Robert Siodmak’s Criss Cross (1949) stands as one of the most bleakly romantic and fatalistic films noir of the classical era. In it, Burt Lancaster plays Steve Thompson, an armoured-car driver who comes home to Los Angeles hoping for a fresh start after travelling the country doing odd jobs in the wake of his divorce from Anna (Yvonne De Carlo). Steve swears he’s got her out of his system, but an afternoon stroll on his first day back in town takes him directly to their old haunt, the Round-Up, where he engages in small talk between longing glances at the telephone. We know where this is heading, and so does Steve: “What was the use?”, he asks. “I knew one way or another I’d wind up seeing her that night.” This fatalistic tone is grounded in Criss Cross’ non-linear plot, which, in the film’s first moment, deposits us directly into the eye of a complex web of murky allegiances and various characters’ plans to double-cross one another. Lovers Steve and Anna have secretly reunited, but their affair is on the verge of being discovered by the smarmy gangster, Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea), to whom Anna is now married. To hide the affair, Steve impulsively suggests he and Slim join forces to carry out a heist, and beforehand, the rivals will stage a barroom brawl to throw the police off the scent of their unlikely collaboration. 

Although it was adapted from Don Tracy’s 1936 novel of the same name, Criss Cross was, from its inception, a project designed to capitalise on the success of Siodmak’s 1946 film The Killers, which had thrust a then 32-year-old Lancaster – along with his 23-year-old co-star Ava Gardner – into the spotlight and made them both stars overnight. Adapted from a 1927 short story by Ernest Hemmingway, The Killers starred Lancaster as Ole Anderson or “the Swede”, a former boxer who gets mixed up with gangster Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker) and his girl, Kitty Collins (Gardner). The Swede is a handsome chump, but Lancaster’s skilful and nuanced performance gave the character what critic Manny Farber described as “a dreamy, peaceful, introspective air that dissociates him from everything earthly”.1 Lancaster brings this distinctive interpretation of the hapless hunk into the role of Steve in Criss Cross, while De Carlo’s performance as Anna produces a femme fatale who is more ambiguous and conflicted than Gardner’s Kitty. The result is a dynamic that oscillates between sensual and cynical, where the couple’s erotically charged desperation butts up against their inevitable fate.

This dynamic is something that Siodmak explored throughout his career, merging the aesthetic principals of German Expressionism with the realist tradition of Hollywood cinema to forge a visual style defined by its compelling contrast of darkness and light. On Criss Cross, Siodmak worked with cinematographer Franz Planer to achieve the film’s lush, dark textures, which are also evident in Planer’s other work, including Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) made with fellow émigré Max Ophuls. These textures are literally made to dance in an extraordinary scene at the Round-Up, where the Esy Morales Orchestra are playing the Afro-Cuban Jazz song “Jungle Fantasy”. While Anna dances (with a young Tony Curtis in his first but uncredited role), Steve watches her from afar, and Lancaster’s face quietly conveys the simultaneous longing and loathing simmering within.

This wavering tension is also mirrored in the way the film represents the city through the contrast between stylised interiors and the topography of downtown Los Angeles. Much of the location shooting occurred in Bunker Hill, which had been a wealthy and salubrious residential neighbourhood until the 1920s, and whose Victorian-era architecture can be glimpsed when Lancaster’s character arrives in Los Angeles and walks to his mother’s house. Bunker Hill had been a favourite location for Hollywood filmmakers, but it had become particularly useful for making crime films as the character of the neighbourhood began to change after the end of the World War I. In 1955, Los Angeles city planners devised the Bunker Hill Redevelopment Project, which would eventually demolish all historical architecture, modify the area’s steep incline, and relocate thousands of residents, effectively erasing an important chapter of the city’s history. Like other films shot in Bunker Hill in the first half of the century, Criss Cross thus becomes an important testimony of this Los Angeles neighbourhood’s vitality and even existence.

In fact, Criss Cross cues us to read the importance of the city’s topography in its opening shot. Miklós Rózsa’s tense score sweeps us from the Universal International studio logo up into the Los Angeles night sky over the downtown area, from where a single building dominates our perspective: City Hall. Built in 1927, the building housed the Los Angeles Police Department until 1955, making it a useful icon for directors wanting to convey a thematic focus on law or crime in their movies. But for the first 30 years of its existence, City Hall was also the tallest building in Los Angeles, dominating the skyline of a city so often characterised in terms of flatness. Siodmak leverages this iconic verticality in the opening shot in order to direct us downward, from across the great expanse of downtown Los Angeles and into the dimly lit parking lot of the Round-Up, where, in the dark space between parked cars, the two lovers are locked in a clandestine embrace. This movement through space not only locates Criss Cross narrative in Los Angeles, but as Edward Dimendberg suggests, situates the doomed fate of the characters “as if to propose the metropolis as an omnipresent catalyst in their eventual self-destruction”.2 Sensing us watching them, Steve and Anna disentangle as she tells him that after tonight, the past won’t matter: “We’ll forget it”, she insists. “You’ll see, I’ll make you forget it”. But their fantasy of escaping the past doesn’t stand a chance, and Anna’s words seem to dissolve into the city’s shadows the moment they pass through her lips.

Criss Cross (1949 USA 83 mins)

Prod Co: Universal International Pictures Prod: Michel Kraike Dir: Robert Siodmak Scr: Daniel Fuchs, based on the novel by Don Tracy Phot: Franz Planer Ed: Ted J. Kent Art Dir: Bernard Herzbrun, Boris Leven Mus: Miklós Rózsa

Cast: Burt Lancaster, Yvonne De Carlo, Dan Duryea, Stephen McNally, Tom Pedi, Alan Napier


  1. Manny Farber, Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber, ed. Robert Polito, New York, Library of America, 2009, 289. Originally published in The New Republic on 30 September 1946.
  2. Edward Dimendberg, Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity, Cambridge, Mass, Harvard University Press, 2004, 86-87.

About The Author

Alexia Kannas lectures in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University. She is the author of Deep Red (Columbia University Press/Wallflower, forthcoming 2017) and is currently completing a monograph on the Italian giallo film for SUNY Press.

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