Tuesday, March 1

Good 40s Films: Crossfire

1947 Film Noir
From RKO Radio Pictures
Directed by Edward Dmytryk

Robert Young
Robert Mitchum
Robert Ryan
Gloria Grahame
Paul Kelly
Sam Levene
George Cooper
Jacqueline White
Steve Brodie
William Phipp

When a man named Dore Schary assumed the reins of RKO in the mid-1940s, he determined that he was going to make unusual, somewhat risky movies on tight budgets.  The studio had long been known for the tight budget part... it was the unusual and risky that was the new approach.  The first one out of the gate was Crossfire.  For the record it was made in 20 days at a cost of $500,000 and it went on to become the studio's biggest hit of the year and one of the most acclaimed films in the RKO library.  It is a most delicious film noir and stars three actors I have always been wild about and who have been the subjects of some postings here.

It is also directed by a man whose work I have long admired and based on an original novel by a future director, both of whom I have also written about.  Future director Richard Brooks wrote a novel, Cradle of Fear, concerning some experiences he had in the marines involving the bullying of homosexuals.  He was neither the homosexual nor the bully but he was so transfixed by what he saw he determined he would write about it. 

The novel, like the film, became controversial because it did not present the military in a very positive light and there were those who were not at all happy about it.  The novel, of course, was equally controversial because of its gay theme but Hollywood of 1947 knew there was no way this one was going to fly.  The mere suggestion of gay was never going to be mentioned in a movie.  Yikes, who would show it and who would go if someone did show it?  So gay was out and Jewish was in... anti-Semitism to be precise.

John Paxton was hired to make a viable screenplay out of Brooks' explosive book and by all accounts he did. The title was changed to Crossfire and the focus is on the death of a man by one of a group of soldiers the man had been with shortly before he died.  A wily, tenacious detective is determined to find out which soldier did it and why.  That investigation, through the use of effective flashbacks, plot points, fearless acting and a stimulating assembly of words leads to one of the great film noirs of all time.  I would without question include it as part of my top five favorite noirs.

It opens with the murder, shown entirely as shadows on a hotel wall.  One man is ferociously beating another man.  As we see the victim drop to the floor in a heap, we catch a glimpse of two military men hightailing it out of the room.   

Detective Finlay (Young) is immediately front and center, in the room with the corpse, when there's a knock on the door.  In walks Montgomery (Ryan) who says he is looking for a friend of his.  The suspicious, pipe-smoking Finlay gets out of Montgomery that he and three others were with the deceased at a bar and then at the man's apartment but adds that the deceased was very much alive when they left him.

Finlay had found a wallet belonging to a soldier named Mitchell (Cooper) in the sofa.  Monty claims this is the man he is looking for but adds he is not the type to kill anyone... too sensitive and afraid.  This opinion is soon echoed by another soldier, one not a part of the group, Keeley (Mitchum), a sharp-tongued, non-conformist who soon begins doing his own detective work apart from Finlay.  They may have different strategies but they both circle the encampment with the same wariness. 

At first the detective suspects Cooper as the killer, chiefly because he cannot be found in the small town they are in.  He must be avoiding something.  A search for him reveals he was very drunk as he spent most of the evening with dancehall girl (really a thinly-disguised hooker, Ginny, played by Grahame), who gives him a key to her apartment where he goes and sleeps the night away.

As one door after another gets shut, Finlay questions why a man would be murdered in his hotel room by someone he scarcely knew.  (Oh, that original gay theme would have worked out so well right here.)  Finlay finally figures out that Montgomery is the killer and that he is trying to frame Cooper, partly because of a process of elimination but also because of Monty's poking around, being a nuisance and throwing around suspicious comments.  We realize in some of the flashbacks that Monty is the killer.  Despite being a former police officer, we see his hair trigger, his unreasonable demands and his bias.  No Jew is gonna tell me how to drink stinking liquor, he spits.  What's your problem, Jewboy?  We hear Monty say that he didn't like Jews living off the fat of the land while other men go to war. 

As Finlay figures it out, he delivers the film's message... ignorant men always laugh at things that are different, things that they don't understand, afraid of things they don't understand.  They end up hating them.  Monty has an intense hatred.  The trap that Finlay sets for Monty is a clever piece of writing.  I get off watching it unfold again and again, even though I know the outcome.

The performances, one and all, are excellent.  Despite his billing, the third Robert (Ryan) owned this movie.  In real life this was one of the kindest men imaginable with not a prejudiced bone to be observed and yet he could play the meanest, most sadistic, demonic men.  His Monty is frightening and with apologies to The Set-Up, Clash by Night, The Naked Spur and Odds Against Tomorrow, this remains his most memorable work.  Like Mitchum, he would come to rule in film noir.

Mitchum's part was thisclose to unnecessary.  With a little tightening of the script, his part could have easily been eliminated.  And he was upset that he was called back from a vacation to take the role, the smallest and least interesting of the three male leads, but he was under contract to the studio and in those days he did as he was told.  His playing the role of a sleepy-eyed, cynical soldier wasn't much of a stretch but he did it so well.  I'm glad his vacation was cancelled.

Young turned in his usual polished performance... intelligent, authoritative, probing.  He was approaching the end of his leading man days, if not his movie career.  In some ways his movie career would be a bit forgotten were it not for Crossfire.  Of course he went on to great acclaim on television.

You may recall Grahame was one of my favorite actresses of all time.  Few could play a sweet and sour loose lady of the night better than she could.  Her two scenes were filmed in two days and she went on to capture one of the film's five Oscar nominations.  She did not win but when she did win five years later for The Bad and the Beautiful (a totally unwarranted win, I say, much as I loved the woman), she herself would say she knew she really won it to make up for the loss of a Crossfire win.  She claimed this was her favorite of all her roles.

Paul Kelly's role was inconsequential to the plot (as Grahame's main squeeze) but he added to the mood of the film, which is to say his down and out, melancholy, lost cause demeanor is sheer perfection for film noir.  William Phipps was brilliant in his final scenes as one of the soldiers, a nervous one, who is deathly afraid of Monty but who helps in bringing him down.

Dmytryk was riding high at the time of Crossfire.  He was directing some fine film noirs, including Cornered and Murder, My Sweet (which I recently outlined here) and all three films also included the writer, John Paxton, and producer Adrian Scott.

Many noir staples are here... uncompromising, cynical, tough, the bad girl, the night scenes (almost the entire film is after dark), the moody, stark lighting, the extensive use of high shadows and deep contrasts, the sets, all tired and weary from overuse in 100 other "B" RKO films.

There was plenty of behind-the-scenes action.  For one thing, brave as a movie about anti-Semitism was in those times (everyone was telling Schary and crew not to make it), it was only one of two films coming out at the same time on the same subject.  Elia Kazan's magnificent production of Gentleman's Agreement was the other.  Darryl Zanuck at Fox even called Schary and asked him to not make Crossfire, at least not then.  Schary not only whipped and flogged his team to get the job done (I'm looking for colorful verbs) but they got Crossfire into theaters only weeks before Agreement.

I never really understood much of that.  The films did have three things in common, certainly.  They featured magnificent casts (Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, John Garfield and Oscar-winning Celeste Holm in Agreement aren't too tough to watch), both films were superbly written and both had a theme of anti-Semitism.  But in my mind, they are different... and it's concerning that anti-Semitism.  Agreement is truly about anti-Semitism.  I mean the gentile Peck goes undercover in life as a Jew and begins to appreciate the other side's burden a whole lot more.  In Crossfire, it's at issue, certainly, because a Jew is killed for being a Jew, but the film is really a murder mystery nestled in the bosom of film noir.  Agreement, certainly, was more thoughtful while Crossfire was stark and murderous.  In the end, Crossfire won none of its Oscars and Gentleman's Agreement won best picture and two more..

Not to be whiny but Crossfire may have had some other things brewing which resulted in its Oscar shutout.  At least two of its participants, director Dmytryk and producer Scott were starting to become embroiled in the communist witchhunts and would one day become two of Hollywood's Unfriendly 10.  It's likely Academy voters, never against turning their backs on certain films or performers, decided to put the kibosh on Crossfire

History, however, has honored it as one of the greats of its genre.  Here's a preview:

Next posting:
The Great Hoax

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