Brooding shadows, a murder mystery, a sultry blonde, and a fatalistic sense of an inevitably disconsolate outcome give Crossfire the film noir credibility claimed for it by reviewers, but especially by contemporary marketers of home video DVD and BluRay discs, looking for a way to dress up the merchandise.
Crossfire doesn’t really need to be dressed up like a cheap streetwalker. It has significant appeal in its own right, albeit not as the film noir I think it is despite itself.
Strong performances are delivered by Robert Ryan as the fearful Montgomery, Robert Mitchum as the reliably cynical anti-hero Keeley, and Robert Young as the disconsolate homicide detective Finlay. Gloria Grahame as the even more sad and embittered dance-hall girl, Ginny, was nominated for an Academy Award despite, or maybe because of, representing the unpalatable truth about how a generation of such women got by.
These performances, and the positive contemporary reviews it attracted, went a long way to earn the film a reputation rising far above its $500,000 B movie status. But there was far more below that surface.
When I first saw the film I was uncertain whether the good Samaritan intervention by Joseph Samuels in trying to offer comfort to the obviously distressed soldier, Arthur Mitchell, was intended as a suggestion at homosexual romance, and today I am certain of it, despite the fact that, overtly, the film carried no such message, and both men were paired with girlfriends or wives on screen.
Crossfire is a screenplay adaptation of the novel The Brick Foxhole, which revolves around bigotry and the beating to death of a man for being homosexual. That plotline is probably still too unpalatable for some American state censorship boards today, but was doubly so in the immediate post war years and had to be changed to an anti-Semitic murder for Crossfire.
Decades later, in an interview included in a nine-minute documentary (‘featurette’) on the making of Crossfire, included in the 2005 Warner Home Video DVD release of the film, Dmytryk states explicitly that the prudishness of censors at that time forced him to look for ways to say the unacceptable without incurring censorious wrath. For me the truth of that statement is the tender bar pick-up scene played out between Samuels and Mitchell in Crossfire.
Contrary to post-war propaganda, the US did not fight the Nazis to help the Jews, and anti-Semitism was an unseemly blight on the nation’s self-ascribed status as the world’s prime champion of liberty and freedom. So, in an undecidedly unheroic deception of the audience, anti-Semitism was never really mentioned more clearly than by the device of a cautionary tale about prejudice against the Irish in the 19th century.
For contemporary viewers, the clues may not be quite as subtle as they were in 1947, with references to ‘funny’ names and cowardly behaviour, giving Mitchum’s character, Keeley, one of the best lines in the film, when he observes laconically that Montgomery should have noticed a lot of funny names on the casualty lists during the war. But by today we have been bombarded with politically correct doctrines long enough to pick up on such clues.
The nature of the story is more like an extended chase, being the search for the missing Mitchell, suspected of the murder of Samuels, and then the race to verify his alibi, topped off with the gambit to force the real killer to reveal himself.
This is where a critical choice made by Dmytryk comes into its own. He decided at the outset to turn the traditional budget inside out, and instead of spending 80 per cent on lighting, rehearsals, and other preparatory work, he wanted to devote it to working with the actors. This decision, not a deliberate choice about shadowy lighting, is what gave the film its authentic noir atmosphere.
Perhaps a defining feature of film noir was always the limited budget that forced creative cinematographers and directors to come up with inventive techniques to make a virtue (and atmosphere) out of a tight budget.
Adding to this ambience was the device of filming Robert Ryan first in the neutral and flat clarity of a 50mm lens, then stepping it down to 40mm, 35mm, and finally 25mm, thus adding increasing but almost subliminal distortion to scenes featuring the racist Montgomery, creating almost imperceptible visual cues to the unfolding picture of a warped man.
Ironically, Ryan, who was to go on to play a string of dark characters, culminating perhaps in the hard-hearted bounty hunter Deke Thornton in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), had pronouncedly liberal Democratic views. He had met The Brick Foxhole author Richard Brooks at Camp Pendleton while both men served in the Marine Corps, and he had mentioned to Brooks, already a screenwriter, that he would like to play the part of Montgomery if the book were ever turned into a film.
Maybe even more ironically, in the same year Crossfire was released, Edward Dmytryk became one of the Hollywood Ten, defying the House Un-American Activities Committee by refusing to testify, and being gaoled for contempt of Congress. Is it too long a straw to draw that the McCarthyist anti-communist witch-hunt was a surrogate kind of anti-Semitism? That its aim was largely at people with ‘funny names’ and no WASP support base?
Dmytryk worked methodically, finishing the 140 set-ups for Crossfire in 20 days of 7 set-ups each, working six-and-a-half-hour days so he and his cast and crew would not turn in tired performances. He was under-budget for a film that grossed $1.2 million – twice its budget – and garnered five Academy Award nominations, though it won none of them.
Yet another irony: Gentleman’s Agreement, starring Gregory Peck and John Garfield, and far more overtly about anti-Semitism, took three Oscars at the 20th Awards ceremony in 1948, all of them in categories for which Crossfire had also been nominated. The characters in Gentleman’s Agreement are all well-to-do city types rather than the somewhat down-at-heel men and women in Crossfire. Gentleman’s Agreement was directed by Yale man Elia Kazan, whose Greek ethnic origins may have been less controversial than Dmytryk’s Ukrainian parentage and HUAC-tainted reputation.
Dmytryk was ‘rehabilitated’ in the 1950s and went on to direct The Caine Mutiny, The Left Hand of God, Raintree County, The Young Lions, Anzio, and Alvarez Kelly, among others.
Author Richard Brooks went on to become a director, and then independent producer of films such as Deadline – U.S.A., Blackboard Jungle, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Elmer Gantry, Lord Jim, and In Cold Blood.
RKO Radio Pictures, 1947. Black and white, 86 minutes.
Directed by Edward Dmytryk. Produced by Adrian Scott. Written by John Paxton from the novel The Brick Foxhole by Richard Brooks. Cinematography by J Roy Hunt. Music by Roy Webb.
Starring Robert Young as Captain Finlay, Robert Mitchum as Sergeant Peter Keeley, Robert Ryan as Montgomery, Gloria Grahame as Ginny Tremaine, Paul Kelly as Tremaine, Sam Levene as Joseph Samuels, George Cooper as Corporal Arthur Mitchell, Jacqueline White as Mary Mitchell.