Saturday, July 3, 2010

Film Review: Crossfire

"Crossfire" *** (out of ****)

"Crossfire" (1947) on paper sounds like a great movie, but, it is a deceptive movie. It pretends to be one thing but is actually something much different. Sadly I don't say that as praise.

"Crossfire" pretends to be a noir film. It deals with a murder, a wrongly accused man, dark lighting, seedy streets, a detective on the prowl. Yes, the ingredients are all there but the film, based on a Richard Brooks novel, is concerned with telling a different story. One about anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitism was a serious problem in post WW2 America. Remember the scene at the diner in "The Best Years of Our Lives" (1946) when a man says we fought the wrong people? Anti-Semitism was also the subject matter of another film released in 1947, "A Gentleman's Agreement", which would win the "Best Picture" Oscar that year.

You see, a majority of Americans and soldiers, didn't realize concentration camps existed. They thought WW2 was a battle of ideology. We were fighting the spread of Fascism and Communism. This was mostly the fault of President Roosevelt and Churchill who kept the treatment of Jews a secret fearing people wouldn't want to fight a "Jew's war".

The movie starts off with a fist fight taking place off screen. We only see the shadows on a wall. One of the men is beaten to death. We later found out three soldiers were in that apartment. A civilian, Samuels (Sam Levene) lived there and had invited the men for a drink. But which one killed him? That's what Detective Finlay (Robert Young) is going to find out.

So far this all sounds like your typical noir set-up. The main suspect is Mitchell (George Cooper) he has not been seen since the incident. One of the soldiers, Montgomery (Robert Ryan) attempts to defend him but really points all the arrows in his direction. Meanwhile the third soldier, Floyd (Steve Brodie) is also missing. But Finlay focuses on Mitchell.

Eventually we meet Mitchell's friend, Keeley (Robert Mitchum) who believes in Mitchell's innocence and tries to find him. He tells us about Mitchell's background and relationship with his wife (Jacqueline White). Mitchell is suppose to be a sensitive type, an artist, and therefore incapable of killing anyone.

Finlay however is having trouble establishing a motive. Why would Mitchell or anyone want to kill Samuels? Why kill a man they never met before and knew nothing about?

What I object to about "Crossfire" is why not play honest. The film isn't interested in being a noir film. It is a message movie. It wants to be about anti-Semitism. Why not just be about that? You have to give Elia Kazan credit. "A Gentleman's Agreement" was about anti-Semitism. Nothing else. It didn't try to pretend to be about anything else.

My hunch is, Hollywood producers felt anti-Semitism was a divisive subject. How would they get a mainstream audience to realize this racial problem in everyday terms. So they throw in the plot conventions of a noir story. This reminds me of something done decades later in "Philadelphia" (1993). There the subject was AIDS and homosexuality. But homophobia was strong and people didn't know much about AIDS at that time. So in order to gain public support for a gay character the film tied it to a civil rights issue and linked it with the treatment of blacks and used the courtroom drama plot.

The novel "Crossfire" is based on actually had nothing to do with anti-Semitism, it dealt with homophobia. But the treatment against Jews was a more pressing social problem. The director was Edward Dmytryk, this was another deceptive move since he was associated with noir having directed "Murder, My Sweet" (1944). He would go on to direct "Raintree County" (1957) and "The Carpetbaggers" (1964).

"Crossfire" would go on to earn 5 Academy Award nominations; "Best Picture", "Director", "Screenplay", "Supporting Actress" (Gloria Grahame) and "Supporting Actor" (Ryan). It lost everything however.

Robert Mitchum, supposedly, hated this movie and his character. He went on to say any American actor could have played the part. If he really did say that, he was 100% right. The movie did not need a Robert Mitchum. It makes no use of his talents. He doesn't play a complete character. Luckily for him, later in the same year, he would appear in a real noir film, "Out of the Past" (1947). There his acting talents would be more on display.

"Crossfire" has a certain historical and social importance but I don't find it as honest as "A Gentleman's Agreement". The performances aren't very memorable though Robert Ryan is the best of the pack. It is really his show. Casual movie fans may not respond positively to the film. It is mostly for filmbuffs.