I was recently invited to guest on a podcast called “KilmerKast,” which is (as you’d guess) a guided tour through the filmography of Val Kilmer, and I took the occasion to finally watch Kill Me Again, John Dahl’s 1989 feature debut. Dahl would go on to make Red Rock West and The Last Seduction, two of the finest neo-noirs of the 1990s, a decade in which many of the conventions of that genre were subsumed and dumbed down by the far more general, and ubiquitous, “erotic thriller.” And yet, though Dahl’s work was special, fully rooted in the specifics of noir, his first film doesn’t land, because Kilmer is so egregiously miscast – he’s playing the sap, the greedy/horny mark who is drawn into the web of the femme fatale, and spends the whole picture fighting, unsuccessfully, to detangle from it. But Kilmer doesn’t make a good sap; he projects too much intelligence, and seems to know too many angles. It’s a tough role to play, the sucker who thinks he’s smart (until he realizes he’s been played for a fool.)
Forty years earlier, Burt Lancaster played the streetwise yet naive lunk gloriously. In Robert Siodmak’s Criss Cross (now streaming on the Criterion Channel), he’s right at home; he fits right into the noir world of shady nightclubs filled with tough, world-weary customers, and he’s born to deliver hard-boiled narration. If you’ve seen other Lancaster work of the period (like Brute Force and Siodmak’s The Killers earlier, or Sweet Smell of Success a few years later) you know that few actors could bring a hard case to life like Lancaster. What’s surprising about Criss Cross is how successfully he turns down the ruthless intelligence, the darting-eye resourcefulness, that serves him so well elsewhere.
Lancaster plays Steve Thompson, whom we first meet on the eve of a big heist, as intimacies are exchanged and promises are made to Anna Dundee (Yvonne De Carlo, miles from “The Munsters”), a tough broad with a chip on her shoulder. The heist in question is an armored car job, with Steve the inside man behind the wheel. As he sets out on the road that fateful day, he thinks about Anna and a little smile crosses his lips – and the flashbacks begin, narrated by Lancaster with noir fatalist bon mots like “It was fate, or a jinx, whatever you wanna call it, from the start.” We go back a few weeks, as Steve returns to Los Angeles looking for work and trying to reconnect his life – and with Anna, his ex-wife, whom he still holds a torch for. “He’s divorced,” we’re told, “but he’s still got her in his bones.”
Unfortunately, she’s found herself a new lunk, the splendidly-named “Slim Dundee” (Dan Duryea). But there’s still a palpable fire between Anna and Steve; they’re pouting and play-acting, but they’re still burning, no matter how hard they try to pretend otherwise. (“Don’t tell me you don’t trust me.” “That hurt your feelings?”) Daniel Fuchs’s screenplay unspools their doomed romance with lightning efficiency – he doesn’t hesitate to skip unnecessary dialogue scenes, moments when we don’t have to be told what’s going to happen, because we’re wise- filmgoers who’ve seen a motion picture or two.
It’s impossible to pull off an armored truck job, Steve is told again and again – “Nobody ever got away with a heist of an armored truck in 28 years!” – and perhaps that’s for good reason, but nevertheless, they pull together a crew of colorful characters and get to work. It’s one of those heist movies where specifics of the job are withheld until it’s actually happening, an ingenious device that allows us to marvel at the foxiness of the plan, and then, almost immediately, gasp at how it all goes wrong. Here, the plan goes very wrong indeed.
To this point, “Criss Cross” is a solid, sturdy noir thriller, but nothing particularly exceptional. It goes its extra mile in the extended hospital sequence that follows Steve’s injury in the failed heist. He fades in and out of consciousness as the suspicions of the authorities and the strange behavior of his visitors increases; with every blackout, the walls close in, and there’s a greater sense that this man has nowhere to go. The sweaty paranoia of these few minutes overwhelms, and Lancaster shows up for them; his eyes dart about the room, all but bugging out, as he starts to suspect that the jig is up. (Steven Soderbergh’s 1995 remake, The Underneath, bests the original only in this stretch, by leaning further into the first-person POV Siodmak uses for the first few minutes.)
Steve does his best, but he’s easily outfoxed by both Anna and Slim; blinded by his lust, but also by his limitations. The outcome is bleak, as it must always be in truly great noir, and then it’s over: a grim farewell, shots, sirens, panic, and big “THE END” card before the viewer knows what’s hit ‘em. “They don’t make ‘em like they used to” is an overworked turn of phrase these days, but sometimes it’s on the money, and when it comes to a movie like “Criss Cross,” it’s not just that they don’t make them like this anymore. It’s that they probably shouldn’t even try.
“Criss Cross” is now streaming on the Criterion Channel.