provide that sense of serenity and a modicum of resolution within this riveting, aesthetically pleasing tale.
Criss Cross is truly a fascinating classic with excellent storytelling within the film noir genre.
Criss Cross has been re-released on BluRay with a 4K restoration as part of the Masters of Cinema series.