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.
I’ve now seen Brute Force several times, hoping to be persuaded by the claims others make for it but I remain unconvinced. The story of prison inmates suffering through the sadistic actions of a quasi-Nazi prison official (Hume Cronyn) and attempting an escape which ends in failure is excitingly rendered visually by Jules Dassin and cinematographer William H. Daniels.
It’s got very striking compositions (see below):
Some exciting set-pieces — like the final mow-down in the prison yard, or when inmates force the squealer into the industrial press with blowtorches — that have lost none of their power: (see below):
or tie the second squealer to the cart near the end:
Daniels’ low-key lighting is really beautiful and expressive:
Particularly good at lighting actor’s faces:
I always like seeing scenes of people watching movies, such as here when the inmates watch The Egg and I, with Claudette Colbert and Fred McMurray:
It’s also got an incredible cast of noir stalwarts, not only Lancaster and Charles Bickford but also Yvonne De Carlo, Anne Blyth and Ella Raines:
The film also has the kind of gratuitous and extraneous chest baring I am also partial to:
And one which the film deployed to the marketing the film. The shot below was used in publicity but appears nowhere in the film:
So with all this going for it, why does it fail to convince? In the essay that accompanies the Arrow release, Frank Krutnik notes that the film was based on a botched escape attempt at Alcatraz in May 1946 and that producer Mark Hellinger, ‘enlisted the fiercely liberal novelist Richard Brooks, author of the sensational best-seller The Brick Foxhole (filmed y RKO in 1947 as Crossfire), who had crafted the original screen story for The Killers. Lik Hellinger, Brooks was fascinated by Heminway’s tough, masculine ethos and, as a New York Times reviewer commented, his post-war screen work — Brute Force, Crossfire and Key Largo (1948) — consisted of ‘savage indictments of social wrong. melodramatic and hairy chested, they demonstrated the shock technique of the movie’s current approach to controversy.’ The social wrongs in the film are clearly set up in early scenes in the Warden’s office: overcrowded jails, sadistic wardens who commit more and worse crimes in prison than those that landed the convicts in jail; the conflict over reforming versus punishing inmates; the goal of educating and enlightening versus control by force.
Brooks was praised for his ‘bristling and biting’ dialogue and I do love some of it — ‘I wonder who Flossy’s fleecing now’? — but the rest of his screenplay leaves a lot to be desired. The character of Calypso (Sir Lancelot), though in many ways a respectful representation of a black inmate (the lone one we see) is a ridiculous contrivance, embarrassingly singing every bit of action that he’s part of to a calypso beat. The flashback structures to the women are also very poorly dramatised, the sections in Italy being particularly embarrassing. And this ‘hairy chested’ and ‘tough, masculiine ethos’ also turns out to be very homophobic, not only making of Captain Munsey a Wagner-listening quasi Nazi, but also clearly coding him as homosexual. See the amount of ‘classic’ male nudes, pictures and statues, his prison office is furnished with:
and which help to explain glances like this in the film:
According to Krutnik, the film was regarded as setting a new standard for screen brutality and Life magazine deemed it a ‘picture of almost unrelieved violence and gloom’ and by the ending scene, ‘the screen is drenched with blood and littered with corpses’. Standards for violence have now been raised, or lowered, depending on your point of view. A liberal denunciation of prison conditions, a great vehicle for Burt Lancaster, a huge hit in its day. But at best a mixed bag now, at least for this viewer, and contradictorily, one that nonetheless holds up to repeated viewings.
Burt Lancaster’s Second Film:
Kate Buford write of how the role of Joe Collins in Brute Force was crafted to showcase Burt Lancaster. ‘Variety raved that the producer’s “gamble as a potential star in The Killers is paying off in spades with Brute Force ‘(loc 1412). As you can see below, Lancaster moved beautifully, Billy Daniels, MGM’s great cameraman, famous for lighting Garbo, was tempted back to work and here lights Lancaster to be both beautiful, strong, and his imprisonment branded by the shadows of bars throughout the film.
According to Kate Buford, the scene that made Lancaster’s reputation is the one below:
As she writes, ‘Collins is the prototype of all his tough guy roles to come: strong, utterly focused, body bent, yearning, pushing through space towards the goal. The big powerful man trying to break free is an image beyond words….yet as a post-war parable, the movie is deeply sad. The Nazi-type Munsey is vanquished only to have the heroes who killed him either dead or still in prison’ (loc 1401).
The Arrow Academy edition is lovely to look at with a really interesting film in which Burt Lancaster biographer Kate Buford talks intriguingly of this noir period of Lancaster’s career. I have posted her explication of the great scene where Collins through Munsey into the prison yard and why and how that set the basis of his persona above.