February 02, 2008

Criss Cross

"Everyone is either making love or else predicting rain" Bob Dylan Desolation Row

Criss Cross is a minor film noir, starring Burt Lancaster in one of his early roles. But it is still an interesting film. The device upon which the film hinges is the character that Lancaster plays- a drifter in the American West who keeps drifting back to an old love and a failed marriage in Los Angeles. All we know about Steve (Lancaster's character) is that he drifts from job to job and seems to have no independent life outside his family. His brother an impossibly all American lad is going to get married, his wise old mother is he says an object of devotion but in reality is more of a curse as she sees what he cannot. He wanders into LA and works for a firm specialising in the security of armoured trucks delivering money. His pursuit of Anna his ex wife leads him to her new husband, Slim, who is a gangster. In order to convince Slim that he isn't trying to pursue Anna he tells him he has an idea for a heist on the armoured trucks. The heist goes wrong and Lancaster ends up in hospital before fleeing to Anna, at which point Slim arrives and we see the final denoument.

The point about the film though, as ever with noir, isn't really about the plot. We know the plot will turn out bad from the first frame. More interesting are the characters and particularly the character of Steve. Steve doesn't have much of a life nor does he have a narrative of why he has come back from his wanderings to Los Angeles. Noone believes him when he mentions his feeble reasons: they all think he has come back for Anna. And he spends so much time looking for her, that so very quickly do we. We think that he is looking for Anna and in reality the reason he is looking for her is that his mind wanders back to her without much need for encouragement. There doesn't seem to be much else to distract him: he doesn't have many interests, he turns down opportunities to go to the cinema, to ice skating, to divert himself from Anna. Love for him has become the narrative of his life- like Bob Dylan's characters in Desolation Row he either is making love or else sunk in a slough of despond, predicting rain. The point is that Steve doesn't have a life beyond his quest for this one woman- he even says so at one point in the film and its that lack of any other focus that means that he is dragged into a world that he naturally is not part of.

As a morality play therefore about the consequences of abandoning all to love, this film works. It undermines that idea- playing with the suggestion that the man who abandons everything for love is actually a man with little to abandon. Interestingly Anna the other principal in the film is shown as much more calculating, she has genuine affection for Steve (definitely physical attraction) and yet she is much more determined to save herself. She would abandon him for her own chance of happiness. Anna is, we are constantly shown, more intelligent than Steve: she understands unlike him that mere affection only carries you so far, that love is no shield against bullets. She is weak though and dragged into situations: with her a lack of resolve leads her to her doom. But what she demonstrates is that passion can coexist with other emotions, can be present but dominated by other concerns, prudential ones in her case. Steve doesn't get that. He can't get it which is why in the end he is led to his doom. For Steve there is only making love or else predicting rain- and he'd rather be dead than a meteorologist!