An illustration of Burt Lancaster’s star persona from 1946-1949, as if dreamed by Steve Thompson in Criss Cross: a man back from war and traumatised, desiring and doomed, imprisoned by the past and also because he did something wrong once; physically powerful but none too smart; beaten, manipulated, masochistic, punished, on the run; in a world he can’t understand; delirious and raging.
This is a continuation of my attempts to learn video editing and was a means through which I learned about zooms, blurring and waves. The parameters were that I would use no voice-over, insert clips from all his late forties films (though they only get named, upon their first appearance) and re-anchor periodically to Steve Thompson in the hospital scene from Criss Cross. Some of the transitions are still too rough, and I would have fixed them had I had more time, but cumulatively I think the video presents a vivid picture of Burt Lancaster’s star persona in the late forties and offers a variegated depiction of masculinity in crisis,
In Criss Cross Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster) returns home to LA after 8 months of wondering around working odd jobs and trying to forget his ex — Ana (Yvonne de Carlo) — after their divorce. And yet, in spite of his conscious efforts, he can’t help looking out for her. She’s got the hots for him too. But she wants material things he can’t get her. They of course meet, not so accidentally. When he sees her new husband — Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea) — is wacking her around, he decides to engineer a bank robbery so that he can get her out of her husband’s clutches, enable him to get her all the things she wants, and allow them to start a new life together….but is that what she wants? It will not end well.
When Criss Cross was released in the UK, The Monthly Film Bulletin of Jan 1, 1949 described it as a melodrama saying ‘this extremely sordid story is not helped by silly dialogue and trite situations, although the actors make every effort to rise above the poor material provided’.
In the years since, its reputation has risen. Alain Silver in Film Noir: The Encycopledia (London: Overlook Duckworth 2010, p.78) ranks the film one of the ‘most tragic and compelling of film noir’. Silver considers the scene above as key to the film and is worth quoting at length:
Anna is suddently there, oneirically before him as if sprung from the depths of that initial reverie. In fact, Thompson might at first suspect that he is hallucinating since there is no reason, other than his overwhelming desire, for her to be in the nightclub. Because this articulation of their relationship is purely visual, it cannot be misconstrued. The audience is not given a perspective that is literally what Thomson sees, the long lens and slow motion belie that. Rather the shot is remarkably subjective: it is what Thompson sees as distorted by the powerful emotion that he feels.
The video below is an expansion of the above, playing with the sound mixing and the slow mo to illustrate Silver’s insight that what the film shows is what ‘Thompson sees as distorted by the powerful emotion that he feels’. I have taken every shot in the sequence of Steve looking at Ana, slowed it down, and overlayed it with mix of voice-over narration and dialogue where Steve tells us what he thinks of her, of them, of his actions. I could have added the beautiful last shot of them together….but it’s not as if we didn’t know what was coming.
Burt Lancaster as Steve Thompson watches his younger brother and his girlfriend and thinks this might be something like the relationship he has with Anna Dundee (Yvonne De Carlo). The extent to which he’s mistaken is part of the drama.
It´s extraordinary how often Burt Lancaster´s looks are referred to in his early films, even at moments when he´s not visualised as an object of desire for viewers, such as in a bar scene in the clip below from Criss Cross where Steve Thompson, the character he plays is referred to as a ´swell-looking, well-built man’:
or even by Steve´s own mother, though here admittedly to drive home to her son that he can do better than Yvonne De Carlo. It´s a fascinating recurring trope in his late forties films and beyond, particularly so since he is often also depicted as the subject and one the audience is encouraged to identify with. The femme fatale, be it Ava Gardner in The Killers or Yvonne De Carlo in Criss Cross, is the objects of desire to such an extent that even swell-looking, well-built men will long for and be made to weep over them.
Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster) has divorced his wife, Anne (Yvonne De Carlo) but can’t get her out of his head. He tells himself he’s over her but his actions betray his thoughts. He searches their old hangouts and finally finds her, dancing provocatively in the arms of a very young Tony Curtis as he glowers from the sidelines. The number is by Esy Morales. It’s called Jungle Fantasy and it certainly brings up primal emotion. I’ve not seen dancing quite like it, and for me it evokes the LA zoot suit riots of the late 40s. A sublime moment in the film.