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Retro Cinema – Criss Cross

Retro Cinema – Criss Cross
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This 1949 feature has all of the ingredients for a classic film noir: an appropriately pulpy story involving double-crossing, crime and obsessive passions, brilliantly moody black-and-white cinematography, an unsettling music score by Miklós Rózsa and a cast of worthy actors that can take the worst in human behavior to remarkable depths.

But it seemed that someone forgot to turn on the heat and stir the ingredients into a delicious blend. Instead, Criss Cross sort of just lays there – sometimes it percolates with a flash of style and hint of substance, but mostly it is a disappointment.

Part of the problem was the film feels like a pale facsimile of a much better noir work, the 1946 masterpiece The Killers. Indeed, the same director (Robert Siodmak) and leading man (Burt Lancaster) are reunited from The Killers, and the Don Tracy novel used as the production’s inspiration was mostly ignored in favor of a screenplay that copied too much of the screenplay from The Killers, with its brutal tale of a virile but vulnerable working-class guy whose mania for a dangerous dame gets him mixed up with gangsters.

Much of the problem here can be blamed on Yvonne DeCarlo as the femme fatale at the center of the action. A delightful presence in musicals and light comedy, DeCarlo was dreadfully out of her element as a film noir vixen, and her chemistry with Lancaster was weak. The only time in the film she seemed to come alive was a brief dance number in a night club scene, with a young Tony Curtis making his movie debut as her hip-shaking partner. In fairness, Lancaster wasn’t giving her much to work against – if he had any enthusiasm for the role, it didn’t turn up on screen.

It also didn’t help that Daniel Fuchs’ screenplay seemed to generate caricatures instead of characters. The result was a mess of one-dimensional individuals whose actions becomes predictable and stale too quickly. And the payroll heist that is the core of the story becomes convoluted (an oil truck and an ice cream truck turn up – where these vehicles were procured from at short notice is unclear). Complicating matters was a conspicuously cheapjack production – the film looks threadbare, even by Universal-International standards – and Siodmak’s direction cannot hide the obvious low budget.

Still, the film has a few fun elements: some Los Angeles exteriors offer interesting views of the grittier side of the postwar city and reliable character actors including Dan Duryea as the oleaginous crime boss, Percy Helton as the too-friendly bartender and Alan Napier (yes, Batman’s butler!) as the architect of the heist add some much needed spice to an otherwise forgettable effort.

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Phil Hall Phil Hall has enjoyed a three-decade career in the film industry as a journalist, critic, publicist, distributor, festival programmer and actor. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, New York Daily News, Wired, American Movie Classics Magazine and Film Threat. He is the author of seven books, including "The History of Independent Cinema," "The Greatest Bad Movies of All Time" and "In Search of Lost Films."

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