I'm continuing my ongoing Film Noir series on Next Projection. You can check out my post HERE. The fourth film on my list is Crossfire (1947).
With its tightly coiled narrative and top-notch cast, Crossfire is a slow-burning crime drama and unlikely “social message film” with a noir twist.
Based on the controversial Richard Brooks novel The Brick Foxhole, screenwriter John Paxton re-teamed with director Edward Dymtryk after the success of their 1944 noir classic, Murder, My Sweet. This time around religious bigotry takes centre stage, as intolerance is unearthed among a group of soldiers recently returned from the Second World War.
Set in Washington, D.C., this band of brothers bond over hard liquor and poker games at various bars while swapping war stories. After one particular night of heavy drinking, three of the men wind up at the apartment of Joseph Samuels (Sam Levene), a Jewish man they met in a bar. Samuels openly shares his thoughts on what he perceives to be the true hidden enemy to a soldier recently returned from battle – pent up and unfocused negative energy that comes when there is no longer a clear enemy to kill. When Samuels winds up dead, the three soldiers become prime suspects in the homicide investigation led by Detective Finlay (Robert Young) and Army Sergeant Keeley (Robert Mitchum).
Postwar angst is often an underlying theme in the majority of noir films. However, few have dealt with it as directly as the Oscar-nominated Crossfire. Its chock full of aimless soldiers suffering from misguided anger. Despite Dymtryk and Paxton’s decision to change the victim from a homosexual in Brooks’ novel to a middle-aged Jewish man in the film, the theme of intolerance still resonates.
Gloria Grahame as Ginny.
Crossfire opens with a violent exchange between two men – one the gracious Samuels, the other one of the soldiers. However, all that is seen are shadows on a wall. Enter Detective Finlay with his soft drawl, ever-present pipe and immaculate suit. Finlay, in his hunt for a motive, is one of the calmest screen incarnations of a homicide detective to ever grace the silver screen. Whether he’s lounging in a high-backed chair or slowly walking the perimeter a crime scene, Young instills Finlay with an ice-cold demeanor, all the better to interrogate with.
Along for the ride in this compelling ‘whodunit’ is a brash soldier named Montgomery (Robert Ryan) and a sultry, exotically beautiful nightclub singer named Ginny (Gloria Grahame). Ryan is captivating as the blustering bully Montgomery, nearly stealing the show from both Young and Mitchum. As the jaded Ginny, Grahame more than earns her Best Supporting Actress nomination in her two brief scenes. Strong-willed and fiery, Ginny is the standard femme – albeit with much less fatale than is common in the genre. You can tell that, beneath her cool indifference, she’s a kind woman at heart.
The uncharacteristically slow narrative carefully unfurls character motivations, wading through each character’s conflicting flashback accounts in order to crack the case. When the truth is finally revealed to Finlay it sets off a three-minute speech addressing anti-Semitism and anti-Irish Catholic stances in America. The scene hammers home the overall message, coming off a little too preachy, almost as though it thought the audience wouldn’t be able to comprehend the notion of religious intolerance without its being sermonized. The one thing that pulls this scene back from outright melodrama is Young’s strong performance.
Despite this heavy-handed conclusion and its eventual exoneration of the military’s role in the murder,Crossfire is a surprisingly bold noir, tackling an issue that touched a raw nerve with audiences.