Poor Burt Lancaster! Having made his movie debut as the doomed Swede in The Killers, he falls for the wrong woman again in Criss Cross. Despite some wasted opportunities, it's a pretty enjoyable film noir because director Robert Siodmak creates edge-of-the-seat suspense by placing his seemingly wholesome star in jeopardy.
Lancaster's character Steve blames fate for his obsession with sexy ex-wife Anna (Yvonne De Carlo), but he's the one who won't stay away despite the most unethical efforts of his family and jealous cop pal Pete (Stephen McNally). Trouble is, Anna is now married to gang leader Slim (Dan Duryea), who catches the careless lovers together. To protect them, Steve fakes a tempting plan for Slim, to help him rob the payroll he and a fellow armoured car guard are going to deliver. Steve, planning to double cross Slim by running away with Anna and the payroll, reluctantly carries out the plan when the gangster agrees.
Up till the point where the plan is carried out, the story slows. Various supporting characters crowd the storyline (Steve's brother and brother's girlfriend, bartender, bar patron, various gang members). Steve's mother, whom he jokingly calls his girlfriend and her boyfriend/Steve's fellow armoured car guard named Pap are intriguing but ultimately wasted. The impact when Steve betrays them is minimised.
Siodmak creates a brilliant suspenseful moment when the robbery goes awry and Steve ends up in the hospital, looking for the gunman that Slim might send. Immobilized in a cast, Steve watches helplessly in terror as he tries to assess whether a hospital visitor IS an innocent or assassin. We feel the suspense more intensely because Siodmak links our condition with Steve's. Like Steve, we (usually) stay in the theatre, trapped until the lights come on.
The film stumbles when it comes to Anna, the classic femme fatale played by De Carlo, who gamely alternates intense fury with intense tragedy. Anna's awkwardly characterized (she changes motivation abruptly at the end) but even though she causes Steve to fall from middle-class grace, she's not the greatest double crosser.
Criss Cross fascinates because it portrays a man who double crosses himself. Steve pursues Anna at all costs, blunders into traps and blames fate for his mistakes rather than himself. It's difficult to watch a character so obsessed he becomes wilfully blind about himself and dangerous people. But with his leonine good looks, Burt Lancaster makes being so dumb so beautiful to behold.