Friday, August 29, 2014


Edward Dmytryk, 1947
Starring: Robert Young, Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Gloria Grahame

Joseph Samuels is found beaten to death in his home and the police are called to the scene. After a report that some young soldiers were seen with Samuels earlier, Detective Finlay spends the rest of the night figuring out who killed Samuels. A soldier named Mitch is the main suspect, but his superior, Sergeant Keeley, is convinced he couldn't be responsible. Keeley and Finlay team up to find the anxiety-ridden Mitch and his fellow soldier, Montogomery, an insatiable bully who was there to witness the evening's events.

The first B movie to receive an Academy Award nomination for best picture, Crossfire also helped launch the careers of noir regulars Robert Ryan and Gloria Grahame, both nominated for awards for best supporting actor/actress. Though it is essentially a tale of morality and the evils of racism, Crossfire is overwhelmed with nor personalities. Director Edward Dmytryk directed a number of noir efforts, includingMurder, My Sweet (1944) and Cornered (1945), both with Dick Powell. Most of Crossfire’s excellent cast appeared regularly throughout noir: Robert Mitchum (The Locket, Pursued, Out of the Past, Blood on the Moon, The Big Steal, and many more), Robert Ryan (The Woman on the Beach, Act of Violence, Caught, The Set-Up, The Racket, On Dangerous Ground, Clash by Night, etc.), Gloria Grahame (The Big Heat, In a Lonely Place, Human Desire, Naked Alibi, Odds Against Tomorrow, and more), Steve Brodie (Out of the Past, Armored Car Robbery, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye), Sam Levene (The Killers, Boomerang, Brute Force, Sweet Smell of Success), and Marlo Dwyer (Caged, The Sniper, The Woman on Pier 13). Screenwriter John Paxton worked regularly with Dmytryk and also wrote Murder, My Sweet and Cornered.

The film is based on Richard Brooks' 1945 novel The Brick Foxhole. He was a Marine sergeant and worked at Quantico, giving himself realistic insight into the lives of career soldiers. Allegedly his book was helped towards a cinematic adaptation thanks to the efforts of Robert Ryan, who was a fellow soldier at the time. In Brooks' novel, the murder is committed because of homophobia, not anti-Semitism, due to the Production Code's boycott on gay characters in films. Though the change was incredibly poignant, an air of homophobia remains. This is a man's world that women rarely intrude upon. When Mitchell goes to Samuels' apartment alone, to discuss his despair, this breaks some unspoken code that triggers Montgomery's rage. Cleverly, Judaism is not a defining feature, outside of discussions of rage and names; within the dialogue "anti-Semitism" could easily be replaced with "homophobia."

Though this is similar to Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), where a journalist goes undercover as a Jew to write about his experiences, I think Crossfire is the superior film. It has certainly aged better, though both suffer from preachy, pedantic speeches. I can’t say that they weren’t need then or now, seeing as the world has traditionally been an intolerant place for religious and non-religious Jews.

Partly, Crossfire is superior thanks to the noir flavor and excellent work from cinematographer J. Roy Hunt (I Walked with a Zombie). Despite the subject matter and moralistic speeches, this is certainly every inch a film noir with its cheap hotel rooms, seedy bars, dark movie theaters, rain-slicked streets, and violence induced by a haze of misery and alcohol. Robert Ryan's violent, hateful, and hated Montgomery is one of Ryan's finest and most menacing performances. It would sadly typecast him and played a loosely similar role (a bully and sociopath) in Caught. It is difficult to watch his scenes in Crossfire, which is certainly an achievement. He's excellently contrasted with the quiet, calm, and assured performance of Robert Mitchum.

Available on DVD, Crossfire comes recommended. Its moral message is heavy handed, but pertinent and the performances are wonderful. The film has a disturbing air of repression and despair that extends to every character except maybe Mitchum's Sergeant Keeley or Robert Young's Detective Finlay, though it is obvious they are aware of its presence. Whether it is racism, homophobia, self-hatred, or some lingering anxiety or post-traumatic effect from the war, it's a feeling that remains long after the film is finished and is certainly one of the reasons it is still a minor noir classic more than 60 years after it the fact.

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