RKO Radio Pictures, 85m 38s
As a man is beaten to death in a dialog-free opening sequence, the sometimes savage climate of film noir comes to light quickly and mercilessly in CROSSFIRE. The remainder of the narrative is concerned with how such a thing could occur, under what circumstances another man would feel compelled to kill someone with his bare hands. The success of the production is in its reduction of social complexities to the raw simplicities of human nature. The first major film to deal openly with anti-Semitism, CROSSFIRE is also among the most dimly lit of all film noirs, which provides a suitable backdrop for the social content at the forefront. As a man who has from childhood to adulthood witnessed many spontaneous fistfights, often ignited by the consumption of alcohol, this RKO feature rings especially true to me. Put a few guys in a barroom with varying backgrounds, beliefs and levels of education and stand back. Things can escalate extremely quickly, sometimes with the ringleaders of violence themselves unable to explain what caused the commotion. Such randomness falls well within film noir parameters, where being at the wrong place at the wrong time can have grave consequences.
Film noir emerged from the ashes of WWII, when our soldiers returned to a homeland that was in a state of transition. Some veterans found it no easy task to reintegrate. Such men are the focus of this noir, in which social paralysis results from the collision between soldier and civilian. The demobilized servicemen of CROSSFIRE push this theme in a nocturnal urban no-man's-land, neither at war nor at home, cooped up in area hotels where activities are limited. Thus men in uniform are on nightly pub crawls en masse, trapped in a roundabout of drinking, skirt-chasing, card games and good-ol'-boy stories. That directionless state works to trigger the primordial fears and anxieties of certain men, some of whom become a danger to others, some mostly to themselves. According to Sergeant Peter Keeley (Robert Mitchum), "Soldiers don't have anywhere to go unless you tell 'em where to go. When they're off-duty they go crawling or they go crazy."
The man most impacted by crazy behavior is Joseph Samuels (Sam Levene), killed at the film's exposition. Via flashbacks a gradual portrait of Samuels comes into being. His needless death is investigated by Captain Finlay (Robert Young) a man who collects facts, though he admits most of them are not helpful to his cause. This case he finds particularly puzzling. Why would anyone want to kill Samuels? No obvious motive is apparent. While Finlay surveys the crime scene and hears from Miss Lewis (Marlo Dwyer), who says Samuels was drinking with some military men the prior evening, Montgomery (Robert Ryan) arrives on the scene. Having returned from deployment only two weeks ago, Montgomery reveals a lot of qualities that make the viewer suspicious. He was a cop for four years in East St. Louis, which likely fomented a disdain for people who were somehow different from him. During a partially-true flashback directly related by Montgomery, he expresses contempt for civilian types in the military after reprimanding his fellow soldier Leroy (William Phipps) for clumsiness. In the course of a brief barstool conversation, Samuels tires of Montgomery's attitudes and poor grammar and gravitates to Corporal Arthur Mitchell (George Cooper). When Montgomery realizes Samuels quietly has relocated from a seat next to him, Montgomery's reaction instantly makes his a suspect, but that noticeable response is revealed only to the viewer, not Finlay. Montgomery sees Samuels as a coward who stayed home while real men fought for their country overseas. Unsurprisingly, that assessment proves completely inaccurate. Especially to a modern audience, Montgomery's repeated use of the derisive moniker "Jewboy" tells us everything we need to know about an intolerant man who condemns those who for whatever reason do not subscribe to his rather limited worldview.
The fatal physical beating that marks the film's opening segment is accented be the psychological abuse absorbed by characters who labor through an endlessly difficult noir obstacle course. Of particular note is the mentally tormented Mitchell, the most sensitive of the soldiers profiled, who probably has struggled the most with adjusting to his return to the states. Mitchell is the antithesis of Keeley, who has not seen his wife in two years and seems indifferent. Mitchell is not that sort of man, he is an artist with an artist's sensibility. Sought by police, he cannot remember exactly what happened the night Samuels was killed. True to classic film noir form, his disoriented memory is related through his hazy flashback. After Mitchell leaves the Samuels place, he wanders the uncertainties of noir terrain, as his narration confirms:
"I must have started to walk. I don't remember. I remember a street sign. I couldn't read it. I don't know how far I walked. It must have been a long way."
Later Mitchell relates his state of mind to Keeley more directly:
"...what's happening? Is everything suddenly gone crazy? I don't mean just this. I mean everything. Or is it just me?"
The streets walked by the innocent Mitchell, one of noir's many "wrong man" cases, lead to Ginny Tremaine (Gloria Grahame), a dancehall girl and obvious prostitute. Ginny is the noir woman best avoided, her good looks betrayed by her endlessly standoffish personality. Though her demeanor renders her unsympathetic, one might consider her another casualty of the noir landscape, a woman doing the best she can under the circumstances. Within her apartment is an important ancillary figure to this film noir, a living testimonial to what happens to men who fall for women like Ginny, to men who lack that essential tough guy mentality. The individual portrayed by Paul Kelly is defined entirely by his varying accounts of his relationship with Ginny. He first introduces himself as Ginny's husband as he recalls plans the couple made together that never materialized. One gets the feeling he has told such stories repeatedly, probably to anyone willing to listen, even those who could care less. Perhaps those plans were discussed with Ginny, perhaps not. Such ramblings may not matter to anyone else, but the important element in the context of the film noir is how much his ambitions matter to him. Despite every indication Ginny is an exasperating little tramp, he is obsessed with her anyway, and seems powerless to do anything about it. Hopes and dreams conceived in the past have little value in a post-WWII world that has undergone radical change. As Ginny's long-term suitor attempts to relate his history with her to Finlay and Mary Mitchell (Jacqueline White in the role of the Grahame character's polar opposite), the two leave the apartment in tuned-out disinterest. The character tellingly listed in the credits only as "The Man" could appear in most any film noir and be in good company. His unhealthy fixation with an unattainable woman is the basis for an existence without purpose.
|The noir staircase has its role in a nightmarish descent into chaos|
|Seriously, you remind me of my wife|
|One of CROSSFIRE's many minimalist lighting effects|
If at home we must confront the same ideological struggles for which our servicemen fought overseas, how ironic that CROSSFIRE's story of intolerance revolves around a veteran. Fittingly, the eventual collapse of Montgomery is due to his increasingly unsteady psychological condition. Based on the word of a country boy from Tennessee he always held in low regard, Montgomery is compelled to investigate whether a man he knows he killed somehow remains alive. In the process Finlay cleverly allows Montgomery to incriminate himself by using the racist's memory of murder against him. A bad-tempered man whose instincts and impulses consistently have been shown to be wrongheaded, it feels appropriate Montgomery should be brought down by a lie communicated by the simple man Leroy. The end of the line for Montgomery—gunned down in the dark of night by Finlay—certainly plays differently today than it must have back in 1947. There is also a bit of a preachiness factor that dates the film; Finlay might as well be looking into the camera's lens when he delivers his speech about the realities of prejudice and bigotry. An Irish character, Finlay serves as an emblem for our country's long history of racism and hostility toward foreigners. There is no doubting the sincerity of the filmmakers, though, and of course the message remains an important one. Montgomery is a byproduct of entrenched systemic racism. When a group is denied basic human rights (to join a club, to live in a community, to get a job), Montgomery and others like him derive a sense of empowerment. Sooner or later, civil liberties will be violated more violently. As the great American writer and activist James Arthur Baldwin recognized, to be thought of as equal to another is not an exciting concept for the average person. The notion that an individual might be better than someone else is entirely different.
Producer Adrian Scott and director Edward Dmytryk considered CROSSFIRE part of a trio in conjunction with MURDER, MY SWEET (1944) and CORNERED (1945). In fact a poster for CORNERED is displayed outside the movie theater where Mitchell furtively attends a screening. I think it is fair to say Dmytryk and Scott hoisted film noir to a higher level with these tremendous contributions to the genre, all of which rightly are held in reverence by film noir fans. Dmytryk also helmed THE SNIPER (1952), one of the most crucial noir films of the 1950s and a direct influence on director Martin Scorsese's neo-noir TAXI DRIVER (1976). CROSSFIRE was created on a modest budget yet was ambitious in scope, a social justice story with broad-ranging implications. It was also executive producer Dore Schary's first film at RKO, where he served as head of production for a brief while before defecting to MGM. A low budget production shot in 20 days with less than 150 setups, CROSSFIRE was completed for approximately $250,000 and made a nice profit of $1,270,000. It also received unstinting approval from critics. The screenplay written by John Paxton was an adaptation of the 1945 novel THE BRICK FOXHOLE by Richard Brooks, his debut, optioned for the screen by Scott. In one of the source material's subplots, the hate crime victim was a homosexual in the U.S. Armed Forces. The Production Code did not allow for the homosexual theme, which shifted to an anti-Semitic angle in the Dmytryk film, though something from the original material remains in Sam Levene's portrayal of Samuels, who absolutely seems attracted to Arthur Mitchell in the barroom sequence that so visibly upsets Montgomery. Then consider the fact Samuels invites Mitchell to his apartment while the woman with Samuels leaves the two of them alone. Brooks was a sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps when he wrote his novel. Robert Ryan was also a Marine when THE BRICK FOXHOLE was published and told Brooks he would like to play Montgomery on the big screen. As a screenwriter, Brooks made his way into the noir arena numerous times, with writing credits for BRUTE FORCE (1947), KEY LARGO (1948), MYSTERY STREET (1950) and STORM WARNING (1951). He would become a filmmaker of interest as well, with a diverse assortment of impressive titles to his credit that includes DEADLINE - U.S.A. (1952), BLACKBOARD JUNGLE (1955), CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (1958), ELMER GANTRY (1960), THE PROFESSIONALS (1966) and IN COLD BLOOD (1967). Cinematographer J. Roy Hunt utilized various lenses to better capture the increasing menace of Montgomery. Precious little light is speckled throughout the movie; a technical necessity that binds perfectly to the film's pessimistic worldview. Low-key lighting was necessary to distract the viewer from the austere sets. A cinematographer of 200 credits at IMDb.com, Hunt managed the camera for a couple of films that should be of interest to noir fans: I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943) and THE DEVIL THUMBS A RIDE (1947).
In 1947 the Academy Award for Best Picture went to director Elia Kazan’s GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT, which also dealt with anti-Semitism. CROSSFIRE actually was released theatrically first, a few months prior to GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT. The Edward Dmytryk film also got award attention with five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture (the first ever for a B film), Best Director, Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (Robert Ryan) and Best Supporting Actress (Gloria Grahame). Going forward both Ryan and Grahame would long be associated with playing similar characters.
Thanks to Warner Archive, CROSSFIRE has been made available on Blu-ray by way of a new 1080p HD Master, sourced from a 4K scan of the original camera negative. Framed at the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1, the wow factor is high—this new scan looks nothing short of amazing and should be considered a mandatory add for noir collectors. Ported from the Warner DVD issued in 2005 is the audio commentary track by Alain Silver and James Ursini, with interview excerpts courtesy of director Edward Dmytryk. The film historians review the careers of producer Adrian Scott and director Dmytryk, who both were among the Hollywood Ten, all cited for contempt of Congress and subsequently blacklisted for their refusal to answer questions in regard to reputed ties to the Communist Party. Both Scott and Dmytryk did prison time. As Dmytryk recalls what it was like to work during the Cold War, he explains his confrontation with the House Un-American Activities Committee effectively took four years out of his life. According to Dmytryk, leftist liberals stopped backing those under fire from Congress during those years, which was upsetting to him. Ultimately Dmytryk was encouraged to speak before the American Legion to demonstrate he was a changed man. That event helped to untangle him from the blacklist. Ironically the most liberal man on the set of CROSSFIRE per Dmytryk was none other than Robert Ryan, the man who played the detestable racist and brutal bully Montgomery. In regard to Gallup poll data that was accumulated before and after preview screenings in Denver, Dmytryk notes the incidence of anti-Semitism dropped 15% once people had seen the film, which speaks to the power of film to shape public opinion. RKO initially wanted nothing to do with CROSSFIRE. Dmytryk and Scott had to convince the studio to take a leap of faith.
The commentary track is loaded with useful information to those interested in learning more about film noir. A valuable assertion from Ursini is that character motives are not always clear in the noir universe. The lead protagonist endeavors to discover the truth in an ambiguous world. Another good lesson for students of the genre is what Ursini labels "psychological dysfunction." Noir characters like Mitchell are absolutely correct to feel unfairly embattled, yet his somewhat distorted account of the evening that claimed Samuels is the closest to reality. Another interesting point raised by the commentators is that the filmmakers make no direct references to the odd notion soldiers like Montgomery fought against institutionalized racism overseas.
Also revived from the DVD is the informative featurette "CROSSFIRE: Hate Is Like A Gun" (8m 58s).