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A fine, bleak noir, close to great, where a person's destiny is written on his face like an epitaph

  • Mar 13, 2011
  • by
"I didn't come back on account of her. It had nothing to do with her. I wasn't going to go looking for her. I didn't expect to run into her. I didn't particularly want to see her. I was sure of that if I was sure of anything. Then from the start it all went one way. It was in the cards or it was fate or a jinx or whatever you want to call it."
Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster) in Criss Cross is a drifter, taking jobs where he finds them. He'd been married to Anna (Yvonne De Carlo) for seven months two years ago. He thought he had her out of his system when he returned to Los Angeles. He was wrong. He starts dropping in at The Roundup, an old hangout, telling himself he isn't there to see her. One evening he spots her there dancing. She's with Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea), a known gangster. The old story starts up again. In a way he sees what's coming. "Half the time you don't know what you're doing," he tells her, "the trouble is you always know what you want."
An old friend, Detective Lieutenant Pete Ramirez, tries to tell him she's bad news. Steve's mother tries to talk sense to him. "You know, Steve," she says to him while he's getting ready to meet Anna, "you're a very nice looking boy. Out of all the girls in Los Angeles why did you have to pick on her?...A girl puts on a piece of silk and the next thing that happens, a fellow like you is sure he knows exactly what he's doing."
Steve and Anna start to have good times, if good times means going to the beach or a movie or The Roundup. Then one night at The Roundup, waiting for Anna to show up, he's told she's not coming...she married Dundee. Dundee may be a criminal, but he has what Anna wants...money.
Then Anna and Steve start sneaking around, seeing each other again. Anna shows the bruises she says she got from Dundee. And Dundee is no fool. One afternoon Anna goes to Steve's home while his mother is out...and Dundee and his gang catch them there. "Hello, baby," Dundee says to his wife while Steve stands nearby in his undershirt. "You know it don't look right," he tells her, "you can't exactly say it looks right, now can you?" Steve makes up a story about how he was meeting Anna just to set up a meeting with Dundee. "What meeting," Dundee asks. You can see the machinery work behind Steve's eyes. A holdup, he says. We can crack an armored car delivery because that's where I work. I'll be Mr. Inside. We'll split fifty-fifty. Steve's committed now. He'll have the money to run away with Anna and she'll be free of Dundee.
As with all fatalistic noirs, of course, it doesn't work out that way. By the time we get to the bleak, night-time ending in a cottage on the California coast, there have been double and triple crosses, betrayals and a loss of innocence that's sad to see.
Is this one of the great noirs, where content isn't as important as style and where a person's destiny is written on his face like an epitaph? Not quite, but it comes close. What I found missing was the lack of empathy for Steve Thompson. Lancaster plays him like just an innocent, well-intentioned guy, a big, dumb lug way over his depth in his relationship with a woman who wants a lot more than just being content with Steve Thompson. Lancaster was a smart, dynamic actor. It’s hard to accept that Steve was so under Anna's spell that nothing she did raised any questions with him.
De Carlo does a nice job as Anna, a character who is selfish and wants money, but who also is being pushed around. Steve gives her the benefit of every doubt, but no one else comes even close to that.
The most interesting character, in my view, is Dan Duryea as Slim Dundee. He may be a double-crossing gangster, but we come to believe he really loves Anna. As bleak as the ending is, the last look at Duryea's face is a fine piece of acting.
The movie also has some set pieces which help build a lot of tension during the second half. Handled very well are the planning of the robbery in a smoke-filled room; the tear-gas attack and the shoot-out around the armored truck; the extended scene in the hospital when Steve believes Dundee is going to send someone to get him; and the drama between Anna and the wounded Steve at the ocean-side cottage.
And that ending. If you tend toward bouts of depression, you might want to skip the last few minutes.
I don’t know if what follows is true. I got it from Raymond a few years ago over a couple of bourbons. Raymond always spoke well of Slim. Sounds right to me. If you haven’t already heard this you might want to just turn the page. There’s those things some people get upset over..what are they called? Oh yeah, spoilers.
Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea) in Criss Cross:
I really loved Anna. I knew the only thing she wanted was money. I knew she didn't love me. Hell, she loved nobody except Anna, and that includes that dumb mug Steve Thompson. Here's a guy who has trouble keeping his fingernails clean and he thinks a big grin will buy half a duplex in Van Nuys with Anna cooking his supper every night. But she was just as dumb as Steve.
Did she really think she could out-class me, Slim Dundee? It wasn't hard putting a couple of bullets into Thompson; that was just swatting a fly. But Anna? Ever shoot a dog you like, or a horse? This was worse. When I heard the police siren, I was going to take a few of them with me, but guess who showed up? Just Lieutenant Pete Ramirez. I shoulda known. Ramirez followed Steve around like a love-lost puppy. You didn't know about Pete? Hell, all you had to do was look at him while he talked to Steve, or watched Steve, or tried to keep Steve away from Anna. That was unrequited love, baby. It wasn't hard to make a deal with Pete. In those days if the word got around that a cop liked guys, well, that would be that. Not like nowadays when the cops have their own floats at the head of the gay pride parades.
The deal was simple. Pete helps me dump Anna and Steve into the ocean and me and my boys keep quiet about Pete and Steve. I kept the money, of course. Just to tidy things up I had Vincent take care of Finchley. That drunk would have told tales on his mother for a pint of bourbon. Of course, then I had to take care of Vincent and the rest of my boys. I don't like loose ends, you know what I mean? Funny thing, a long time afterwards I heard about some East Coast punk who'd made a haul and then started bumping off the guys who'd helped him. Jimmy Conroy or Conway...something like that. I didn't like that; it was too close to home, too many memories. But what could I do? Finally I passed the word. Everyone who did business with this Jimmy bum was to start calling him "Noodles." Why Noodles? Because it's the dumbest nickname I could think of. It drives him crazy, I hear.
Well, all this Anna and Steve stuff was a long time ago. I retired to Long Beach but I still kept my hand in. Old Pete had to keep paying me to keep quiet for years; that was too good to pass up. He shot himself not long ago. Missed a couple of payments so I had to pass the word.
Some people say I'm a tough guy. Not so. When I put those bullets into Anna I really felt bad. Would a tough guy feel bad? 
A fine, bleak noir, close to great, where a person's destiny is written on his face like an epitaph A fine, bleak noir, close to great, where a person's destiny is written on his face like an epitaph A fine, bleak noir, close to great, where a person's destiny is written on his face like an epitaph A fine, bleak noir, close to great, where a person's destiny is written on his face like an epitaph

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May 01, 2012
The start of your review is solid and interesting but with the second part you've really done something impressive. It's a great idea and you've pulled it off splendidly. Thank you.
May 02, 2012
No, thank you! Every now and then I amuse myself by imagining the back stories of a character or two from a noir I like. (The movie critic David Thomson does this much better. Just read his Suspects.) You are only the first or second Luncher to notice, so my quest for applause hasn't been in vain. :-)
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Mrs. Munster beguiles Burt Lancaster, but he should know better
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About the reviewer
C. O. DeRiemer ()
Ranked #32
Since I retired in 1995 I have tried to hone skills in muttering to myself, writing and napping. At 75, I live in one of those places where one moves from independent living to hospice. I expect to begin … more
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