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 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

“East Side, West Side” (1949) starring Barbara Stanwyck, James Mason, Van Heflin, & Ava Gardner

NYC financial advisor, Brandon Bourne and his socialite wife, Jessie, have a seemingly happy marriage of several years. However, about 2 years earlier, Brandon had an affair w/ a younger woman, Isabel Lorrison, who’s now back in town hoping to rekindle the romance. Through a young model/new friend, Rosa Senta (Cyd Charisse- in a rare non-dancing role), Jessie meets Mark Dwyer (a cop-turned-writer just arrived from Italy).

Isabel: It’s all right Brand. What difference does it make? Today or another day? There’s no hurry. You’ll be back.

[Brand turns around and slaps Isabel. Isabel smiles]

Isabel: That’s better, isn’t it Brand! That’s what you don’t get at home. That’s what you’ve missed isn’t it! It’s so tiresome being restrained and soft-spoken and gentlemanly. What you really want is to be a little rotten, like me!

This is a well-made film w/ plenty of clever/memorable dialogue; the pacing is a bit slow at times. I would’ve liked to see more of the West Side (West Village) and more outdoor shots. As several viewers commented, Mason is cool/controlled; he has great chemistry w/ Gardner (and they both have fabulous cheekbones). True, Mason and Stanwyck look like a good couple, but there isn’t much heat. I enjoyed seeing Stanwyck w/ Heflin; his character is very caring, energetic, and charming. They acted together in two other films. There are some gorgeous outfits in this film; the strapless/black cocktail dress that Gardner wears in her first scene is stunning!

Brandon: [Desparately] Jess, can’t you understand what this is for me. I’m like a drunk who knows liquor will wreck him. He hates it. He hides from it. He… he tries!

Jessie: What are you asking for? Permission?

Future First Lady Nancy Reagan (credited w/ her maiden name- Davis) plays one of Jessie’s friends, Helen Lee. Greer Garson, Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert were considered for the leads. Gale Sondergaard, who plays Stanwyck’s mother in this film, was only 50 y.o. when this film was made; Stanwyck was 42 y.o. Sondergaard was blacklisted for refusing to testify before HUAC, so didn’t work for the next 20 yrs. Beverly Michaels (platinum “Amazon” Felice Backett) is the wife of Academy Award winning screenplay writer Russell Rouse and the mother of Academy Award winning film editor Christopher Rouse.

[1] One bit of casting that is interesting is Charisse, as she bore a resemblance to Gardner, so the initial attraction Mason has for Rosa bears out his obsession with Isabel.

Gardner provides all the excitement in “East Side, West Side”…absolutely gorgeous and just about burns a hole in the film with her steamy performance.

[2] Stanwyck and Heflin have a palpable chemistry here, and Ava Gardner is a most alluring vixen. Cyd Charisse is a delectable ingenue (and a tall drink of water)…

Stanwyck’s scene with Gardner is a standout — both actresses are well matched; Gardner’s feline beauty and laissez-faire romantic approach nicely complements Stanwyck’s humane fatalism — and Stanwyck and Van Heflin are an appealing couple.

[3] Screenwriter Isobel Lennart was usually good for some smart dialog, and she’s reliably industrious here, though there’s no truth at the center of these doings: People just don’t fall in and out of love as quickly as they do here, and the plotting takes some very improbable turns… Believable it’s not, but it’s very entertaining…

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Bogart & Stanwyck Together: “The Two Mrs. Carrolls” (1947)

Sally Morton (Barbara Stanwyck) and Geoffrey Carroll (Humphrey Bogart)- a struggling artist- get married following the passing of Geoffrey’s first wife. Despite quickly falling in love w/ him while on vacation in Scotland, Sally never thought she’d marry him when she discovered that he was already married (regardless of his vow to get a divorce). Then the first Mrs. Carroll’s (called an invalid) passing changed the situation. The time of the first Mrs. Carroll’s illness resulted in Geoffrey’s greatest works, incl. a portrait of her as “The Angel of Death.” While Sally brings a house in the England countryside and a rough-around-the-edges housekeeper (Christine), Geoffrey brings a pre-teen daughter (Bea) into the marriage. Their happiness begins to change when glamourous/flirtatious Cecily Latham (Alexis Smith- who also co-starred w/ Bogart in Conflict) commissions Geoffrey to paint her portrait. Cecily and her mother were introduced to the Carrolls by a London lawyer, Charles Pennington (Sally’s former fiancé). The affable Penny (his nickname) is still in love w/ Sally, which doesn’t amuse Geoffrey.

Bogart says “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful hatred”, which is a nod to the famous line from Casablanca (1942). The movie was completed in June 1945, but released in March 1947, when Bogart’s box-office appeal was at a high (though most critics thought he was miscast). The role of an artist, a profession that viewers, critics, and even the actor himself felt deviated from his typical tough guy persona, there were limits to what he’d agree to. When the director (Peter Godfrey) asked Bogart to wear an artist’s smock and beret, he refused- LOL! I liked the chemistry between Bogart and Stanwyck; they got along well during the filming. I wasn’t a fan of the pacing, the child actress (calm and precocious), or the music (a bit overdone).

[1] Stanwyck has never been better as a panic-stricken wife, trying to survive her husband’s evil doings. Bogart gives a highly underrated performance as a psychopath, who gets brutal when his murder plot doesn’t go according to plan. His presence on screen is often frightening.

[2] Humphrey Bogart, for all of the heroic roles during this stage of his career, is cast against type, and Barbara Stanwyck, always the femme fatale, is now a damsel in distress as matters spiral beyond her control as grave danger closes in on her. The role-reversals of the stars works well and the byplay between them is good.

[3] One problem is that there is an enormous amount of subtlety employed in its unravelling. In fact I would say there is a little too much subtlety, to the point where the details that are supposed to be underplayed to maximise the mystery and suspense do not seem to be underplayed at all, but rather they appear to have simply been ommitted.

The second little problem is with Bogart’s character. He’s the centre of this story, a mentally disturbed and jealous painter who, it would appear, murdered his first wife… But we’re not really given any insight into his character until very late in the film. At first he appears to be just like your stereotypical artist; insular, unpleasant, cynical. But we know, or at least assume, that he has actual psychotic tendencies underneath that eccentric, but nonetheless ordinary exterior.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Suburban Life Can Be Murder: “Crime of Passion” (1956) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Sterling Hayden, & Raymond Burr

A successful advice columnist at The San Francisco Post, Kathy Ferguson (Barbara Stanwyck- 50 and looking fab), is an independent woman w/ no intention of ever getting married. She meets LAPD detective, Lt. Bill Doyle (Sterling Hayden- age 40), during the investigation of a prominent case (which is resolved w/ her help). Sparks fly, they fall in love, and decide to get married (too fast). Kathy quits her job and moves to LA to be a housewife.

Bill is close to his colleagues and their wives; they have regular dinner parties at his home. The banal conversations of these women are almost unbearable for Kathy, who has worked mainly around men and (perhaps) prefers their company. The cops’ wives seem frivolous; she’d feel more comfortable playing cards w/ the men rather than trading recipes with the women. The lack of ambition on Bill’s part push Kathy to a scheme to improve his prospects in the police dept. Kathy “accidentally” has a fender bender on the street where Inspector Anthony Pope (Raymond Burr- also 40 and slimmed down) and his wife Alice (Fay Wray of King Kong fame) live. Social climbing, scheming, and more ensue!

Some women should just not get married; nowadays, there are other routes to follow. This unique movie combines elements of film noir and domestic melodrama. Some viewers have called it “proto-feminist” and “ahead of its time.” I thought that writing was intelligent and also witty at times; the screenplay was by a woman- Jo Eisinger. This is the last film noir for both Stanwyck and Burr; they’d transition to working primarily in TV and appearing only occasionally in movies. Burr moved from the “heavy” (shady/villainous) types he played in films to heroic defense attorney in Perry Mason.

[1] …turns out to be a fairly interesting, sexually frank, compact little noir, featuring a once-in-a-lifetime cast. Stanwyck… is as intense as ever (she always gave her all in every picture); Hayden is his typically macho, upright self; Raymond Burr, playing Hayden’s boss, is a tad less sleazy than usual but still not to be trusted…

[2] Sharper socially than even Fritz Lang’s late noirs, “Crime of Passion” reminds us of the “nostalgia” for the “happy family values” of the 1950’s for the wishful (?) thinking that it is. Stanwyck’s slow descent into middle-class torpor and madness (she’s a sharp, witty, intelligent woman who saddles herself with a maddeningly boring and conventional cop husband, played nicely against type by Sterling Hayden) lays bare the social nightmare presented to women desiring anything but the conventional patriarchal lifestyle…

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Film Noir’s “Romeo & Juliet”: “They Live By Night” (1948)

Opening Title Cards: This boy… and this girl… were never properly introduced to the world we live in… To tell their story… They Live by Night.

Chickamaw (Jay C. Flippen), T-Dub (Howard Da Silva) and Bowie (a young Farley Granger in his 3rd role) have just escaped from prison somewhere in the Midwest. Though Chickamaw and T-Dub are hardened criminals (bank robbers), Bowie is just 23 y.o. and has been locked up since age16 (wrongly convicted of murder). Instead of rotting behind bars, Bowie, when given this chance by these older men, believed his best path forward was to help in their upcoming heists. He wanted to make enough money to hire a lawyer to clear his name of the murder conviction. The plan is to hide out with Chickamaw’s alcoholic/older brother, Mobley, until they have enough money to make other arrangements. Also w/ them is Mobley’s daughter, Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell- a waifish girl-next-door), who doesn’t much like her life. She and her father have small/run-down farm.

This unique film (now loved by critics and noiristas) is based on Thieves Like Us (1937), a novel by struggling journo Edward Anderson. It was identified by critic Thom Andersen as an example of film gris, a sub-category of film noir w/ a left-wing narrative. This was the debut of director Nicholas Ray and filmed in 1947; its release was delayed by 2 yrs. b/c Howard Hughes was in the process of buying RKO. Though well-liked by many Hollywood insiders, the film lost money at the box office. It was appreciated more in Europe, particularly France. Robert Mitchum lobbied to play Chickamaw and Jane Greer auditioned for Keechie; they’d soon be working on Out of the Past.

They Live by Night combines youthful innocence, first love, and the gritty world of crime. It’s not glam like many film noirs; this is a world of Greyhound buses, roadside diners, motor inns, etc. Granger asked to audition w/ O’Donnell (a close friend of his from MGM Studios); their onscreen chemistry is obvious. We see a romantic prologue showing Granger and O’Donnell (both newbies in the movie biz) w/ subtitles before the opening credits. The film’s opening action sequence was shot by a helicopter camera placed on a mount. Aerial helicopter photography was rare at that time; this is one of the first times an action scene was filmed from the sky. Bowie is the gang’s driver; he dreams of someday running his own garage/gas station. After he’s injured during a getaway, Keechie nurses him back to health. She doesn’t think much of him or his lifestyle; Bowie feels little shame in his role. There is something about Keechie that appeals to Bowie; both were abandoned by their mothers and inexperienced in romance. They form a strong emotional bond and begin to dream of a life together (where he won’t have to be on the run).

[1] Farley Granger is best remembered for his Hitchcock roles, and he gives a good, multifaceted performance. It’s clear from the get-go that despite the company he keeps and despite his time in prison, he’s really a scared, uncertain kid. Cathy O’Donnell is all but forgotten… extremely convincing and appealing

[2] Bowie, the innocent, sympathetic outlaw hero of “They Live By Night” is a wonderfully drawn. By no means is he the cliched nice-guy-in-a-bad-situation; though essentially good-hearted, he can be frighteningly callous at times. Farley Granger, working with excellent direction, he gives us glimpses of a violent yet passionate nature, struggling against the condemnation of society. Cathy O’Donnell is also entrancingly tender…

[3] In a sense this cuts right to the chase with the theme of doomed youth, years before Rebel Without a Cause yet with the given desperation of the noir films.

…a powerful mix of the bittersweet tale of a criminal and his love that would decades later meld with other crime-film elements into a work like True Romance.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews