Oscar Vault Monday – Crossfire, 1947 (dir. Edward Dmytryk)
As we continue with Noirvember, I bring one of my favorites from the era, Edward Dmytryk’s Crossfire. I read one critic who said it is more of a “message film” than a film noir and I think that is kind of a ridiculous statement, as it assumes the two are mutually exclusive. If you’ve seen The Celluloid Closet, then you know that originally the crime in this film was perpetrated out of homophobia, rather than anti-Semitism. Under the Hays Code, clearcut mention of homosexuality was prohibited because it was consider “sexual perversion.” I’m going to write a little more about the origins of the film after the cut. Crossfire was nominated for five Academy Awards, though it didn’t win any: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor Robert Ryan, Best Supporting Actress Gloria Grahame, Best Director and Best Picture. The other films nominated for Best picture that year were The Bishop’s Wife, Great Expectations, Miracle on 34th Street and winner Gentleman’s Agreement (which is also about anti-Semitism). Crossfire was one of the twenty highest-grossing films of 1947, along with three other noirs: Body and Soul, Possessed and Dark Passage.
I’m a big fan of Edward Dmytryk and have seen many of his films, including Murder, My Sweet, The Caine Mutiny, Raintree County and Warlock. Just after the release of this film Dmytryk, whose parents were from the Ukraine and was born in Canada and grew up in San Francisco , was called up by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He refused to testify and spent several months in jail. In 1951 he appeared before the committee again and named names. He wrote a book about the scandal in 1996 called Odd Man Out: A Memoir of the Hollywood Ten. I haven’t read it, but I am dying to. His Best Director nomination for this film was his only Oscar nomination. Crossfire was adapted from a book by Richard Brooks. Yes, that Richard Brooks. Brooks worked in Hollywood for a brief period in the early 40s before joining the Marine Corps in 1943. He served at Quantico, Virginia and Camp Pendleton, California. While there he wrote The Brick Foxhole which was published in 1945 before becoming Crossfire. While working on the book at Camp Pendleton, he met actor Robert Ryan, who had made a handful of films in the early 40s before signing with RKO in 1944 and enlisting with the Corps. Ryan told Brooks that when the book was made into a film (he was sure it would), he wanted to be in it. As well can see now, that is exactly what happened. Brooks would go on to write countless films, including the noirs The Killers, Brute Force and Key Largo, as well as directing Battle Circus, The Last Time I Saw Paris, The Blackboard Jungle, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Elmer Gantry, Sweet Bird of Youth, The Professionals, In Cold Blood and Looking For Mr. Goodbar. Over his 40+ year career, Brooks was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning for his adapted screenplay for Elmer Gantry.
Look at this fabulous high contrast or “low key” lighting for this opening scene. This diegetic light source is the only one in the opening scene. With it all you see is two men scramble out of a room. You can make out that they are wearing uniforms, but nothing else. This opening scene ends with the following shot:
With it we are introduced to Joseph Samuels (Sam Levene), who is clearly dead. It is his death that spurs on the narrative of this film. Samuels was a Jew and often teased and threatened by his fellow soldiers.
Robert Young is a hoot as continually pipe-smoking detective Captain Finlay. He spends his time in the film questions the group of demobilized soldiers that he believes contains the murder, as well as talking with a taxi dancer who was the last one to see one of the prime suspects. Young is probably best remembered as JIm Anderson on Father Knows Best, which he played for 6 year and 203 episodes in the late-50s, as well as Dr. Marcus Welby on Dr. Marcus Welby, MD, which he played for 7 years and 170 episodes. He was nominated for 8 Emmys and 5 Golden Globes for his work on those two shows, winning the Emmy three times.
Marlo Dwyer doesn’t get much screen time, but she burns with grief and melancholy in the brief moments she’s featured. She plays the victim’s some-time girlfriend, who found his body. She recounts the previous night’s activities to a questioning Finlay and it is her evidence that leads Finlay to start a search for three officers.
Nothing says Noir like Robert Mitchum (if you haven’t seen Out of the Past, which also came out in 1947, cancel all your plans, locate it and watch it right away). This was Mitchum’s thirtieth film since making his debut in 1943’s Hoppy Serves a Writ. Mitchum received his only Academy Award nomination, for Best Supporting Actor, for 1945’s Story of G.I. Joe. In this film, Mitchum, like Young, is investigating the murder of Samuels because his friend Cpl. Arthur “Mitch” Mitchell, who is currently missing, appears to be the prime suspect.
The reason this missing Mitch is the prime suspect is because fellow officer Stg. Montgomery, played by Robert Ryan in a menacingly slow-burn of a performance, has recounted the previous night’s activities and claims he and Mitch and Floyd Bowers were the three men described by Miss Lewis. Ryan made his screen debut in 1940 before spending three years in the Marine Corps. For his performance in this film he received his only Oscar nomination. Also nominated that year was Richard Widmark for his debut performance in the noir classic Kiss of Death, which was also his only Oscar nomination. Both men lost to Edmund Gwenn as Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th St.. Like Mitchum, Ryan is no stranger to noir and can be seen in The Woman on the Beach, Caught, The Set-Up, Born to Be Bad, Clash By Night, Bad Day at Black Rock, House of Bamboo and Odds Against Tomorrow, among many, many others.
Rita Hayworth, Barbara Stanwyck, Ida Lupino, Lauren Bacall and Ava Gardner are often considered the ultimate ladies of Noir. For me, this title belongs to miss Gloria Grahame. If you ever get drunk with me, odds are I will whip out a napkin on draw my patented salacious Gloria Grahme-Nicholas Ray incest chart. It has happened on many occasions; it will happen on many more occasions. Grahame sizzles in every film I’ve ever seen her in (this includes as Miss Violet “oh this old thing?” Bick in 1946’s It’s A Wonderful Life). Grahame made her screen debut in 1944, and Crossfire was her first major role, for which she garnered an Academy Award nomination (she lost to Celeste Holm in Best Picture winner Gentleman’s Agreement). Grahame can also be seen in the noirs In A Lonely Place, Macao, Sudden Fear, The Big Heat, Human Desire, The Naked Alibi and Odds Against Tomorrow. She won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress on her second and only other nomination for 1952’s The Bad and the Beautiful. In Crossfire, Grahame plays Ginny, a taxi dancer who was the last person other than Montgomery and Bowers to see Mitch. Ginny is essentially your typical “hooker with a heart of gold” (although she’s not a hooker), though I think the strength and nuance that Grahame brings to the role, you wind up with a character that is anything but typical.
I can’t find much information about George Cooper, other than this was his first film and he quit acting altogether in 1954. Cooper plays Mitch, who supposedly goes on the run after the death of Samuels. Mitch is an interesting character because he is depicted as having post-traumatic stress/post-war depression due to his time in the war, which is why he is currently estranged from his wife. This was a subject that was not widely discussed. In 1946’s Best Picture winner The Best Years of Our Lives features characters dealing with similar issues.
Jacqueline White, who plays estranged wife to troubled Mitch, is great as the one “pure” character in the film, whose “pureness” acts as mirror for all the corruption and darkness that is the world of noir. White made about thirty films, mostly uncredited, in her ten-year career in the 1940s.
Steve Brodie gives a squirrely, desperate performance as Floyd Bowers, who gets a little more than he bargained for out of his friendship with Ryan’s Montgomery. Brodie can also be seen in the quintessential noir Out of the Past and Richard Fleischer criminally under-seen 1950 film Armored Car Robbery.
Crossfire is airing on TCM on November 28th at 7:15 in the morning (EST), in case this article peaks your interest.
Posted on November 19, 2012, in Oscar Vault Monday and tagged 1947, Crossfire, Edward Dmytryk, George Cooper, Gloria Grahame, Jacqueline White, Marlo Dwyer, Noirvember, Richard Brooks, Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Robert Young, Sam Levene, Steve Brodie. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.