by Del Harvey
“Crossfire was a story about anti-Semitism. We didn’t know while we were making it whether anybody would go to see such a picture, so number one, we made it a mystery story to sugar-coat the message we were presenting. It worked beautifully…” — Edward Dmytryk
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In 1947 World War II was fresh in the mind of every American. The life of the soldier was commonplace in most American homes. The difference between World War II and subsequent wars or military actions that our country decided to get involved with is very simple: a self-proclaimed dictator was exterminating persons of distinct racial groups and our country was of one mind in combating this atrocity.
This unified front could only serve as the perfect cover for individuals with their own personal bias’, hatred, and persecutions. Crossfire tells one such story. Written by Richard Brooks (who later became a director of some note) and John Paxton, Crossfire is the story of a bigot who murders a Jewish-American and tries to pin it on the least likely member of his unit.
Robert Ryan is superb as ‘Monty’ Montgomery, the ever-so-helpful bigot whose anger and frustration rule his life. Ryan’s performance is so strong we believe him to be this character. After he kills his only friend to protect his own skin, there is no questioning his actions. We accept that Montgomery is a force of nature driven by his darkest emotions.
The detective who doggedly follows routine to the letter in his pursuit of a murderer is played by Robert Young (Father Knows Best, Marcus Welby). His pipe-smoking, ever patient Captain Findlay is one of Young’s best portrayals. It allows Young to do his perfurnctory preaching, but forces him to contain his speechifying so that the plots flows unencumbered by an individual actor’s overblown technique.
The third ‘Robert’ in this noir is Mitchum, playing second fiddle to the other two ‘Bobs.’ His Sergeant Peter Kelley is low-key, yet a natural born leader to his men. Kelley is a peaceful man, a former writer, and holds some sort of secret love for the wife of his most milque-toast of soldiers, Artie Mitchell, who happens to be the most likely suspect (thanks to Ryan).
When Ryan, his best friend (classic character actor Steve Brodie), and the suspect (George Cooper) hook up with a couple at a bar, they invite themselves back to the couple’s apartment with the idea of getting some free booze out of the unsuspecting citizens. Ryan’s frustrations and angst have been building up all his life to their inevitable culmination of ultimate hatred. Ryan gets drunk, loses control, and takes out his frustrations on the male citizen (Sam Levene), killing the gentleman for the kindness he showed in sharing a drink.
It is worth noting that one of the classic actresses of film noir, Ms. Gloria Grahame, gets a small role in this film.
The terrible sadness that is bigotry is just as pertinent today as it was in 1947, and the cast and story are still just as viable. Crossfire holds up well even though so much has changed with the passing of time, and in a way, this is a very unsettling realization.
Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly and a lover of film noir.
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