Eureka Entertainment’s Masters of Cinema brand has built an excellent reputation for showcasing the very best of historic cinema, in packages that illuminate the stories behind the films, examine the craft at play on screen, and respect the art form. Last year, we reviewed their excellent release of The African Queen.
Now they have turned their attention to Robert Siodmak’s 1949 Burt Lancaster-starring Criss Cross. Although working into the late-1960s, Siodmak was best known for his work in and around the 1940s in the noir genre, and, as such, Criss Cross is reasonably typical of his work; of which 1946’s The Killers is probably most widely known.
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In Criss Cross, Burt Lancaster plays Steve Thompson, a man who has returned to Los Angeles after taking some time away, prompted by the failure of marriage to Anna (Yvonne De Carlo – and if you know that name, yes the female lead of this film did go on to play Lily Munster in TV show The Munsters). Through a mixture of present day action and flashbacks to his return to the city some months earlier, we learn that Steve has taken up his old job driving an armoured truck, and more worryingly taken up with Anna again, despite her also dating – and then marrying – local mobster Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea).
As Steve’s relationship with Anna becomes more serious, despite already having a marriage that failed after a mere seven months, they risk getting caught. Despite warnings from his long-time friend, Detective Pete Ramirez (Stephen McNally), eventually Slim catches the two together. To deflect suspicion, Steve sells Slim on the idea of an armed robbery on the armoured truck company for whom he works. The ‘Criss Cross’ of the title refers to Anna’s shifting, uncertain loyalties, along with the sense that we are never entirely sure what Slim does or doesn’t know.
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Criss Cross is a fine example of a timeless, unpretentious film noir, with unfussy set design, strong performances, and a smart script that makes good use of a tight 89 minute running time. This is filmmaking that respects its audience enough not to lead them too far by the hand. There is some narration, but we are left largely to work out for ourselves which timeframe we are in, yet never is this even once confusing. Burt Lancaster essays effectively a man confused by being afforded a second chance at a love he already knows is doomed to failure, while Yvonne De Carlo fits the template for the femme fatale that can be seen in performances all the way through to Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction. As Steve is our point of view on the story, it is always likely that he is being played by Anna – but De Carlo ensures it is far from certain. Criss Cross is a fine piece of filmmaking.
As for bonus features, this set doesn’t quite measure up to the standard of the very best the Masters of Cinema brand has offered. Along with a fine transfer for the main feature, there is an isolated music and effects track, a radio adaptation of the story – also with Burt Lancaster – and a trailer. There are no featurettes or documentaries on the set. There are, however, two commentary tracks. The first is by film author Lee Gambin and actress Rutanya Alda. Alda’s link to the film is unclear, as her career runs roughly from the late-60s to present day, and includes supporting roles in The Deer Hunter, Rocky II and Mommie Dearest. Gambin and Alda record separately, and the track is split into three sections for him, and two for her. Gambin’s parts deal largely with the symbolism and subtext. It is, to be honest, deeply dull, and very pretentious. Alda’s sections deal more with stories about the actors and actresses, and is terrific. She is an engaging storyteller, and is by far the better part of this track. Evidently she is very well connected, with a lot of interesting anecdotes, none of which we’ll spoil here.
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The second commentary track comes from Adrian Martin, an Australian film critic. His track deals also with subtext and symbolism, but mixes this with terrific observations about shot-making and set-design. The sets in the film seem basic and somewhat cheap, so to have such outstanding commentary on the likely thought behind them is very welcome. He puts the film into his historical context, and discusses both the genre as a whole, and the people involved in making Criss Cross. Martin’s is by far the stronger and more engaging commentary track, and the outstanding feature of this release.
As a whole, Eureka have done a more than decent job with a 71-year-old film created by people all now long dead. There simply isn’t the material on this that they could glean from other, more celebrated releases, nor is Siodmak the towering figure in American filmmaking that, say, John Huston was. Although a somewhat low-key release, Eureka’s brand remains well-served by a very entertaining, intelligent film, with at least one very informative commentary.
Criss Cross is out on Blu-ray on 22nd June from Eureka Entertainment.