A landmark noir with a superb opening sequence (see below): we see some men through their shadows reflected on a wall. They’re fighting. The only light source seems to be from a lamp and the light gets extinguished as it falls on the floor. For a moment we only hear sounds. Then the lamp gets turned on again but we only see a person below the waist. We follow that person’s feet and they reveal a body on the floor. The man searches its pockets. The first man grabs the other man, clearly drunk, and we see only their legs as they leave through the door. The camera then pans back to allow us to gaze on the body on the floor. There’s a dissolve and the body gets turned over to show us it’s now clearly a corpse with a man we will come to know as Captain Finley asking a woman, ‘Was Samuels drunk when you left him at the bar’?
It’s a great opening, all shadows, mystery, half-seen moments of violence. Who are these two men? What were they doing there? Which one is the killer? Why did he kill? These are questions the film sets up. They’ll be answered progressively and only fully at the end. In the meantime the world of the film is dramatically conveyed: darkness, violence, murder, mystery, murkyness. And it´s got a particular and particularly resonant context. These are all returning soldiers who have been demobbed but have yet to find their way home, in a liminal, transitory space, with many of them not yet adapted to a civilian context and some still processing trauma. The world created is a vivid one.
Crossfire is based on novel by Richard Brooks, The Brick Foxhole. In the novel the cause of the murder was homophobia. The film changes it to anti-Semitism, newly unacceptable after Auschwitz, and denunciations of which were then in vogue: Elia Kazan’s Gentlemen’s Agreement, made the same year, won the Oscar for Best Picture.
According to Thomas Schatz in Boom or Bust:’ In 1947, Hollywood’s film noir output accelerated and took on a new complexity as the period style began to cross-fertilize with other emerging postwar strains. Sometimes noir only slightly shaded an established formula or recombined a bit with another genre. Crossfire, for example, is very much a hard-boiled crime thriller except for two elements which interject element of both the message picture and the police procedural:the killer (Robert Ryan) is an ex-GI motivated by rabid anti-semitism, and he is eventually brought to justice by a police detective (Robert Young) operating very much by the book (p.379)’.
What anti-semitism brings as motive and cause to a crime film and police procedural like Crossfire is that it´s particularly difficult to prove. Robert Young, nice, steady Robert Young — to my generation forever Marcus Welby MD– is top-billed but burdened with the thankless task of delivering the film´s message, offered in the most cringey and condescending way possible. According to Pauline Kael, ‘There are condescending little messages on the evils of race prejudice that make you squirm; this is the patina of 40s melodrama’. It´s difficult to disagree with the former but I´m not sure about the latter.
In many ways, the film is an archetypal noir: flashbacks that offer different perspectives on the action; unreliable narration, subjective camera on scenes evoking drunkenness that are all canted angles out of focus, and marvellous to see,;low-key lighting often deploying one source (see above). It´s got a great look from cinematographer J. Roy Hunt; and Dmytrik is wonderful at creating interesting compositions (see below):
…and at choosing just the right angles for maximum expressiveness, such as the way the film suggests the very real threat and power that Montgomery (Robert Ryan) represents (see below):
According to J.R. Jones in The Lives of Robert Ryan:´Dmytryk also chose his lenses to make Monty look increasingly crazed: at first his close-ups were shot with a fifty-millimeter lens, but this was reduced to forty, thirty-five, and ultimately twnty-five millimeter. ¨When the 25mm lens was used, Ryan´s face was also greased with cocoa butter,¨Dmytryk recalled, ¨the shiny skin, with every pore delineated, gave him a truly menacing appearance¨(p.59).
Crossfire is exciting to watch. But it´s also blunt and capable of great crudity — not just thematically, as in the homilies offered by Robert Young´s Finlay but also through it´s mise-en-scène. Note below how Ginny, the hooker marvellously played by Gloria Grahame is introduced via a dissolve of a trash can (see gif below)
Robert Ryan nominated for Best Supporting Actor; Gloria Grahame won for Best Supporting Actress. Sam Levene is the victim. George Cooper is Mitchell, the fall-guy. Robert Mitchum was clearly used just for box-office and is completely wasted.
The film was a B produced by Adrian Scott, later one of the Hollywood Ten. It´s box office success would launch Dore Schary from producing B´s at RKO into his running of MGM, still for while, the ‘Tiffany´s’ of the studio. It´s the product of progressive filmmakers then at RKO who wanted to make a difference (Schary, Scott, Dmytryk) and was praised for it´s worthyness. But it was also , one of a series of films that led to the famous saying, ‘if you want to send a message, use Western Union.’
To say that it´s a landmark is not to say that it´s great.