Socially Conscious Noir: “Crossfire” (1947) starring Robert Young, Robert Mitchum, & Robert Ryan

Homicide Capt. Finlay (Robert Young) finds evidence that one or more of a group of soldiers is involved in the death of a middle-aged/kindly Jewish man, Joseph Samuels (Sam Levene). In flashbacks, we see the night’s events from different viewpoints, as Army Sgt. Keeley (a youngish Robert Mitchum) investigates on his own, trying to clear the sensitive/young Mitchell, to whom circumstantial evidence points. Then the real (and ugly) motive for the killing begins to dawn on both Finlay and Keeley. This was the breakout role for Robert Ryan, who played Montgomery, one of the experienced/jaded soldiers. Ryan didn’t like the negative aspects of his character- that resulted in him being typecast in villain roles. In real life, Ryan was a liberal progressive actively involved in the Civil Rights movement. A very young Gloria Grahame (who was loaned from MGM) plays a dancehall girl who meets Mitchell.

Finlay: Hating is always the same, always senseless. One day it kills Irish Catholics, the next day Jews, the next day Protestants, the next day Quakers. It’s hard to stop. It can end up killing men who wear striped neckties. Or people from Tennessee.

The film is based on Richard Brooks’ first novel, The Brick Foxhole (1945), written while he was a sergeant in the Marine Corps. One of the subplots dealt w/ homophobia, but that was changed to anti-Semitism. The decision was made by producer Adrian Scott (who purchased the rights) knowing that any depiction of homosexuality would not pass the Hayes Code. Brooks would write the screenplays for other notable noirs, incl. The Killers (1946) (uncredited), Brute Force (1947), Key Largo (1948), and Mystery Street (1950). Due to of the film’s tight (24 day) shooting schedule, it was able to beat the similarly-themed Gentleman’s Agreement to theaters by 3-1/2 months and stole some of its thunder. However, Oscar acclaim went to Gentleman’s Agreement, which won 3 out of its 8 noms, incl. Best Picture. Crossfire was overlooked; it had 5 noms. It has been suggested that one reason it didn’t win any Oscars was director Edward Dmytryk and Scott’s testimony before HUAC in late 1947. They refused to state whether they were, or had been, Communists and were subsequently blacklisted.

[1] Ryan, creates a fully shaded and frighteningly convincing portrait of an ignorant, unstable bigot; we see his phony geniality, his bullying, his resentment of anyone with advantages, his “Am I right or am I right?” smugness; how easily he slaps labels on people and what satisfaction he gets from despising them.

CROSSFIRE’s message seems cautious and dated now, though not nearly so much as GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT. […] The script seems afraid to mention any real contemporary problems. […] Still, it did take some guts to depict, immediately after World War II, an American who might have been happier in the Nazi army, and the movie’s basic premise is still valid.

[2] Crossfire is a “message” movie but it is also a cracking good drama, and that’s what I enjoyed about it. Plus the cast is dynamite – Roberts Preston, Mitchum and Ryan, and the beautiful Gloria Grahame. Mitchum doesn’t have a big a role as you might expect (the movie was released the same year as Out Of The Past in which he gives a much more substantial performance), but he’s always great to watch, and Robert Ryan steals the movie as a very nasty piece of work.

[3] As late as 1947, it was a big deal for a movie to announce that anti-Semitism existed, and that it was bad. (It was unthinkable, of course, for Hollywood to address the real subject of the book on which the movie was based- its victim was a homosexual.) Nevertheless, thanks to good writing and excellent acting, CROSSFIRE remains a persuasive examination of what we would now call a hate crime.

-Excerpts from IMBD reviews

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