Homicide Capt. Finlay finds evidence that one or more of a group of demobilized soldiers is involved in the death of Joseph Samuels. In flashbacks, we see the night's events from different viewpoints as Sergeant Keeley investigates on his own, trying to clear his friend Mitchell, to whom circumstantial evidence points. Then the real, ugly motive for the killing begins to dawn on both Finlay and Keeley...
Robert Young ... Capt. Finlay
Robert Mitchum ... Sgt. Peter Keeley
Robert Ryan ... Montgomery
Gloria Grahame ... Ginny Tremaine
Paul Kelly ... Mr. Tremaine
Sam Levene ... Joseph Samuels
Jacqueline White ... Mary Mitchell
Steve Brodie ... Floyd Bowers
George Cooper ... Cpl. Arthur Mitchell
Richard Benedict ... Bill Williams
Tom Keene ... Dick (detective) (as Richard Powers)
William Phipps ... Leroy
Lex Barker ... Harry
Taut and organically gripping, Edward Dmytryk's Crossfire is a distinctive suspense thriller, an unlikely "message" movie using the look and devices of the noir cycle.
Bivouacked in Washington, DC, a company of soldiers cope with their restlessness by hanging out in bars. Three of them end up at a stranger's apartment where Robert Ryan, drunk and belligerent, beats their host (Sam Levene) to death because he happens to be Jewish. Police detective Robert Young investigates with the help of Robert Mitchum, who's assigned to Ryan's outfit. Suspicion falls on the second of the three (George Cooper), who has vanished. Ryan slays the third buddy (Steve Brodie) to insure his silence before Young closes in.
Abetted by a superior script by John Paxton, Dmytryk draws precise performances from his three starring Bobs. Ryan, naturally, does his prototypical Angry White Male (and to the hilt), while Mitchum underplays with his characteristic alert nonchalance (his role, however, is not central); Young may never have been better. Gloria Grahame gives her first fully-fledged rendition of the smart-mouthed, vulnerable tramp, and, as a sad sack who's leeched into her life, Paul Kelly haunts us in a small, peripheral role that he makes memorable.
The politically engaged Dmytryk perhaps inevitably succumbs to sermonizing, but it's pretty much confined to Young's reminiscence of how his Irish grandfather died at the hands of bigots a century earlier (thus, incidentally, stretching chronology to the limit). At least there's no attempt to render an explanation, however glib, of why Ryan hates Jews (and hillbillies and...).
Curiously, Crossfire survives even the major change wrought upon it -- the novel it's based on (Richard Brooks' The Brick Foxhole) dealt with a gay-bashing murder. But homosexuality in 1947 was still Beyond The Pale. News of the Holocaust had, however, begun to emerge from the ashes of Europe, so Hollywood felt emboldened to register its protest against anti-Semitism (the studios always quaked at the prospect of offending any potential ticket buyer).
But while the change from homophobia to anti-Semitism works in general, the specifics don't fit so smoothly. The victim's chatting up a lonesome, drunk young soldier then inviting him back home looks odd, even though (or especially since) there's a girlfriend in tow. It raises the question whether this scenario was retained inadvertently or left in as a discreet tip-off to the original engine generating Ryan's murderous rage.
Unlike most film noir, Edward Dmytryk's Crossfire, adapted from a novel by Richard Brooks, is not nearly as concerned with its murder mystery, which, at first sight, might seem superficially formulaic to the casual viewer, as it is with the complex motives of its characters and the oppressive ambience of its accurately rendered post-WWII setting, evoking feelings of disorientation, loneliness and entrapment. Under its classic noir exterior, it is about hardened and aloof veterans' struggle with postwar reintegration, utterly unable or unwilling to put their traumatic experiences behind them, and about their desperate attempt to redefine their goals. For those who define themselves by who their enemies are, such as hateful loner Montgomery (the brilliant Robert Ryan), this necessitates establishing a new one, a role filled here by Jewish intellectual Joseph Samuels (Sam Levene), who becomes the regrettable victim of a senseless hate crime.
At first the film appears to simply be going through the motions: After the ambiguously shot opening murder scene all evidence points, for reasons I cannot presently remember, to Corporal Arthur Mitchell (George Cooper). Captain Finley (Robert Young) investigates and is soon joined by the idealistic Sergeant Peter Keeley (Robert Mitchum), who is certain of Mitchell's innocence. Two minor military characters, Floyd Bowers (Steve Brodie) and Bill Williams (Richard Benedict) are also somehow involved. Monty murders the former, while the latter, after a stern, Hugh Beaumontesque talking-to, reluctantly aids Finley and Keeley in setting a trap for the dastardly ne'er-do-well. Or perhaps it was the other way around -- I watch so many movies that Bowers and Williams might as well have been stranded in the South Seas and mistaken for Gods by the natives. Or, possibly, they have to spend a night in a haunted house before they can claim their inheritance, where they find a monkey that can play baseball and helps the local team win some games. At any rate, there's also the obligatory femme fatale Ginny Tremaine (Gloria Grahame) and a compulsive liar (Paul Kelly, delivering a wonderful performance) who might or might not be her husband, and exists mostly for local color and comic relief.
However, the real meat of the piece is the complex characterization of the veteran archetypes. Mitchell, for instance, suffers from a classic case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (often also referred to as `shell shock,' `war neurosis' or `combat stress') and, like many suffering from this condition, is taunted and branded as a coward by his fellows. He has become utterly self-loathing and fears the return to normalcy. The scene in which is wife finally gets him to confront these fears and enables him to return to her (and his art) is one of the film's many highlights. Then there's Peter Keeley, perhaps the most positive military archetype on display here: the natural born leader. He is extremely charismatic and persuasive, has great concern and compassion for his fellow soldiers, and manages to bring out these qualities in others. It is Keeley's considerable understanding of both human nature and his compatriots' dilemma that makes him so valuable to Captain Finley, the only other character of equivalent moral fiber. Their polar counterpart is Montgomery, a sadistic, racist bully who vents his frustrations by mocking and humiliating his fellow men. Left without an enemy, he creates elaborate rationalizations to justify his hate for a substitute. This really could be the member of any marginally different group (in the novel, I am told, the victim is a homosexual), but in this case it happens to be a Jew. While one's initial reaction might be that Montgomery obviously fought on the wrong side during the war, it is important to remember that, at the time, anti-Semitism was far from limited to Nazi Germany. Indeed, after World War One, the financial and societal crisis of the Great Depression caused anti-Semitism to reach its zenith, and violent attacks on Jews were quite commonplace in many major cities. Later, the U.S. refused entry to countless German-Jewish refugees, interpreted by Hitler as a clear sign of approval for his Final Solution.
Still, as Captain Finley correctly points out, practically anyone would have done as a victim for someone like Montgomery.
As a rule, there are few things more dispiriting than Hollywood's attempts to be courageous. Mixing caution with heavy-handedness, "message movies" pat themselves loudly on the back for daring to tackle major problems. CROSSFIRE is not entirely free from this taint; it includes a sermon on the nature of senseless hatred that is embarrassingly obvious, assuming a level of naivity in its audience that's depressing to contemplate. 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.
Postwar malaise was one of the major components of film noir, and CROSSFIRE addresses it directly. The film is set in Washington, D.C. among soldiers still in uniform but idle, spending their days playing poker and bar-crawling. Joseph Samuels (Sam Levene), an intelligent and kindly Jew, explains that the end of the war has created a void: all the energy that went into hating and fighting the enemy is now unfocused and bottled up. Samuels meets three soldiers in a bar: the sensitive Mitchell, who is close to a nervous breakdown, the weak-willed Floyd Bowers, and Montgomery, a tall, overbearing bully who nastily belittles a young soldier from Tennessee as a stupid hillbilly. The three soldiers wind up at Samuels' apartment, where the drunken Monty becomes increasingly abusive, calling his host "Jew-boy." Samuels is beaten to death, and Mitchell disappears, making himself the prime suspect for the killing.
Unraveling the crime are Detective Finlay (Robert Young), dry and by-the-book, and Sergeant Keeley (Robert Mitchum), a thoughtful and experienced friend who knows Mitchell is incapable of murder. Among the pieces of the puzzle are Ginny (Gloria Grahame), a nightclub hostess who met Mitchell and gave him her apartment key, and Floyd (Steve Brodie), who as a witness to the crime holes up terrified in a seedy rooming house. While there is no real "whodunit" suspense, the story remains gripping, and the trap laid for the killer is extremely clever.
The strong noir atmosphere saves the movie from feeling didactic or sanctimonious. The cinematography is a striking shadow-play, with inky darks and harsh lights, rooms often lit by a single lamp filtered by cigarette smoke. World-weariness is as pervasive as noir lighting. "Nothing interests me," Finlay says quietly; "To nothing," is Ginny's toast in the nightclub. Gloria Grahame, the paragon of noir femininity, nearly steals the movie with her two scenes. Platinum-blonde, jaded and caustic, she's the quintessential B-girl, poisoned by the "stinking gin mill" where she works ("for laughs," she says bitterly), her sweet face curdling when Mitchell tells her that she reminds him of his wife. Now and then a wistful kindness peeks through her defensive shell, as when she dances with Mitchell in a deserted courtyard, then offers to cook him spaghetti at her apartment. When he goes there, he meets a weasely, crumple-faced man (Paul Kelly) who seems to sponge off Ginny, and whose conversation is a dense layering of lies and false confessions. Gloria blows Mitchell's good-girl wife off the screen in a scene where she's asked to give Mitchell an alibi. Slim and frail in her bathrobe, with her girlish lisp, she lets us see just how often Ginny has been insulted and dismissed as a tramp.
Robert Young is a nondescript actor, and he stands no chance against Mitchum's charisma, but he does a good job of keeping his pipe-smoking character, saddled with delivering the movie's earnest message, this side of pompousness. Mitchum, meanwhile, gets some cool dialogue, but not nearly enough to do; still, even when he's doing nothing but lounging in a corner you can't take your eyes off him. The third Robert, 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 the same year's A GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT. Finlay's speech about bigotry cops out by reaching back a hundred years for an instance of white victimhood, reminding us that Irish Catholics were once persecuted; next it could be people from Tennessee, he says, or men who wear striped neckties. Or maybe blacks, or Japanese, or homosexuals, or communists? The script seems afraid to mention any real contemporary problems. It sweetens its message by making the Jewish victim saintly, as though his innocence were not sufficient; and it takes care to exonerate the military, having a superior officer declare that the army is ashamed of men like Montgomery, and stressing that Samuels served honorably in the war. 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. If Monty were alive today, he would have gone out on September 12, 2001, and beat up a Sikh.
* The focus of the novel dealt with homophobia, but the subject was changed to anti-Semitism for the film.
* It was suggested that one of the reasons why the film failed to win any Oscars was due to Director Edward Dmytryk and Producer Adrian Scott's refusal to testify before the House Unamerican Activities Committee.
* Despite receiving an Academy Award nomination, Robert Ryan rarely talked about his breakthrough role as he wasn't too happy about the negative aspects of his character.
* Edward Dmytryk opted to use a noir lighting style because of its inexpensiveness and the fact that it was invariably very quick to set up. This explains why the film only took 20 days to shoot.
* Because of the film's tight shooting schedule, it was able to beat the similarly themed Gentleman's Agreement (1947) into theaters by three and a half months.