So this is the next in my line of posts where I’m going to write about an underappreciated vintage noir novel, and in so doing, discuss a movie that was made from its story (sometimes it’s the other way around, but you get the idea). Robert Siodmak’s 1948 (referenced as ’49 in some places) film Criss-Cross, which stars Burt Lancaster, Yvonne “Lily Munster” DeCarlo, and Dan Duryea, is an example of film noir of which most aficionados of that genre are likely familiar and appreciative. Don Tracy’s 1934 novel of the same title is less known but as worthy of recognition.
Tracy may not have been James M. Cain, but judging by this novel, he wasn’t all that terribly far behind. Honestly, if someone new to the world of classic hardboiled fiction asked me for a good example of such a book, I would be perfectly comfortable pointing them in the direction of Criss-Cross. Likewise, I’d gladly tout the book to knowing noir heads who haven’t read it.
There are some differences between the book and the movie and I’ll get to those, but for now a rundown of the tale as it plays out in Tracy’s novel: The story centers around and is told by a guy named Johnny Thompson. Johnny is a 23-year old Baltimore denizen. There are people who lead harder lives than Johnny’s as we see it at the outset of the story, but his could use some improvement. He’s a boxer who isn’t doing any boxing at the moment. He was never all that great in the ring – a disfigurement he received at the hands of a victorious opponent earned him the nickname “Flat Nose” – plus the local boxing action in Baltimore isn’t drawing the kinds of crowds it once did. With Johnny’s dad having kicked off some time back and Johnny left to take care of his mother and 19-year old brother (who stutters a lot and whom Johnny badly wants us to know is not as dimwitted as people make him out to be), he needs some type of income. So he gets a job as a part of an armored car delivery team, as a non-driving guard.
Johnny has a girl – well, it’s truer to say there’s a young woman he dates from time to time. He has it bad for the dame, Anna, whom he’s known since childhood. He’d like them to be married. But Anna’s the kind of girl who judges her dates’ attractiveness by the amount of cash they carry around, and Johnny doesn’t have so much of that in his pockets these days. Here, let me stop trying to explain this situation and allow Johnny to tell you about it first-hand:
I bounced around inside of the truck, thinking about Anna, wishing I had some money, wishing the fight game hadn’t gone south so I’d have money now and could take her out to dance or see a show – anything, so long as I was with her. I had it bad. I was going nuts, having to keep away from Anna because I didn’t have any dough and knowing she didn’t care anything about me except for the good times she could get out of me.
Another central character in the story is a guy named Slim Dundee. Slim is a slickster who always has plenty of folding money on hand. At the beginning of the story, Johnny doesn’t know how Slim earns his jack but he just knows he’s got piles. Slim is nice enough to Johnny – he finds ways for Johnny to earn a little extra scratch here and there, by getting him gigs as a corner man in other guys’ boxing matches, etc. And he finds gainful employment for Johnny’s stuttering kid brother, making life easier on their family. But there’s one thing that Slim does that makes life rough for Johnny: he dates Anna. Johnny knows he can’t compete with Slim for Anna’s affections, because of the way Slim can take her out to pricier establishments and buy her more expensive finery, etc. Johnny wishes there was some way he could win Anna for good, taking her from Slim and the rest of the eligible male population, but he knows he’s up against it because of his miserly earnings. And this knowledge gets cemented when he hears that Slim and Anna have abruptly gotten married.
I was struck by the following passage, in which Johnny relates some of his sensations and observations just after he’s been told of Slim’s and Anna’s weddedness. Nothing really happens through this section but it’s an evocative description that captures the feeling of alienation one can experience when the outside world looks indifferent to them while they are suffering:
. . . I felt a little dizzy for a while. I got down off the stool and went up to the front of the lunchroom, past Mickey and Bertha. The guy behind the counter asked me for my check and I said I didn’t have any. I told him we’d had two beers and two hamburgers. I paid him thirty cents and walked out on to the street.
People were walking by, talking, laughing, drunk, sober, old and young, working, loafing, in a hurry and taking their time, like they had been when Bertha and I had walked into the Coney Island place. I stood on the sidewalk, just outside the door of the lunchroom, and pressed the palms of my hands against my forehead. The dizzy feeling passed. A street car hammered past, nearly empty. A newsboy on the corner kept hollering race finals in the same tone of voice, as if he didn’t even hope anybody would ever buy a paper from him. There was a crowd of young punks around a lamp post up the street from the lunchroom. While I looked at them, one of the kids pushed another fellow a couple of steps backwards and they laughed.
Mickey came up and stood beside me.
“What’s the matter, Johnny?” he asked me. “What’s the matter?”
Some funny things start happening soon after Slim and Anna marry. First, Anna suddenly decides she needs Johnny’s company – the company to which she was always so indifferent while she was single and occasionally dating Johnny. She invites him to her new home when Slim’s out of town, and there they do something they never did while she was unmarried, and they do it often. Before she had a ring on her finger, the closest thing to lovemaking that happened between Johnny and Anna was maybe he’d get to hold her close while they danced, and smooch a little – that is, if he had enough money that night to buy her a sufficient amount of wine to make her loosen up some. But now she’s ready for much more than that, and Johnny, despite having half-hearted reservations about this initially, can’t resist her.
If that’s not strange enough, then Slim invites Johnny in on a con with him. Well, it would be more accurate to say he insists Johnny take part in this caper. It turns out Slim gets most of his plentiful money by means of being a hold-up artist. And now he wants to pull a much bigger heist than the small-time tickles he and his little gang normally take up. He wants to rob an armored car, one that Johnny is working inside. The idea is Slim and his cronies will hold up the truck, Johnny will make a show of trying to fend them off, they’ll get away and Johnny will get part of the take. Johnny’s dubious about this swindle at first, for a variety of reasons. But over time he gets convinced that it’ll be a good thing, mostly because in his vision of how all will play out, he and Anna will wind up together after the dust settles. I like this bit of Johnny’s musing on the matter, on the eve of the crime:
The bus was jouncing and rocking and I couldn’t forget where I was long enough. I decided to go down to Max’s place and get a drink and sit at a corner table and think it over. That would be the best idea. I put tomorrow out of my head and looked down at the store windows. At Franklin Street, a good-looking woman about forty came up and sat in the seat opposite me. I looked over at her and then she looked back at then looked out the window in a hurry. My flat nose.
“Screw,” I said to myself. “A girl who’s twice as pretty as you are loves me.”
I’ll leave off the book plot there, and turn briefly to a comparison of it and the movie. Some of the basics of the tale are the same between the two media, but there are also a lot of differences. The film is set in L.A. rather than Baltimore. In the movie Johnny and Anna were once married and divorced, after which Johnny left town for a time to try and shake her hold off him, only to come back and get involved with both her and the situation with Slim and the robbery. In the movie there’s no mention of Johnny being a boxer. And maybe the most significant change in the movie as compared to the book is in the character of Anna. In the film she might not exactly be the girl next door, and in one telling scene she lets out a little soliloquy that shows her self-centered true colors; but in Siodmak’s feature she is at least a conflicted person, a torn woman who is capable of caring about others and of having genuine feelings of love. In Tracy’s novel, Anna is more pure femme fatale, a callous beauty who is really a classic character of that type. There are some other major differences between book and movie, but to describe any of that would be to commit spoilers. Suffice to say that what goes down during the robbery and in its aftermath are completely different in the two versions of the story.
Criss-Cross is the first Don Tracy novel I’ve read. I got curious about it because someone recently mentioned the film, which I’d seen years before and liked. I decided to re-watch the movie and thought it would be a good idea to read the novel concurrently. I’m glad I did. Criss-Cross is a lost classic of noir ficiton. I’ll be digging in to more of Tracy’s canon before long.
Brian Greene's short stories, personal essays, and writings on books, music, and film have appeared in more than 20 different publications since 2008. His articles on crime fiction have also been published by Crime Time, Paperback Parade, Noir Originals, and Mulholland Books. Brian lives in Durham, NC with his wife Abby, their daughters Violet and Melody, their cat Rita Lee, and too many books. Follow Brian on Twitter @brianjoebrain.
See all posts by Brian Greene for Criminal Element.