Taken from the confronting novel The Brick Foxhole, which revolves around bigotry and the beating to death of a man for being homosexual, Crossfire changed the murder to an anti-Semitic one, a topic marginally more tolerable to American censorship boards than homophobia.
Brooding shadows, a murder mystery, a sultry blonde, a fatalistic sense of an inevitably bleak outcome, and strong performances by well-fleshed out characters, give Crossfire an authentic noir sensibility and an impact that persists to this day.
Robert Ryan is intimidating as the fearful Sergeant ‘Monty’ Montgomery, Robert Mitchum as the reliably cynical anti-hero Sergeant Felix Keeley, and Robert Young as the disconsolate homicide detective, Captain 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 women got by in wartime America.
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. And there is 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 female partners on screen.
Decades after the film was made, 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 antisemitism was an unseemly blight on the nation’s self-ascribed status as the world’s prime champion of liberty and justice. So, in an unheroic deception of the audience, antisemitism 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.
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.
Adding to the lower-class ambience of sets, props, and underlit scenes 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 layering and almost subliminal and increasing distortion to his scenes, creating 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 antisemitism? 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.
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.
Yet another irony: Gentleman’s Agreement, starring Gregory Peck and John Garfield, and far more overtly about antisemitism, 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.
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.
With 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.