I once knew a guy, a film major, who complained in a college class that the people in old movies were too witty and well-spoken. It irked him. Those characters weren’t real enough. His declaration knocked me for a loop, because he had pinpointed exactly what I do like about studio-era movies. Maybe it’s an acquired taste, this yen for characters who crack wise at all hours of the day, fluently converse in saucy innuendo, and/or muse to themselves in elaborate metaphors.
But surely viewers way back in old Hollywood’s heyday didn’t raise an eyebrow at that, right? The heightened language was generally accepted as part of the fun and games, like rear projection and soundstage interiors? Well, that’s what I figured, until I found a fan magazine review of Criss Cross that suggests otherwise.
In the March 1949 issue of Modern Screen, critic Christopher Kane devoted an unusually large proportion of his narrow-column review to the language of Criss Cross, which apparently vexed him:
Some of the most fantastic dialogue in the whole wide world turns up here. Our hero, Burt Lancaster, comes home to Los Angeles… only to discover that he’s still haunted by memories. He talks to himself. It goes like this. “You’re eating an apple. You get a piece of the core stuck between your teeth. You tear a piece of cellophane off a pack of cigarettes, try to work the apple out. The piece of cellophane gets stuck too… I knew I was going to see Anna…” A little later one of the other characters involved says (of Lancaster) “He’s got her in his bones.” And while you’re attempting to figure out whether she’s in his teeth or in his bones, the story unwinds.
Despite Kane’s snarky dismissal of the whimsical writing, he remembered it rather accurately. In fact, I can’t think of any other fan magazine reviews I’ve read (and I’ve read many) that get so hung up on language. I guess it got stuck in Kane’s head… like a piece of an apple core in Burt’s teeth. The critic’s vivid recall (assuming he didn’t take notes in the theater) unintentionally affirms the creativity and cleverness of the script.
I don’t know if the apple/cellophane voice-over monologue came from novelist Don Tracy, screenwriter Daniel Fuchs, or from Bill Bowers, who contributed additional dialogue. In any case, the description of a low-level annoyance that frays on your nerves is deeply relatable. Who hasn’t had something stuck in their teeth, then somehow made it worse by trying to get it out? Both mundane and poetic, the language fits an earthy guy like Steve, as he sums up the enervating spell of his ex-wife. For my money, that passage of voice-over is one of the best things in a movie full of excellent material.
Mr. Kane clearly didn’t see it that way. He concluded his review thus:
So you know Burt’s going to get it in the end—either from the cops or from Dan [Duryea]’s gang (Dan’s still alive and kicking). So you know, but you don’t really care.
Speak for yourself, Mr. Kane! If Burt Lancaster doesn’t melt your heart at the end of Criss Cross, I don’t trust you one bit. Your assertion sticks in my craw. (Even if I do appreciate the insight that, yes, noir language was too heady for some people even when it was written.)