“Criss Cross” (Siodmak 1949)

Robert Siodmak’s Criss Cross opens with a young and almost absurdly handsome Burt Lancaster returning home to L.A., only to find that his ex-wife (a yummy Yvonne De Carlo) is keeping time with a gangster played by Dan Duryea. It’s a given that the lovers will begin seeing each other on the sly, leading to the perfectly staged moment when Duryea catches them together and Lancaster, seeking a move both face-saving (for Duryea) and life-saving (for himself), invites the mobster to join him in an armored truck robbery. What’d normally be a rickety turning point is something more here, mainly because it’s debatable whether Lancaster’s tactic is a spontaneous stall or a gambit he’s been planning all along.

Lancaster turns out to be, not one of those heroes who knows how to dig his way out of every jam, but a hero closer to Jake Gittes, who doesn’t notice the dirt piling up on top of him until it’s too late. Movies usually portray stupidity far too literally, via characters who talk in duhhh, slowed-down voices and who can’t tie their shoes without spilling pancake batter all over the floor. But stupidity’s more interesting than that. We’ve all known smart stupid people (either book-smart or street-smart, and sometimes even both), those experienced, articulate, and often very funny people who nevertheless make the worst decisions in the world, and who even in the ensuing shambles still can’t catch a clue. Lancaster’s Steve is one of those. He’s smooth and good-looking and he talks a great game, but the dumb SOB can’t even see where the corners are, much less what’s around them.

The scene in which the crooks plan out their caper is a gem, highlighted by the appearance of an old rummy mastermind (Alan Napier), who, with the right amount of liquor poured down his throat, can still conjure up a foolproof way of getting around the cops. The same scene includes a beautifully pensive shot of De Carlo, temporarily neglected by her suitors, and posed before a window as the Angel’s Flight trolley cranks its way up Bunker Hill in the twilight behind her. That sense of place and of specific times of day–whether it’s a stretch of eerily open highway or a mildewed bar in the late afternoon–is one of Criss Cross‘s great strengths, but it’s the unexpected wrinkles of character that make it a strangely touching affair.

Late in the film, after the robbery, with its double-crosses, clouds of tear-gas, and promiscuous sprays of automatic gunfire, has gone as smoothly as movie heists so often do, and the gangsters are either running for their lives or gunning for the other survivors, Lancaster–now confined to a hospital bed–pays growing heed to an inscrutable dweeb named “Mr. Nelson” who’s been hanging around outside his room. Unsure of the man’s intentions, Lancaster confronts him, making a point of wondering out loud about the suspicious bulge in Mr. Nelson’s coat pocket. Shyly, almost coquettishly, Mr. Nelson produces a  salesman’s order book–an act that settles nothing in anybody’s mind. This stammering, needle-nosed homunculus, who may or may not be a contract killer, in real life went by the name Robert Osterloh–a character actor who did a slew of TV work and who (often as not uncredited) appeared in a gallery of films ranging from White Heat to Rosemary’s Baby. That’s a pretty good run no matter which way you cut it, and his soft-spoken, nerve-jangling hesitation near the end of Criss Cross is one of the best reasons for seeing it.

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