BIG HOUSE FILM REVIEWS ~ Roger Westcombe
Starring Robert Ryan, Robert Young, Robert Mitchum, Gloria Grahame, Steve Brodie; dir: Edward Dmytryk
Crossfire’s backstory is so rife with ‘ironies’ that it’s revealing of the dangerous currents in which the project moved. ‘Project’ is an apt description for this effort that was so low budget it was considered more an ‘experiment’ by all involved than a regular feature, not even a ‘B’. Surprising everybody, Crossfire went on to do huge business and garner five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture.
In the same year in which Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement, with Gregory Peck experiencing the pain of anti-Semitism, actually won the Best Picture Oscar by capitalising on post-Holocaust revulsion, Crossfire used a thriller context to tackle the same prejudice. Where this brought success for Kazan and Peck it ruined Dmytryk’s career. It brought him to the attention of a Senator Joseph McCarthy still not game enough to tackle the big guns of Hollywood – yet. Refusing then to name names, Dmytryk was jailed for twelve months before fleeing to England where he made a trio of forgotten features plus one in France before capitulating and returning Stateside to testify. His later The Caine Mutiny (1954) used Bogart’s Captain Queeg character, who wilted when under pressure, as the vehicle to justify his actions during this awful time.
The book on which Crossfire is based, The Brick Foxhole , tackles an even hotter taboo by prevailing standards – homosexuality (and the military) rather than the anti-Semitism into which it was transformed by Hollywood. Traces of the original blueprint endured in the movie, since it was a lot more realistic to imagine a soldier’s violent outburst following his invitation up to the apartment of a homosexual (making unwelcome advances), than a Jew (politely offering drinks). So if you’re looking for irony, can anything beat Crossfire’s final scene of two uniformed soldiers, seen from behind, walking away down the street together, with one soldier’s arm flung around the other’s shoulder, Village People style!?!
The Brick Foxhole’s author was screenwriter Richard Brooks who would go on to become the director of The Blackboard Jungle (1955), 1967’s In Cold Blood (a brilliant noir out-of-time), Looking For Mr Goodbar (1977), etc. When Robert Ryan, like Brooks an ex-Marine, left the service he told the writer he wanted to be in the movie version.
Today Crossfire remains interesting not for tackling anti-Semitism (Robert Young’s stultifying lecturing in the film sees to that) but as one of the films in which Hollywood provided a window into the ‘postwar malaise’ syndrome. Counter to the expected elation following global victory, a surprising flatness and quasi-depression was evidently widespread in America after the war. Of course back then there was no counselling for re-entry and readjustment to civilian life. A handshake and a bus ticket – if you were lucky – was it.
The insanity of war bonded men with an intensity they could never feel again. Stretched nerve endings and life-or-death decisions made suburbia’s vague, artificial rules and standards seem pretty damn inconsequential. Plus the promises of a Brighter Tomorrow seemed cheap in a reality of continuing rationing, pent-up industrial frustration with widespread strike action, race riots and ‘Rosie-The- Riveter’ wives staying in the workforce. The A-Bomb was new then too, casting a pall one can only imagine.
The key ‘A’ picture in which Hollywood addressed this syndrome was the (tellingly titled) The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946), in which bomber Captain Dana Andrews, returning to civvie street, is expected to resume making sodas for his former boss whom, as a mere sergeant, Dana had commanded in the war. I don’t think so .
However the ‘postwar malaise’ is more than a mere historical curiousity. It was disaffected, restless and untameable ex-GIs who formed the Hell’s Angels (see 1954’s The Wild One , like Crossfire also co-written by John Paxton) and more importantly underpinned the Beat movement which spawned the rock and roll culture that led to today’s youth market.
But right up to 1950’s Key Largo (scripted by Brooks, with John Huston) it was thrillers which gave us the least self-conscious insights into the condition, particularly Act of Violence, The Blue Dahlia (1945) and Crossfire.
In hindsight Crossfire’s experimental origins are very evident. Even by noir standards the lighting is extreme, full half frames often blacked out. Early on there’s even a sense of Rashomon -style editing, re-taking a scene from different characters’ points of view, to reveal the subjectivity of perspective. This is the scene with the memorable speech by Sam Levene (seen also in Kazan’s Boomerang ) where he explains the ‘malaise’ to the soldiers at the bar: "We don’t know who we are anymore, we’re just fighting and hating"… He lifts a peanut out of the counter jar: "It’s like we’re focussed on that one peanut, hating it; we’ve got to get back to loving life again…"
Unfortunately the film’s plotting becomes overly schematic, as if we’re merely fitting pieces into a chain of events. As Robert Young patiently explains to a dopey character late in proceedings: "It’s all about time". Young’s paternalistic detective calmly sucking on a pipe comes across more like a retired academic – as he ruminates in his chair you can sense the elbow patches! His characterization is so un-coplike it’s almost intriguing. Mitchum gets in a stream of great one-liners as these two merge into a dualism - Mitchum as the underground sleuth and Young as the ‘official’ world’s detective. Further irony is that their quarry, the always great Robert Ryan, plays an ex-cop himself.
Off the wall humor (a little-noticed eccentricity in many noirs) comes from Paul Kelly as the husband of B-Girl Ginnie (Gloria Grahame in a thankless part). Kelly is a scream in his two brief appearances, with deadpan non-sequitirs and alternative alibis: "No, that’s a lie too." Crossfire’s ending is equally out of whack as Young’s avuncular detective unhesitatingly (and unrealistically) shoots Ryan in the back, quite unnecessarily – a disproportionate punishment, one would’ve thought.
In the end Crossfire has enduring value, but it’s inadvertent - less as a thriller than as a time capsule.
Roger Westcombe's own website is at: http://www.bighousefilm.com/
For additional material on 'Crossfire' and Edward Dmytryk you might want to look at:
Tim Rhys and Tom Allen, ‘The Father of Film Noir: Edward Dmytryk’, MovieMaker Magazine, #16, at: http://www.moviemaker.com/issues/16/16_dmytryk.html
Dennis Schwartz’s review of Crossfire, at: http://www.sover.net/~ozus/crossfire.htm