Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Whatever Wednesday: ‘Crossfire’

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Crossfire is a B-movie noir that is also one of Hollywood’s early attempts to explore bigotry in the form of antisemitism. It is also the first B-film ever to be nominated for an Academy Award. Though the message of the film and it’s flirtations with Oscars are the key trivia, they are also the least interesting thing about the film.

Directed by Edward Dmytryk, Crossfire is a murder mystery, in which we know who the murderer is. But Dmytryk is less concerned with the story than he is with the mood and the atmosphere, which is where the film truly shines. John Paxon’s script, which he adapted from the novel “The Brick Foxhole” by Richard Brooks, is an unsteady foundation on which Dmytryk is trying to place the film on.

Crossfire is one of those movies that can never really quite figure out if it wants to be a movie about anit-semtism or about post-war malaise and psychological confusion at having no one to fight anymore. Luckily Dmytryk has stacked the deck, as it were, with a cast that includes such heavyweights as Robert Ryan, Robert Mitchum, and Gloria Grahame. Combine that with Paxon’s script occasional bout with the poetic and we have a movie that is, while flawed, visually arresting at times.

Captain Finaly (Robert Young) has a troubling case on his hands. Joseph Samuels (Sam Levene) is found dead in his apartment, alone. Young speaks in a  tone which is just shy of droning but with just a hint of curiosity peeking around the edges. He spends much of Crossfire with a wooden pipe extending from his clenched jaw, smoke billowing out as he puffs and mulls over the facts.

The police find a wallet belonging to Corporal Mitchell (George Cooper). Logically, the cops put two and two together. Or they do until Montogomery (Ryan), Mitchell’s commanding officer, comes onto the scene and happily tells Captain Finlay all about Mitchell. There’s something about the way Montgomery talks that makes Finlay uneasy. He talks to Sgt. Peter Keeley (Mitchum) and Montgomery about Mitchell. 

Robert Mitchum has one of the most fascinating faces in all of cinema. He has a screen presence that draws the eye without really trying. Pauline Kael once described him as a “great bullfrog with puffy eyes,” a comment on Mitchum’s baritone voice and strange captivating eyes. His Keely is, like most of the characters, underwritten. But every time he comes on screen there’s a hope that the movie will wise up and make him the main character.

Finlay questions him and Montgomery is soon complaining about those “types.” “Oh, you know. Guys that played it safe during the war. Scrounged around keeping themselves in civvies. Got swell apartments…swell dames. You know the kind.” Finlay pushes him and asks him what he means. “Oh you know. Some of them are named Samuels. Some of them got funnier names.”

The anit-semtism aspect of Crossfire is interesting but it is also the aspect of the film that feels somewhat shoehorned in. Possibly because in the original novel Samuels was gay, not Jewish. Being 1947, the Hays code forbade even mentioning the word “homosexual” they merely changed Samuels into a heterosexual Jewish man.

But, as wobbly as this aspect of the film is, it ties in to the most fascinating part of Crossfire. Mitchell, the accused murderer, is seen in flashback acting strangely. Samuels approaches him in the bar and talks to him. Obviously in the book this scene was meant to be Samuels flirting with Mitchell. But Paxton’s script instead delves into an oft ignored aspect of post-war reality.

The confusion and discombobulation that comes from years of being riled up and told to kill and hate only to have the war abruptly end and be asked to forgive and forget. Mitchell is feeling lost because he has a lot of anger which has been stoked and nurtured but now is being asked to put it aside. It’s here where Dmytryk is clearly the most interested.

Though Paxton’s script does a wonderful job of slowly exposing Montogmery’s antisemitism. Dmytryk and his cameraman J. Roy Hunt, frame much of Crossfire as if the scenes are taking place in some kind of shadow limbo. Hunt’s camera is often placed at stark angles, the lighting causing strange shadows to fall across the character’s faces. Numerous times throughout Crossfire, scenes have an almost impressionistic quality to them.

Take the scene I described with Montogomery talking about funny names. After Ryan is finished speaking Dmytryk cuts to a reaction shout of Young’s Finlay. The camera seems rooted into the floor as it gazes up at the pipe smoking stone face. Finlay doesn’t speak, he merely sits there and gazes down at Montgomery with the judgement of Moses.

Eventually they find Mitchell and it becomes a matter of proving Mitchell wasn’t in the apartment at the time Samuels was murdered. This is purely an exercise in plotting because Montogomery has already confessed to murdering Samuels to Floyd Bowers (Steve Brodie). Making the parts of Crossfire where Keeley and Finlay race around town trying to prove Mitchell’s innocence feel redundant. 

Though it does give an excuse to introduce the character of Ginny Tremaine played to perfection by Gloria Grahame. Grahame’s Ginny is a call girl who befriends Mitchell and feels sorry for him. She gives him the key to her apartment and he accepts.

The scenes between Grahame and Cooper are some of the best in the movie in terms of actual story. There’s a sweetness in the way Cooper is yearning to connect to someone to try and figure out why he feels so lost. Grahame’s Ginny can’t help but take pity, if only because she’s feeling the same way.

Ginny and Mitchell dancing together under the moonlight is a gentle and melochalic touch. Paxton’s script gets new life breathed into it as the two don’t banter but talk to each other in a way characters don’t in the rest of the movie. The scene in which Mitchell runs into Ginny’s ex-lover in the apartment feels like something that might inspire Joseph Heller, as the dialogue becomes a mess of games and lies that leaves Mitchell more dizzy than when he came to the apartment.

Later, Finlay and Mitchell’s wife Mary (Jacqueline White) track Ginny down. The moment she realizes Finlay is a cop she blurts out that she hates cops. “Nobody likes cops,” Finlay explains. Proving some truisms manage to stand the test of time.

Eventually, Finlay and Keeley plot to trap Montgomery. Although their plan is a little heavy on the convoluted side. The scene in which they talk the Kentucky Private into helping lay the trap is notable for a few reasons. 

For one, it’s the scene in which the movie finally deals with the antisemitism it’s been hinting at all throughout the movie. “Hate, Monty’s kind of hate, is like a gun. If you carry it around with you, it can go off and kill somebody.” Finlay tells a story about his Irish Catholic grandfather and ties it to the present day.

Dmytryk and Hunt angle the camera upwards as Young delivers his monologue. His body leaning forward over his desk, his fedora and pipe gone, as he pounds his fist, the background growing into a near blinding white, as if a flash bulb is being shined behind him before it explodes, as he drives home his point, is a dramatic flourish that has to be applauded. But the private is torn.

His commanding officer tells him that it’s okay to lie. “The army has never been proud of men like Monotgomery.” History begs to differ.

It is a moment in which the propaganda aspect of Crossfire comes into full bloom. Only it’s not done through visuals but through blatant sermonizing. Not to mention, for all it’s well intentioned purposes, it seems, peculiarly, only interested in white or white passing prejudices. Race as a social construct and how certain ethnicities have become perceived as white over time is an essay for another time and another author.

The problem with the anit-semtism aspect of the story is that Crossfire seems so conspicuously unconcerned with Jewishness as a culture or a religion. When it does confront it, it does so through the lens of Catholicism, somehow still othering that which it is trying to defend. 

Dmytryk stages the conclusion like a whodunnit but lit like the Maltese Falcon. The result is thrilling as Ryan, who has spent the whole film sinister and collected, begins to unravel. His execution in the middle of the streets illuminated by the street lamps, alone and angry, has a visual tidiness to it.

Crossfire is a visually compelling film that seems divorced from the story it’s trying to tell. Well intentioned though it may be, it never treats it’s Jewish character as anything other than a means to a thematic end. Thankfully the actors are so good that you don’t really mind until the script begins to run out of interesting things to say. 

Image courtesy of RKO Radio Pictures

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