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

“High Sierra” (1941) starring Ida Lupino & Humphrey Bogart

Bogie was a medium-sized man, not particularly impressive off-screen, but something happened when he was playing the right part. Those lights and shadows composed themselves into another, nobler personality: heroic, as in “High Sierra.” I swear the camera has a way of looking into a person and perceiving things that the naked eye doesn’t register. -John Huston (who wrote the script), when asked about Bogart’s unique appeal on this movie

Roy “Mad Dog” Earle (Humphrey Bogart) was broken out of prison by an old associate who wants him to help w/ a robbery of a casino on the California-Nevada border. The two young punks who’ll be assisting are Babe (Alan Curtis) and Red (Arthur Kennedy, before he became a well-known character actor). When the robbery goes wrong (a cop is dead), Roy is forced to go on the run. Also in the mix are a loyal dog, Pard (played by Bogart’s own dog) and two potential love interests- former dancehall girl, Marie (Ida Lupino), and Okie farmgirl, Velma (Joan Leslie). Police and press are hot on his trail; he hides in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Roy Earle: Of all the 14 karat saps… starting out on a caper with a woman and a dog.

Bogart also sent many telegrams to Hal B. Wallis and studio head Jack L. Warner asking to be cast as Earle (who was modeled on John Dillinger). Paul Muni left Warner Bros. after a contract dispute and George Raft turned down the role, so Warner called Bogart. This was the last movie Bogart made where he didn’t receive top billing; the studio decided that Lupino should have top billing, as she’d been a big hit in They Drive by Night (1940). Though Marie admires and falls for Roy, Lupino didn’t like the way Bogart treated her and his use of sarcasm. Director Raoul Walsh saw Bogart more as a supporting player, not a leading man. He wrote  in his biography that Bogart complained about everything: food chosen for lunch, settings, conditions of shooting, etc.

Roy Earle: I wouldn’t give you two cents for a dame without a temper.

Roy is a lonely/romantic man; he came from a small town, as he tells Pa (the farmer he meets on the road). He falls in love w/ Pa’s granddaughter, Velma, a pretty/club-footed young woman who sees him as a friend/benefactor. Roy has emotions which run deep; he wants to give up crime and marry a “good girl.” He has a soulmate in Marie; she is weary, straight-forward, and cares deeply for him. Roy prefers the one he can’t get- of course! Bogart and Lupino have very strong chemistry here.

[1] Not cocky like Cagney and Muni, not psychopathic like the early Edward G. Robinson, not as smooth as Raft, Bogart is a ruthless professional with a wide stripe of sentimentality. His Roy never shirks from killing, but he doesn’t get off on it. He’s more a rebel than a gangster, a poetic soul denied respectability, a man longing for the innocence of his youth.

[2] Bogart’s interpretation already showed signs of the special qualities that were to become an important part of his mystique in a few more films.

Here, for the first time, was the human being outside society’s laws who had his own private sense of loyalty, integrity, and honor. Bogart’s performance turns “High Sierra” into an elegiac film.

[3] Many fine moments [for Lupino] with Bogey… including a memorable speech within his cabin hideout. This is one of the best portraits of a desperate outlaw in film history. A blueprint for all the antihero films that would follow over the years…

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“The Man Who Cheated Himself” (1950) starring Lee J. Cobb, Jane Wyatt, & John Dall

Lois: I didn’t know what I was doing! You know the truth!

Ed: The truth can get you twenty years!

In San Francisco, Lois Frazer (Jane Wyatt AKA Spock‚Äôs mom in Star Trek), is set to divorce her fortune-hunter husband, Howard. Once he leaves for the airport, she finds out that he bought a gun, and thinks he plans to kill her. Lois frantically calls her lover, who happens to be an experienced homicide detective, Lt. Ed Cullen (Lee J. Cobb). Ed arrives at her house to calm Lois down. Soon after, Howard unexpectedly returns, and she shoots him dead! Ed (though he knows better) feels compelled to cover up the killing. Soon, he’s assigned to investigate the case. His younger brother/new detective, Andy (John Dall), is also assigned and anxious to prove his merit. Andy is getting married in a few days.

Ed: [to Andy] Better learn one thing: never take a case to bed.

We see locations in and around the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf, Telegraph Hill and Fort Point (which was used in Hitchcock’s Vertigo). There are some colorful supporting characters who add to the drama. The action (incl. car chase) scenes are done well. TCM’s Eddie Muller explained that this film was made on a small budget and produced by Jack M. Warner, who was fighting w/ his father, the Jack Warner. The son wanted to make films on his own. The director, Felix Feist, was a freelancer (not tied to any studio); he was married to Lisa Howard (who plays Janet- Andy’s wife).

Unlike Dall, Howard’s performance is natural and easy. Andy needed more characterization; he comes off as too dreamy-eyed for a cop. You also have to ignore the fact that Dall (tall/blonde/slim) and Cobb (short/dark-haired/stocky) look and sound nothing alike! It’s rare to see Cobb as a leading man; he tones down the brooding intensity and growling voice (which we know/love from his character roles). Sadly, Cobb and Wyatt (cast against type as the femme fatale) lack romantic chemistry. I did like their last scene together, which was enigmatic and had some smolder! Cobb got this role after a successful run on Broadway in Death of a Salesman. Arthur Miller wrote the role of Willy Loman w/ Cobb in mind -WOW!

[1] …it is relentless and edgy, with no time for polish or emotional depth. Cameraman Russell Harlan (Blackboard Jungle; To Kill a Mockingbird) does a brilliant job with great angles and framing. It isn’t elegant, but it’s visually sharp.

[2] A fast, curious, edgy crime film that depends on a fabulous, simple twist, which you learn right at the start and keeps you on the edge of your seat the whole time. The clash of two cops who are brothers begins innocently, and turns and builds in a very believable way

Lee J. Cobb… just perfect in his role, right to the last scene when you see him look down the hall with the same feeling he has at the beginning of the film.

-Excerpts from IMDB movies

“Boomerang!” (1947) starring Dana Andrews, Lee J. Cobb, Arthur Kennedy, Jane Wyatt, & Ed Begley

[1] This is a pretty good, taut, realistic, gritty film-noirish film

[2] Most of the film’s dramatic moments take place in the courtroom, but there is a backstory involving municipal corruption

[3] Boomerang is the story of how the man who eventually became U.S. Attorney General, Homer Cummings, used the prosecutor’s office to prove the INNOCENCE of an arrested murder suspect. How often do you see that happen?

[4] …Lee J. Cobb, as the cop who changes his mind, is excellent, and so is Karl Malden, who has less to do. I’ve always loved Sam Levene… the cynical wisecracking reporter was made for him. Playwright Arthur Miller lived near where the film was shot; in the police line-up, he’s the tall man in the dark coat on the far left.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

The film was directed by Elia Kazan who got the New York Film Critic’s Award for this and Gentleman’s Agreement. Boomerang! got an Oscar nom for Best Screenplay (adapted by Richard Murphy). The story starts off w/ narration re: life in a seemingly idyllic community, which could be any town in America. The peace is shattered when an elderly Episcopal priest is shot on a street corner. When the investigation stalls, pressure is put on the cops to come up w/ a suspect. A reporter, Dave Woods (Sam Levene), writes a series of articles criticizing the city government for inaction. Many men are picked up for questioning, just b/c they wear a dark coat and light hat (as the killer is alleged to have worn). In a police line-up, seven witnesses identify John Waldron (Arthur Kennedy), a former WWII vet w/ no job, as the murderer. Waldron (who was carrying a gun) denies the crime. After being questioned by Chief Robinson (Lee J. Cobb), Det. White (Karl Malden in an uncredited role), and a psychiatrist, the suspect confesses. District Attorney Henry Harvey (Dana Andrews) is put on the case. His friends urge him to win the case and run for governor, while facts lead him to believe the suspect may be innocent.

Kazan aims for realism, making it seem like we’re watching events as they unfold. This film was shot on location and features many locals (non-actors) in the crowd scenes. Fans of Star Trek will recognize Jane Wyatt (AKA Spock’s mom); she plays Madge Harvey, the wife to the D.A. She’s the loving/supportive wife, but also on top of things. This is the film debut of Ed Begley; he’ll later appear in 12 Angry Men (w/ Cobb). Begley is a small-time bureaucrat; he sweats and acts nervous. Kennedy plays an ambiguous character, the police interrogate him for two days, depriving him of sleep until he breaks down. Cobb carries Kennedy over to a cot, as you’d do w/ a sleeping child. The second act of the film is the courtroom drama. You can rent this movie on YouTube.


“The Big Heat” (1953) starring Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Lee Marvin, & Jocelyn Brando

[1] Glenn Ford is super bad ass in this film . He is 100% convincing as a complex man living in 2 worlds. Family life vs. the crime underworld.

It is some of the best writing in film noir history. Almost every line is a gem. There are tons of one-liners.

[2] He conveys so much in a look, a facial expression. And you are with him the whole way; he comes just close to the edge, but not so that he loses your sympathy.

[3] Glenn Ford now looks like one of the most quietly powerful actors of Hollywood`s “Golden Age”… He had a rare ability to portray a kind of slow-burn tension…

[4] Gloria Grahame was born for roles like this one, both tough and vulnerable, the ultimate tragic moll.

-Excerpts from reviews on Amazon

This (must-see) film noir is directed by a giant of this genre- Fritz Lang. It’s based on the novel by former Philly crime reporter William P. McGivern. It’s included on Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” list and received an 100% rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes. In the town of Kenport, Sgt Dave Bannion is an on the trail of a criminal syndicate which he suspects holds power over the local police force. Bannion is tipped off after another cop’s suicide; his fellow officers’ suspicious silence lead him to believe that they’re being paid off. When tragedy hits home, Bannion seeks revenge; he gets help from the gangster’s spurned girlfriend, Debby. They must use any means necessary to get to the truth.

Executive Producer Jerry Wald hoped to cast either Paul Muni, George Raft, or Edward G. Robinson as Bannion. It’s tough to imagine anyone else besides Glenn Ford in this role; he makes it look effortless. The best acting is in the eyes; if it’s not coming from w/in, the audience won’t find it believable. As has been said of Jimmy Stewart, I think that Ford was a great listener. You get the sense that he’s “in the moment” as he’s playing a scene opposite his fellow actors.

Bannion’s devoted wife, Katie, is played by Marlon Brando’s older sister, Jocelyn, who has looks and talent, too. In their domestic scenes, Brando and Ford have an easy chemistry, making them a relatable/happy couple. Columbia wanted to borrow Marilyn Monroe from 20th Century-Fox to play the role of Debby Marsh, but Fox’s price was too high, so Gloria Grahame was cast instead. Grahame is flirty, funny, vulnerable, and (eventually) takes control of her own story. The gangster, Vince Stone (Lee Marvin), has a quick/dangerous temper; he only fears the most powerful mobster in the area. There is violence against women (described and shown); some lines were unusual for the era. You can rent it on Amazon or YouTube.