Crossfire: Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan represents the two sides of the returning WWII soldier in this chilling Noir that’s ultimately a strong polemic against racism

Crossfire (1947), directed by Edward Dmytryk from a novel by Richard Brooks and starring Robert Mitchum, Robert Young and Robert Ryan, is a ‘social issue’ Noir which makes a strong statement against anti-Semitism.

Hate is like a gun. If you carry it around with you it can go off and kill somebody. It killed Samuels last night.

Edward Dmytryk‘s Crossfire (1947) opens with a man being beaten to death. We do not see his attacker, but in true Noir tradition, we see the attacker’s shadow reflected on the wall. The police are called in, and Capt. Finlay (Robert Young) takes charge of the investigation. So It’s obvious within first five minutes that the rest of the movie will be about the investigation of this murder. True to its Noir credentials, what fellows is an intense police procedural: in which Finlay will goes through every piece of evidence and every person who came in contact with the deceased, who’s later identified as Joseph Samuels (Sam Levene)- a WWII soldier who was honorable discharged after he was wounded in battle. Parallel to Finlay’s investigation, Sergeant Keeley (Robert Mitchum) of a demobilized unit of the army stationed in Washington D.C, also sets out to investigate the murder; because the prime suspect of the cops in the murder case is Cpl. Arthur “Mitch” Mitchell (George Cooper). Mitch is a friend of Keeley’s and the latter is convinced that the former, though disoriented and disillusioned by wartime experiences, is too sensitive an artist to be a murderer. Keeley saves Mitch before he fall into the hands of the cops, but his efforts to piece together the death of Samuels is impeded by the fact that Mitch was heavily drunk, and can’t recollect much of what happened during his encounter with the deceased. Mitch has already been fingered to the cops by “Monty” Montgomery (Robert Ryan), a fellow soldier who was with them when Samuels was murdered. His version of the story implicates Mitch as the murderer; that’s unless Mitch can prove that he was, at the time, with a B-girl named Ginny (Gloria Grahame). Finlay and Mitch’s wife, Mary, manages to locate Ginny, and after some initial resistance from her and with the help of her eccentric husband, they manage to prove that Mitch was indeed with her, but the timeline is kind of messy and it doesn’t completely exonerate Mitch. The question that vexes the investigators most in the case is that there seems to be no motive behind the murder: one (or more) of the soldiers who may have murdered Samuels were hardly acquainted with him, and nothing was missing or stolen from him either. Both Finlay and Keeley finally come to the conclusion that there can only be one reason: the fact that Samuels was a Jew, and someone with a deep hatred for Jews had committed the crime. It doesn’t take them much time to figure out who the culprit could be. But the problem is that they have no evidence, and it will be impossible to prove the crime in a court of law. That’s unless they can force the killer to kill again; the rest of the film deals with Finlay laying a trap, and successfully nabbing the killer.

Unlike most film noirs, “Crossfire”, adapted from the Richard Brooks’ novel, “The Brick Foxhole”- whose actual subject was homophobia in the army- is not much concerned with its murder mystery. The identity of the killer is revealed much earlier in the film. The emphasis here is on complex characterizations and evoking the oppressive ambience of its accurately rendered post-WWII setting – with its feelings of disorientation, loneliness and entrapment. From these two aspects of the film comes its “message” or the “social problem” that it wants to extrapolate on. This was first of the two films – Elia Kazan’s “Gentlemen’s Agreement” released the same year being the other one – to have anti-Semitism as its main theme. The notable thing about this film is that, though the film starts out on this theme very subtly – with Capt. Finlay picking up on phrases such as “guys like that,” and snide comments about the murdered soldier’s heritage – it doesn’t bury this theme in the subtext. Instead, as the film progresses, the film takes this issue head-on and explicitly acknowledges the killer’s hateful motives in no uncertain terms- perhaps too ‘in your face’, more on that later. The other, more subsidiary theme tackled by the film is the malaise of returning WWII soldiers, still recovering from the trauma of war and trying to adapt to a changed world. These soldiers, who are trained to be killers and have done their share of killing, find it impossible to adjust to peaceful, civilized life. As depicted in the film, they either spend their time barhopping, drinking, gambling and basically being anti-social- their chief enemies are the cops, and they’re most enthusiastic in thwarting the attempts of the police in apprehending their colleagues: who, more often than not, are getting into trouble with the law. Either that, or they continue killing people by creating imaginary enemies out of their inherent bigotry. In other words, This film is the dark and gritty version of William Wyler’s genteel Oscar winning classic “The Best Years of our Lives” that came out in 1946.

Each soldier in the film represents one or the other aspect of this returning soldier. Mitchell, for instance, suffers from a classic case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He finds it impossible to reconnect with his wife or return to his earlier life, and hence, is now reduced to being an alcoholic- wandering the streets at night and trying to pick up floozies at bars. Then there’s Peter Keeley, perhaps the most positive military archetype on display here: the natural born leader. He is extremely charismatic and persuasive, has great concern and compassion for his fellow soldiers, and manages to bring out these qualities in others. But he’s a cynic and fatalist, who doesn’t plan or doesn’t care much as to how things go. He hasn’t seen his wife for two years, and he don’t know (or care) whether he is capable of having a relationship with her again. It’s Keeley’s concern for his fellow soldier- a trait perhaps leftover from the war- and his desire to save him that inspire him to get involved with this case. That, and his considerable understanding of both human nature and his compatriots’ dilemma, makes him invaluable to Captain Finley- the only other character in the film with Keeley’s heroic stature- in zeroing on the murderer. Robert Mitchum, who lends a quiet authority to Keeley- a typical Mitchum role, was on his way to major stardom in 1947. He had recently been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in Story of G.I. Joe (1945) and would soon be reaping critical acclaim for his work in Out of the Past and Pursued, both released the same year as Crossfire. But during the filming of Crossfire, Mitchum, who wasn’t much interested in his role- which he described as something any American actor could have played- didn’t care too much about acting and was quite the prankster, tormenting cast and crew members with the new air-powered BB gun. His disinterest is very evident in most of the scenes he’s in, where he seems to be visibly bored (he can be seen yawning in the background most of the time), though his screen presence is so strong that our attention veers towards him, rather than someone like Robert Young, who’s no match for Mitchum as far as star charisma goes. Young’s pipe smoking, far-too-studious Capt. Finlay looks and behaves more like a psychiatrist rather than a homicide cop, and he’s saddled with delivering the film’s earnest messages- a sequence that runs for almost 5 minutes where he recounts the hate-killing of his grandfather, an Irish catholic, in 1848. Today, this sequence feels heavy-handed, and also very compromised, because the Cop is going almost a century back to list a hate crime, which reduces its immediacy and makes it more palatable for a contemporary audience- ‘these things used to happen then but not now’ kind of thing. But, perhaps this kind of exposition and sweetening was required for the 1940s, when subjects like these were not openly treated in mainstream cinema.

Keeley’s exact opposite is Montgomery, an aggressive, violent thug driven by his prejudices, who takes sadistic pleasure in mocking and humiliating his fellow men. Monty takes great pride in his war record against Nazis, but he is filled with the same bigoted ideals as theirs as far as racism and religious intolerance goes. But he’s much more complex than that: he is extremely subservient to authority figures he perceives to be superior than himself, just as he aggressively ventures to bring anyone he perceives to be inferior to him under his authority. Montgomery was a breakout role for Robert Ryan; he’s equal parts pathetic and terrifying in the role. Ryan was a liberal in real life and a far-cry from the brutish bigot he played in the film, but he was disappointed when this performance type casted him as this sort of hulky, deranged maniac- most evident in John Sturges’ “Bad day at Black Rock.” In a film populated mainly by male actors, Gloria Grahame, the quintessential Noir heroine, nearly steals the movie with her 5 minutes appearance as ‘Ginny’. She’s the ‘femme fatale’ of the peace- not necessarily in the classic mold of a Barbara Stanwyck or Claire Trevor, but in her own way, her sleazy, jaded, Platinum-blonde, who trades caustic barbs with Mitch’s wife Mary and Finlay, makes life difficult for Mitch. She’s both kind and defiant: she gently supported Mitch when he was in the throes of depression, but refuses to help Mitch by backing up his alibi in front of Finlay and Mary; simply because she wants to get back at a society that has branded her an outcast and insulted her multiple in the course of her miserable life. She resents the hypocrisy that confers Mary with the ‘Nice girl’ tag only because she’s the ‘wife’, despite the fact that it was her, and not Mary, who was there to comfort Mitch when he needed it the most. Grahame communicates this duality beautifully, and it’s no surprise that she and Ryan were nominated for Best supporting actor Oscars. Paul Kelly, playing the man who claims to be Ginny’s husband, is another standout. His conversation is a dense layering of lies and false confessions, which adds to the bizarreness of the overall subplot dealing with Mitch- who seems to be lost in his own fantasy world most of the time.

Though the central “message” may have been the primary reason why the filmmakers made this movie, it’s the strong Noir atmosphere that director Dmytryk imparts that saves the movie from being preachy and sanctimonious. This film takes place completely at night, and hence manages to sustain the Noir mood of unease, paranoia and mystery rather effortlessly. The cinematography by J. Roy Hunt is classic Noir, with looming shadows, oblique angles, and low-key lighting. Rooms are mostly lit with just a single table lamp, thus plunging most of the space in darkness, with actors usually leaning in to the light to make an important point. This proves to be a very effective dramatic device. especially when the light gets filtered through cigar (or pipe) smoke emitting out of their lips. And like all Noirs, this film was made cheaply and quickly; The film was shot in just 24 days on a very limited budget, and runs for just 86 minutes. The film was RKO Studio’s biggest hit of 1947 and it was rewarded with five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture (the first B-Movie to receive best picture nomination), Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Robert Ryan), and Best Supporting Actress for Gloria Grahame. The film would ultimately lose Best Picture to Gentleman’s Agreement made on the same subject. But “Crossfire” has aged much better than that Kazan film, and still packs a visceral punch when viewed today, simply because more than a “message” movie, it’s a very well done genre piece that goes deep into the dark and dirty areas of human conscience.

Before “Crossfire”, Dmytryk and producer Adrian Scott had made two vey successful film Noirs: the trendsetting “Murder, My Sweet“- an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s ‘Farewell my lovely’- and “Cornered”, both starring Dick Powell. Unfortunately, “Crossfire” turned out to be Dmytryk’s and Scott’s last film for RKO. In October, 1947, mainly due to the subject matter of this film, both Dmytryk and Scott were called to depose before HUAC ( House Committee on Un-American Activities ). They were later declared ‘Unfriendly witnesses’ due to their refusal to testify to their communist leanings, and name fellow communists. They were part of, what came to be known as the ‘Hollywood Ten’, who were convicted of contempt of Congress; and had to spend time in jail as well as being blacklisted from working in the film industry. But after spending four months and 17 days in Millspoint Prison, West Virginia, Dmytryk came to the conclusion that he had been duped by the Communists- believing they had cost him exile and imprisonment so they could win sympathy for the “Ten” as persecuted innocents. He agreed to testify and to name people he claimed were Communist Party members, and hence, was released early from jail. When Dmytryk testified a second time for HUAC in 1951, he implicated others, including Scott, as Communists, and thereby removed himself from Hollywood’s blacklist, but Scott continued to be blacklisted and never produced another movie. That’s a truly ironic postscript to this terrific movie that was intended by its makers to expose the bigotry existing in the American society. Dmytryk worked steadily from then on, making popular movies like “The Caine Mutiny” and “The Young Lions”, but he was no more the filmmaker he was in the 1940s- when he churned out those innovative Noir classics one after another with ease. His filmmaking had become very pedestrian and labored, resulting in bloated, lumbering and even crass epics like “Raintree County” and “The Carpetbaggers”.

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