The Film Noir Odyssey
Writer: John Paxton
Based on the novel “The Brick Foxhole” by Richard Brooks
Director: Edward Dmytryk
Cinematographer: J. Roy Hunt
Music: Roy Webb
Cast: Robert Young, Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Gloria Grahame, George Cooper
Release: July 22, 1947
Studio: RKO Radio Pictures
Awards: Nominated for Best Picture (lost to “Gentleman’s Agreement”), Best Director (lost to Elia Kazan for “Gentleman’s Agreement”), Best Supporting Actor for Robert Ryan (lost to Edmund Gwenn for “Miracle on 34th Street”), Best Supporting Actress for Gloria Grahame (lost to Celeste Holm for “Gentleman’s Agreement”) and Best Adapted Screenplay (lost to “Miracle on 34th Street”)
Percent Noir: 80%
Well… that sucked.
I take no pride in telling you that “Crossfire” is a bad movie. As I turned it on, I was actively rooting for it to blow me away. It’s a noir from the director of “Murder, My Sweet” starring the three Roberts plus Gloria Grahame. It rails against antisemitism, and in doing so, its director (among others) would be blacklisted thanks to the Communist witch hunts (it really, really didn’t pay to be liberal in Hollywood back then)… so it means something. Even more, it was nominated for 5 Oscars including Best Picture, and was the first B-picture ever to be nominated for that award. So please understand that I went into the movie hoping and expecting it to be amazing.
But then it wasn’t good.
The story, adapted by John Paxton and directed by Edward Dmytryk, is fairly straightforward for a murder mystery. A Jewish man is found killed in his apartment and Captain Finlay (Robert Young) is assigned to the case. He was killed by a serviceman named Montgomery (Robert Ryan), who attempts to frame another officer named Mitchell (George Cooper). Oh, and Robert Mitchum is there too, because… actually, I’m not sure, and I bet neither did the filmmakers.
Fundamentally, I have issues here. So many issues. Did the filmmakers think that the story was supposed to function as a mystery at all? If so, they really blew their load within the first five minutes, and then let the cat out of the bag motive-wise twenty minutes in when Montgomery reveals he’s very anti-Semitic. And Montgomery is a fundamentally stupid villain – dumb enough to murder another guy in a plot “twist” while screaming “I don’t like Jews! And I don’t like nobody that likes Jews!!” Subtle. Very. Oh, and that killing should make it so much easier for the police to realize it’s him.
We never get a sense that Mitchell’s character, who is the prime suspect, is in any real danger of being arrested – he’s an afterthought in the plot. There’s apparently a manhunt out for him that the writer and director don’t exploit at all, and then they stick him in a movie theater for a good chunk of the movie because they don’t want to deal with the character. Later when his wife (Jacqueline White, trying hard) shows up and, among other things, speaks with the sex worker (Gloria Grahame) who might have fucked him during the time the murder took place, you things might pick up… but again, the movie drops it almost as soon as it happens, no consequences aside from an offhand line from Mitchum near the end of the film.
Noir has some really, really stupid cops in it, but Finlay is in a class by himself. He never investigates anything! He tells people that they are in custody, then lets them go about their business doing whatever they want. He keeps Mitchum’s character around for no reason (perhaps someone to bounce exposition off of?). He allows the suspect’s wife to talk to him in the theater before picking him up! Then he allows her to talk to Grahame’s sex worker/possible witness before he does, despite the fact that it may color the investigation! When Finlay finally realizes that it was the really suspicious-acting guy who was spewing anti-Semitic stuff from minute one, he forms an elaborate plan where a stupid man has to convince Montgomery that his murder victim is alive then pass him a note with an address to go to. Got that? Not just pass Montgomery a note that says “Hey, I know you strangled me and then hung me, but I’m alive, so come to my address so we can talk more,” which is already a stretch.
And how can one overlook the finale, with execution so silly it’s laughable. Montgomery races out of the apartment where Finlay is confronting him without confessing, and hurries outside where he sees a police car, then runs in the other direction. Does the car simply chase him down to catch him? Nope! With nary a confession or any real evidence, Finlay breaks the window of the apartment and guns the unarmed Montgomery down in the street. Because of course.
And then there’s the whole antisemitism of it all. I’m sure audiences were certain going in that they were watching a message movie (look at the poster, for example) and perhaps that’s why Paxton shows his hand so early. But that’s no excuse for the 15 minute, excruciating sequence where Finlay brings in the idiot necessary for his plan and, at length, monologues messages about tolerance as if he were speaking to a pre-schooler. Seriously, “The Sneetches” is more subtle. Again, the audience probably knew that this was a message movie, so the filmmakers were essentially preaching to the choir, making all of this unnecessary. Plus, I doubt many anti-Semites are going to voluntarily go to a movie about antisemitism. I’m all for great messages of tolerance in films, but I’d prefer them presented well. Look at how homophobia is presented in “Victim” just a few years later (which is a little problematic in itself) and it’s like night and day.
Dmytryk seems to be on autopilot here, unable to make the film distinctive visually nor getting good performances from his actors. There’s a flashback here where the characters are drunk and their faces slightly blur, which feels like a cheap visual cue considering how sublime he handled the drugged Phillip Marlow in “Murder, My Sweet.” You’ve got the usual shadows created by staircases and…well… not much else of note.
And, as I said, the performances aren’t that great. Each of the main cast gets a monologue or two to play around with, but the writing isn’t engaging and you realize halfway through their speeches that they aren’t saying much of anything. Ryan was nominated for an Oscar for his work, which is surprising considering he’s playing “obviously psycho dude” in every scene. Grahame was nominated for Best Supporting Actress and does fine, though her work pales in comparison to “The Big Heat” and “In a Lonely Place” and “Sudden Fear” and “The Bad and the Beautiful” and… I’ll stop before I get started. Cooper is a very decent actor and I’m surprised he never did anything else with his career. Young does nothing with the role and is quickly forgotten. Mitchum, as I said, has no purpose in the film but to stand around giving the affair star quality (why wasn’t he cast as the husband?). He looks bored, and rightfully so.
If you do decide to watch “Crossfire” for its historical importance, might I suggest a drinking game to get you through? Take a drink every time any character says “fella” or “buddy.” You’ll be drunk by the ten-minute mark, which should make the rest of it go down easy.