CRISS CROSS (1949)
Director: Robert Siodmak
Writers: Daniel Fuchs, based on a novel by Don Tracy.
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Yvonne DeCarlo, Dan Duryea.
This is one of my favorite movies, but I have no idea when I first saw it. Most likely on the Late Late Show. Back in the old days, when there were only 3 networks and a handful of local stations with local programming, they always had a late night movie. Networks like NBC would show some fairly new movie during prime time, kind of the way HBO has fairly new movies today. So the late show movies were always something old, from the 1940s or 1950s... stuff like CASABLANCA. After the late show movies there was... nothing. TV stations closed down for the night at 2 or 3AM and after the sign off (America The Beautiful over The Blue Angels flying in formation) there was a test pattern until the Farm Report the next morning. No infomercials. When I came home from working at the Movie Theater, I’d usually watch the Late Late Show on Friday and Saturday nights and catch some classic film... and that probably included CRISS CROSS.
CRISS CROSS is a film noir based on a novel by Don Tracy and kicks off our Don Tracy Appreciation Week. Don who? you ask... hey, me too! The only reason why I know this novelist’s name is from the opening titles of CRISS CROSS, but when I came to this week’s Thriller Thursday episode it was based on a novel by... Don Tracy. Hey! What a weird coincidence! So I looked him up online and discovered his two most famous novels ended up as this movie and that TV episode. Tracy was a journalist who hit it big with his second novel “Criss Cross” and then crashed and burned with his third novel “How Sleeps The Beast?” about racial conditions in the modern south... which was too controversial for the times. After returning from World War 2, he shifted gears and wrote some sprawling historical adventure novels like “Crimson Is The Eastern Shore”, “Roanoke Renegade”, and “Carolina Corsair”. He came back to noir with “The Big Blackout” (Thriller Thursday) and in the sixties he wrote a detective series about a military policeman solving crimes on base and off (kind of like NCIS). Because this was the Paperback Revolution, he also wrote a huge stack of TV and movie novelizations under a pseudonym. A recovering alcoholic, he wrote an AA self help book in the 70s. Oddly, I have never read any of his detective series, even though those were the kinds of books I hunted for in used bookstores. Now I’m going to try and track some down.
But CRISS CROSS...
The film opens with Steve Thompson (muscular Burt Lancaster) making out in a night club parking lot with his ex wife Anna (sexy Yvonne DeCarlo who you may know from THE MUNSTERS), who is married to some other guy now... Slim Dundee (the slimy Dan Duryea who improves every movie he is in) a local crime boss. They enter the club separately, but later that night Thompson and Dundee get involved in a fight in a back room of the club, and Thompson’s detective pal Pete Ramerize breaks it up and asks Thompson if he wants to press charges. Thompson says no, then ends up with Dundee and his gang in the men’s room washing up... and we discover the fight was just for the sake of the detective.... but got out of hand because Dundee thinks his wife Anna may be fooling around with her ex husband. Thompson is an armored truck guard who is the inside man for a robbery by Dundee and his gang scheduled for the next day.
When the Armored Truck goes on a pick up, the two guys packing huge bundles of money into bags are talking about how their wives overpay on laundry soap by 3 cents... this kind of contrast is one of the things that makes the film great.
About 13 minutes into the film, just before the robbery, the Armored Truck now filled with bags of money, Thompson remembers how he came to be here...
And we get to the meat of the story in a 50 minute flashback (in an 88 minute film)... which is not a crime story, but the story of a man with a broken heart. Thompson returns to Los Angeles after years of drifting from city to city, working a variety of odd jobs, trying to forget Anna... his ex wife who broke his heart. Film Noir is all about the four Ds: Darkness, Destiny, Despair, and of course Doom... and Destiny plays a large part in Thompson’s homecoming. When he gets to his family house, no one is home... so he wanders through the city ending up at... the night club where he and his ex wife used to hang out. He tries to call her several times, but something always gets in his way... like a warning.
The night club has a separate bar attached, and there are two great recurring characters in that bar that you will remember long after you’ve forgotten the plot of some recent hit film. The bartender (Percy Helton) who thinks Thompson might be an undercover checker with the Alcoholic Beverages Commission is a real character, and it’s fun to watch their relationship change as time goes on. The lush who sits at the end of the bar all day (Joan Miller) is one of those great characters and great performances that makes you feel as if you’ve known her all of your life. And it’s *unusual* to make that drunk at the end of the bar a woman... you feel like she was maybe Rosie The Riveter during the war and afterwards her life went south... and here she is. I looked up the actress who played that role and she worked consistently. One of the great things about writing during the studio system was that they had all of these great character actors under contract and you could write a role for them. In the Supporting Characters Blue Book I talk about some of the great characters who pop up as Pirate #7 or Cowboy #9 (and often played both roles in different movies) and how well developed those little roles were. You remembered them. There’s a nice bit in CRISS CROSS where the Bartender is trying to tell someone how much he appreciates the Lush, his favorite customer... and she doesn’t know if she should be insulted or not. It’s a great moment for both of them. Oh, and at one point in the night club Anna is dancing with some handsome young man... a no lines extra in the film... played by a not yet famous guy named Tony Curtis!
But Thompson and Anna are destined to bump into each other... and that happens. He knows that she is wrong for him, that if they get back together again he will just end up heartbroken again... and that’s what happens. As soon as they begin dating again, she hooks up with Dundee and *marries* the mobster, leaving Thompson stood up at the night club. When Dundee leaves on business, destiny brings them together again... but this time he’s fooling around with a mobster’s wife.
How destiny brings them together: Dundee has to catch a train on business and at the last minute *doesn’t* take Anna. Thompson is at the train station... after learning about their marriage he’s thinking about splitting town to avoid the pain of bumping into her. An employee behind a center counter bends down for a moment and Thompson gets a glimpse of the woman on the other side... Anna. Thompson tries to avoid her by going outside... but Anna has gone outside as well. She plans on getting in her car and driving home... but Dundee’s #2 man is in the car, driving it to the city where Dundee is going so that they’ll have a vehicle there. Which leaves Anna and Thompson the only two people with nowhere to go outside the train station. Destiny keeps bringing them together... and if Dundee finds out about it they are both dead.
Let me take a minute to mention the Los Angeles locations. Union Station is the train station, and they really shot there. I know that sounds silly, but movies were made on the backlot at this time, and there was some train station set that all movies used. CRISS CROSS went out on the streets of Los Angeles, and you get all kinds of great shots of places in the city that no longer exist. The trolley cars, Hill Street, the old houses, this film is a moving snapshot of Los Angeles in the late 40s. It’s fascinating to watch just for the scenery.
When they eventually get caught together by Dundee, Thompson tries to talk his way out of it... by saying that he actually was there to talk to Dundee. See, he has a job that needs some criminals. Thompson has gotten his old job as an Armored Truck guard back, and has a scheme to commit a robbery. Needs criminal help. Dundee and his gang come in on the robbery... and now Thompson’s cover story for being with Anna has turned him into a criminal. Maybe there’s a fifth D in Noir: degradation. Thompson would do anything to get Anna back, he has never gotten over her... she’s in his blood. And going from respected armored truck guard to criminal just to keep her in his life is a major fall for him. The problem is: he says it off the top of his head to pacify Dundee... but it all becomes too real when they bring in a planner and put together a crew and buy vehicles and explosives and fake uniforms and gear up to do the job.
Which leads us up to that sixty three minute mark with Thompson back behind the wheel of the Armored Truck as they head to the ambush... and our final twenty five minutes of the film.
Don Westlake writing as Richard Stark wrote a series of heist novels featuring a guy named Parker, and a handful of them are armored truck robberies... and no to are the same. The “high concept” in a heist story is the method they use to pull the heist. You need something original. The robbery here involves a monthly factory payroll delivery in cash, a tanker truck that will block the road to the factory to keep away the police, and other elements... but the main thing is the inside man: Thompson. He not only has to remove the third guard (who would stay in the truck and shoot the robbers) but put the second guard at ease when he thinks continuing the cash delivery might be dangerous for just two guards. In the planning scene we see how the plan *will* work, but execution is where things tend to go wrong...
And if you were Dundee and you had a chance to kill the guy who was sleeping with your wife during the robbery, what would you do? So instead of Thompson’s rule that the other guard (his friend Pops who is dating Thompson’s mom) and of course himself will not be harmed in the robbery; Pops is killed and Dundee tries to kill Thompson. The two exchange gunfire, wounding each other... but Thompson manages to kill a bunch of the other robbers... but the money and Dundee vanish.
Thompson wakes up in the hospital a hero... but his detective pal Pete Rameriz knows he had to be part of the robbery, and warns him that Dundee is still alive and will be hunting him. Which leads to a *great* sequence of complete paranoia as Thompson is trapped in his hospital bed, leg and arm in casts and elevated with cables... and suspicious people linger in the hospital hallways and shadows pass just outside his field of vision... often falling over the pebbled glass window. This has you on the edge of your seat. One particular guy is sitting in the hallway... and Thompson asks the nurse to bring him in. Ends up being a nice guy husband whose wife was in a car accident instead of one of Dundee’s thugs. Now Thompson *begs* the husband to stay with him (so that no one can sneak in and kill him in his sleep), but the husband says he needs to stay outside his wife’s door incase she wakes up... leaving Thompson alone.
Since this entry is now twice the usual length, I’m going to stop before we get to the ending... but what’s interesting is how it remains the story of a man with a broken heart, still in love with his ex wife, right up until the end. I think one of the things good films do is have an emotional throughline that is connected to theme. It’s Thompson still being hung up on his ex wife that drives the whole story... from the dramatic side of the story to the crime side of the story. These things are all connected. This is one of my favorite movies because all of the pieces come together perfectly... and I think we all still have some past love in our blood... and wish we could get over that long ago broken heart.
I suspect that CRISS CROSS is one of the Coen Brothers favorite movies, since Lancaster’s character often says “Sure, sure” a phrase said often by Paul Newman’s character in HUDSUCKER PROXY and there’s a dialogue from Anna, “I didn’t do anything wrong” which is echoed by Thompson later... and a very similar thing happens in BLOOD SIMPLE with the line “I didn’t do anything funny.” I think it would be fun to look at Soderbergh’s remake of CRISS CROSS next week...