Monday, July 11, 2005

Crossfire (1947)

CROSSFIRE (1947, RKO Radio Pictures)
Posted by Don Malcolm
SYNOPSIS (spoilers):

Samuels (Sam Levene), a Jewish man honorably discharged after an injury during WW II, is found murdered in his Washington, DC apartment. Suspicion falls on one of three men who were visiting him, Mitchell (George Cooper), who is clearly suffering from the effects of the war and whose wallet was found at the scene.

Police detective Finlay (Robert Young) listens to the account given by one of the other men in the apartment [flashback #1], Montgomery (Robert Ryan) and enlists the help of Mitchell’s NCO, Sgt. Keeley (Robert Mitchum) in finding Mitchell, who is missing. Keeley has been independently trying to help Mitchell—arranging to have Mitchell’s wife (Jacqueline White) fly to Washington for a long-overdue reunion. Keeley succeeds in keeping Mitchell from falling into police custody until he can hear Mitchell’s account of his movements and whereabouts [flashback #2].

Mitchell’s account indicates that despite his troubled state, he is not the murderer of Samuels. It becomes clear that the killer is, in fact, Montgomery, who is now attempting to shore up the testimony of the third man in the apartment, Floyd Bowers (Steve Brodie). When it becomes clear to Montgomery that Bowers will not make a credible witness, he kills him and attempts to make it look like a suicide.

Finlay becomes aware of Keeley’s delaying tactics and forces him to reveal where Mitchell has been hidden (an all-night movie theatre). He agrees to let Mitchell’s wife see him before he is taken into custody, and this leads them to the apartment of “hostess” Ginny Tremaine (Gloria Grahame), who had earlier taken pity on Mitchell after meeting him at the bar where she worked and given him the key to her place so that he could sleep. Ginny is alternately belligerent and tender in her account of what happened, but Finlay concludes that her account of the evening—and the testimony of her curious companion (Paul Kelly)—will not suffice as a credible alibi for Mitchell.

As night turns into early morning, news reaches Finlay that Bowers is dead, and he realizes that Montgomery is the killer, recognizing at last that the crime is based on hatred and prejudice. Finlay has Keeley bring in another member of Montgomery’s unit, Leroy (William Phipps), a Southerner who, like Bowers, had been subjected to Montgomery’s bullying. Finlay convinces Leroy to assist in creating a ruse that will trap Montgomery into indirectly revealing that he is the murderer of Bowers (and hence the murderer of Samuels as well).

The ruse works: Montgomery returns to the scene of Bowers’ murder despite the fact that the address written down (purportedly by Leroy, but in actuality written down by Finlay) is not correct. Montgomery attempts to escape, but as he is fleeing down the street, Finlay shoots him.


“We’re too used to fighting. But we just don’t know what to fight. You can feel the tension in the air. A whole lot of fight and hate that doesn’t know where to go.”

--Samuels (Sam Levene) to Mitchell (George Cooper)

“Ignorant men always laugh at things that are different—things that they don’t understand. They’re afraid of things they don’t understand—they end up hating them.”

--Finlay (Robert Young) to Leroy (William Phipps)


Crossfire initiated two important trends in film noir: first, it ushered in a short-lived “social message” sub-genre of noir that produced some of the cycle’s best films, and second, it launched the career of noir giant Robert Ryan, whose range and ability in portraying flawed characters may be unsurpassed in the history of film.

Ryan’s performance earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, but the brief ascent of noir into the mainstream world during 1947 probably worked against his chances of winning. (Two other noir films snagged Best Supporting Actor nominations in 1947: Kiss of Death with Richard Widmark, and Ride The Pink Horse with Thomas Gomez.) The resulting split vote threw the award to Edmund Gwenn for Miracle on 34th Street.

Crossfire also launched the noir career of Gloria Grahame, who makes the most of her brief screen time as Ginny Tremaine, giving us a glimpse of the depth she would later display in The Big Heat and In A Lonely Place.

The “tension in the air” referred to by the murder victim Samuels was masterfully evoked by director Edward Dmytryk and cinematographer J. Roy Hunt. Noir scholar James Naremore, discussing the film in More than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts,gives us a more specific description of the production elements:

The picture was shot completely in the studio in a mere twenty-four days, and out of necessity it mixed the conventions of realistic photography (sharp resolution, elaborate depth of field, and plausibly motivated sources of light) with minimalist or black-art devices that eliminated the need for extras or costly sets. The result is a visibly artful and oneiric film, charged with sexual implication or “repressed” meaning, which invites the audience to explore the relationships between movies and dreams.

The source material for Crossfire was a novel, The Brick Foxhole, by Richard Brooks, in which the murder victim is not Jewish, but is instead a homosexual. In the novel, there is more emphasis on the primal struggle between Keeley and Montgomery (whose name in the novel is Monty Crawford). John Paxton’s adaptation eliminates this confrontation, and substitutes the low-key tenacity of philosophical cop Finlay. The resulting cat-and-mouse game between Finlay (extremely well-played by Robert Young) and Montgomery becomes the film’s essential fulcrum.

As noted by Naremore and others, the scene where murder suspect Mitchell first encounters murder victim Samuels (another fine performance from noir veteran Sam Levene) has a certain sexual ambiguity to it. The camaraderie among men that is displayed throughout Crossfire has a consistently pointed tone, and it is never portrayed as exactly “normal.” Having won a war against dark forces, the men returning to their homeland encountered a changed landscape: Crossfire depicts the deep-seated nature of that disorientation and its potential for damage (Mitchell’s emotional distress) and violence (Montgomery’s unprovoked attacks).

The most interesting manifestation of this “confused state of affairs” is embodied in Paul Kelly’s character. When he interrupts Mitchell’s sleep at Ginny’s apartment, he first identifies himself as Ginny’s husband, but he tells several different versions of the story, and finally disowns all of what he says. He is still there when Finlay and Mitchell’s wife arrive to talk with Ginny and try to establish an alibi for Mitchell, and his entrance into that scene is structured similarly with his earlier appearance. Appearing out of nowhere, his confounding presence is the embodiment of the social miasma that is affecting the world as a whole, the slippery slope leading to an abyss of uncertainty, where people hate what they don’t understand, and lash out at it, rather than conquering their fears.

Crossfire is available as part of the just-released Classic Noir Volume 2 box set, along with Born To Kill, The Narrow Margin, Dillinger, and Clash By Night. Its message may seem pat and self-evident given what has happened in the world in the nearly sixty years since its release; one makes such an assumption at one’s own risk, however.


Director: Edward Dmytryk
NOIR PEDIGREE: Murder, My Sweet (1944); Cornered (1945); Obsession (1949-UK); Give Us This Day (1949-UK); The Sniper (1952)

Screenplay: John Paxton (adapted from novel The Brick Foxhole)
NOIR PEDIGREE: Murder, My Sweet (1944); Cornered (1945); Crack-Up (1946); Fourteen Hours (1951); The Cobweb (1955); Pickup Alley (1957)

Cinematographer: J. Roy Hunt
NOIR PEDIGREE: I Walked With A Zombie (1943); A Game of Death (1945); The Brighton Strangler (1945); The Devil Thumbs A Ride (1947); Race Street (1948); Kill Or Be Killed (1950); The Lawless (1950)


Robert Mitchum (Sgt. Peter Keeley)
NOIR PEDIGREE: When Strangers Marry (1944); Undercurrent (1946); The Locket (1946); Pursued (1947); Out Of The Past (1947); Blood On The Moon (1948); The Big Steal (1949); Where Danger Lives (1950); My Foridden Past (1951); The Racket (1951); His Kind of Woman (1951); Macao (1952); Angel Face (1952); River Of No Return (1954); The Night of the Hunter (1955); Cape Fear (1962); Farewell, My Lovely (1975); The Big Sleep (1978)

Robert Ryan (Montgomery)
NOIR PEDIGREE: The Woman on the Beach (1947); Berlin Express (1948); Act of Violence (1948); Caught (1949); The Set-Up (1949); The Woman On Pier 13 (1949); The Secret Fury (1950); Born To Be Bad (1950); The Racket (1951); On Dangerous Ground (1952); Clash By Night (1952); Beware, My Lovely (1952); The Naked Spur (1953); Bad Day at Black Rock (1955); House of Bamboo (1955); Back From Eternity (1956); Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

Robert Young (Captain Finlay)
NOIR PEDIGREE: They Won’t Believe Me (1947); The Second Woman (1951)


Gloria Grahame (Ginny Tremaine)
NOIR PEDIGREE: A Woman’s Secret (1949); Roughshod (1949); In A Lonely Place (1950); Macao (1952); The Big Heat (1953); Man On A Tightrope (1953); The Glass Wall (1953); Human Desire (1954); Naked Alibi (1954); The Good Die Young (1954); The Cobweb (1955); Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

Paul Kelly (Mr. Tremaine)
NOIR PEDIGREE: The Glass Alibi (1946); Deadline For Murder (1946); Strange Journey (1946); Fear in the Night (1947); Thelma Jordon (1950); The Secret Fury (1950); Side Street (1950); Guilty of Treason (1950); Split Second (1953)

Steve Brodie (Floyd Bowers)
NOIR PEDIGREE: Desperate (1947); Out of the Past (1947); Station West (1948); Bodyguard (1948); Armored Car Robbery (1950); Winchester ’73 (1950); Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950); M (1951); Two Dollar Bettor (1951); The Crooked Circle (1957), Arson For Hire (1959)

Sam Levene (Joseph Samuels)
NOIR PEDIGREE: The Killers (1946); Boomerang! (1947); Brute Force (1947); Guilty Bystander (1950); Dial 1119 (1950); Sweet Smell of Success (1957); Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1957)

George Cooper (Cpl. Arthur Mitchell)
NOIR PEDIGREE: Blood On The Moon (1948); Roughshod (1949); Mystery Street (1950)

William Phipps (Leroy)
NOIR PEDIGREE: Station West (1948); Scene of the Crime (1949); They Live By Night (1949); The Man on the Eiffel Tower (1950); Five (1951); No Questions Asked (1951); Loan Shark (1952); The Blue Gardenia (1953); Riot In Cell Block 11 (1954); The Boss (1956); The Brothers Rico (1957)

Jacqueline White (Mary Mitchell)
NOIR PEDIGREE: Mystery In Mexico (1948); The Capture (1950); The Narrow Margin (1952)

Marlo Dwyer (Miss Lewis)
NOIR PEDIGREE: Follow Me Quietly (1949); The Woman On Pier 13 (1949); Caged (1950); Walk Softly, Stranger (1950); Missing Women (1951); The Sniper (1952)

1 comment:

  1. This one was too preachy for my tastes. Yeah, Hollywood, we know, hate is bad. - Wes Clark