Since I posted on Yvonne last week as part of the O Canada blogathon, I thought it was a fine time to follow up with one of her most popular roles, and share this piece I wrote for The Dark Pages’ Femmes Fatales issue earlier this year.
In her autobiography Yvonne De Carlo recalls how the noir Criss Cross marked three big firsts in her career: her first onscreen cigarette, first crying scene and first death scene. It was a role she almost didn’t get, since the death of producer Mark Hellinger in 1947 had left De Carlo without her champion; this was his project and he’d promised her the role of Anna the double crosser. When the film started production the names bandied about to play the femme were Ava Gardner and Shelley Winters. De Carlo assumed she was out of the running completely but director Robert Siodmak, was determined to have her in the movie, fought with the studio heads and got her.
Criss Cross (1949) is a top example of the genre, and a big part of the film’s lasting appeal is that De Carlo’s Anna isn’t a one-dimensional femme. In fact there’s an argument to be made that she’s more a victim than an evildoer. Caught in the love triangle with ex-husband Burt Lancaster and new/rebound/refuge gangster husband Dan Duryea, De Carlo is a lot of things: a hot number, a bad girl, kind of innocent, a realist, a tragic and pathetic figure. She tries to push Lancaster away but lures him anyway. She tells him and shows him she’s not interested in rekindling their failed marriage but he just can’t resist. Lancaster, in voice over, tells us repeatedly how Fate has a heavy hand in his life, but really it’s his own fault; he doesn’t want Anna, doesn’t want her you understand, but all he ever does is look for her, shadow her, obsess over her and then blames Fate for pushing them together. So you can hardly blame De Carlo for being a conflicted lady locked in a love-hate relationship with a guy who won’t leave her alone and ends up driving her to a much worse guy, and driving them all to a much worse fate.
De Carlo is just wonderful in this role, complex and magnetic. She pulls off the familiarity, the disappointment and still flickering passion of an ex-wife who knows which buttons to push and hates to have hers pushed back. And De Carlo plays this in a way that I don’t imagine someone like Ava Gardner could have done, since De Carlo had a fantastic comedic ability which give her insults that extra flame and spin. There are a couple fun moments where Lancaster, in a juvenile comeback more befitting a playground taunt, mocks and imitates her voice. De Carlo’s reactions are priceless, as her face registers offense and annoyance.
But even with that playful element De Carlo is still dangerous because she’s totally unpredictable and untrustworthy, and since she’s able to elicit a good deal of sympathy as well as lust, she’s fatally misjudged by both men. The things that make her sympathetic might also be lies; are we to believe her when she shows Lancaster her bruises, supposedly inflicted by Duryea, who’s never shown a sign of abusing her? Who’s she really thinking about when the men are plotting the Armored car heist? Is she already planning for herself at that point? While it’s true Lancaster and Duryea obsess over her as a love object, they also love and want to protect her. She could love them back but don’t their actions squeeze her into her default position of self-preservation? Under threat she’s cold and cuts off, acts in the interest of number one, grabs the concrete material goods and forgets about that ridiculous love thing. The reason both her role and the movie work so well because De Carlo convinces us with her mercurial acting that she can flip from fearful to scheming, from passionate to ice-cold, from hardboiled and brutally practical to collapsing into a brittle terrified heap. I’ve already spoiled by telling she has a death scene, and it’s terribly dark and downbeat. While the men seem resigned to their fates, she seems the only one left with any will to survive.
Of course no femme would be worthy of the title without rocking some hot glam. De Carlo, one of the most gorgeous women ever on screen, easily checks that qualification off the list, but Siodmak helps her kick it up by giving her that rhumba-licious scene (with Tony Curtis as a partner). It’s one of De Carlo’s many moments the viewer is sure to remember, long after the two men who loved her are heartbroken and left with nothing, and take her with them to destruction.