Monday, July 30, 2018

Crossfire (1947)



Director: Edward Dmytryk

Coming out of World War II there tended to be two types of Americans, the heavy majority consisted of those attempting to pick up life as they saw it before the conflict, while others crusaded to change society’s ills that most overlooked. RKO’s Crossfire was a brave film being one of the first movies to acknowledge racism, more specifically anti-Semitism, and issue that lied in plain sight of American society of post WWII, packaging its tale within film noir. What began as a simple lower level studio picture would become one of the greatest features of 1947, yet sadly led to further injustice within the Hollywood community.

Crossfire is a film noir of a police investigator piecing together the murder of a Jewish man and the unlikely suspects of demobilized members of the armed forces. Police investigator Finlay (Robert Young) begins his evening with the discovery of a brutally murdered man by the name of Joseph Samuels (Sam Levene) and must piece together the events that led to his death. The two primary suspects become a pair of soldiers in town, Montgomery (Robert Ryan) and Mitchell (George Cooper). The two share slightly different stories of the evening with Mitchell’s being much more hazy in detail than the brash Montgomery due to intoxication, depression, and the missing for several hours following the time of the murder. Concerned for his friend, Sgt. Peter Keeley (Robert Mitchum) takes upon himself to investigate the murder as well in order to help clear his Mitchell’s name. As the facts come together Montgomery’s anti-Semitic rage is revealed as the clear motive for the murder of Samuels, sending Finlay on a deadly chase to stop Montgomery.

For what begins as a usually crime film noir, this picture takes a radical turn towards tackling social issues as the story highlights the motives of the killer. Despite this unique note, the film gets buried under the large amounts of productions that surrounded it in cinema history. Within perspective Crossfire becomes a tangible wake up call for the American audiences of the time. Nazi Germany’s outlook of solving the “Jewish problem” was one guiding characteristic that framed the ultimate evil in the minds of many when looking back on the atrocities of WWII, becoming synonymous with the fascist Hitler centered party. However, here anti-Semitism, a social injustice that had appeared with American society well before the founding of the nation, becomes the focus of villain that is not only American, but also a soldier, someone generally viewed as a hero. This film takes us back to examine bigotry, reminding us that we as a society are still not completely virtuous even after persevering through the faces of evil of World War II.

The picture’s origins lie in a former US Marine, Richard Brooks, who had spend the war learning the ins and outs of filmmaking to make military instructional pictures while finding the time to write a book. The novel was “The Brick Foxhole,” a story about prejudice within the ranks of the armed forces, found favorable reviews and praise from a friend and fellow Marine, RKO actor Robert Ryan, who stated that if the book was ever made into a movie he would love to play a major role in it. By chance the work would be optioned as a feature film eventually turning into Crossfire at RKO where Robert Ryan would get his opportunity to act as the film’s antagonist. Although Brooks was not brought in to directly work on the adaptation of his novel, his credit did lead him to Hollywood, first as a screenwriter and later becoming an accomplished director such features as Blackboard Jungle (1955) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958).

In order to adapt Brooks’ novel for the screen creative changes were needed for the plot as the victim in Brooks’ story was murdered for being a homosexual. At this time in American motion picture censorship homosexuality was a taboo subject, viewed as an unspeakable perversion, never to be discussed in movies. Therefore the motive was altered to racism, still a rather real and sensitive subject in American society. The victim was made Jewish, an easy and still real target of social injustice of the post-WWII era in America while avoiding a more complicated subject of racism towards African-Americans. Audiences and censors were more likely able to empathize with issues of white on white violence than going the further in possibly making the victim African Americans in a society where segregated was still present.

For such a picture RKO would not role out their primary players. I would not say that Crossfire was a B-movie, but it hardly got an A-movie treatment. Director Edward Dmytryk was long used as a B-movie director having only recently begun working on higher valued productions for the studio. However, with a cast of the studio’s lesser recognizable actors such as the Roberts: Young, Mitchum, and Ryan, Dmytryk keeps the film on track with crisp production quality in what can be clearly seen as a lower budget picture. Despite the film being rather well lit, he does add the characteristic dark, heavy shadows film noirs are known in a picture that that has a dark edge to it.

The veteran B-movie actor Robert Young stars as embittered investigator, world weary and jaded by the ugliness his character must deal with on an everyday basis. He gives the character depth, despite there being very little is actually shared about the investigator’s background.

Robert Mitchum, probable the most recognizable of the star names, plays a bit off his usual tough guy image, here portraying the caring friend that works to save Mitchell from being framed for the murder. His performance is rather weak and downright against his style. Mitchum was said to have hated the character of Sgt. Keeley, finding him too flat and restricting, considering the role one of his least favorite performances in his career.

As mentioned earlier Robert Ryan dreamt of starring in the picture before it was even optioned to a studio, eventually serving as the villain, Montgomery. Through a strong performance Ryan’s appearance in the film stands tall above the rest, gaining him critical attention for his acting. Ryan found his character so unlikable and unlike himself that he would attempt to distance himself from the role and the film despite the praise he received from it, including an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Casting directors would reach out to Ryan for other like villainous roles, a characteristic he would long attempt to shake away from.

The film also shown a light on the performance of Gloria Grahame who portrays woman of the night whom Mitchell, George Cooper’s character, spends some time with the evening of the murder, becoming the damning alibi that inadvertently saves himself from prison. Her role as the emotionally broken prostitute who has a glimmer of heart from the depressed soldier gives the audiences a deep character that has an entire story to tell, but in a portrayal that has a limited time on screen. Her role has nothing to do with the primary plot, but her character brings dimensions that make this world the story lives in greater depth and tangible sadness. Her blonde bombshell appearance and vamp qualities fit well for the role, a performance that earned her a Best Supporting Actress nomination.

Upon release Crossfire received good box office numbers and favorable reviews lifting the film into the realm of being one of the year’s surprise major films. Released months in advance of a another similarly theme film, Gentlemen’s Agreement, Crossfire got a good deal of attention, along with Academy Award nominations for Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Picture. Crossfire would fail to win an Academy Award, losing to Gentleman’s Agreement in the category of Best Picture, becoming the only Best Picture nominee to not win an award in any other category.

Some have come to speculate the lack of Oscar wins was due in part to politics with director Dmytryk and producer Adrian Scott’s refusal to testify at the Un-American Activities Committee in 1947. Their acts of defiance lead to their arrests and their names added to the infamous blacklist in Hollywood. Crossfire brought the two men great praise and attention, but negative publicity from the federals that at the time were performing a proverbial witch hunt of Communist activity, centering on Hollywood. Dmytryk and Powell would eventual become two of the members known as the “Hollywood Ten” being viewed as Communist sympathizers. Dmytryk would attempt to find work in England before returning to the states, complying with authorities, and testifying, which cleared his name and allowed him to return to work in Hollywood shortly after. Powell would not do the same and never worked in Hollywood again.

Crossfire would be overshadowed by Gentlemen’s Agreement in the long run of cinema history, but within itself contains a great deal of American and social history. It was a surprise movie for me to come across in my cinematic viewings, observing its merits in the form of numerous award nominations, but knowing little about it going in. With this picture we see an early attempt at American movies being used as a tool or soap box to combat issues of the day, and in some cases still remain. Crossfire proved to be one of those lesser known and lesser polished gems one can come across in the halls of motion picture history.

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