Thursday, March 29, 2007

Crossfire (1947)

A celebrated early noir that is essentially a police procedural with a message about anti-Semitism. Somewhat disappointed in this one; time has diminished its impact.

It's a good-looking flick. Directed by Edward Dmytryk, with cinematography by J. Roy Hunt, the movie makes a virtue of stripped-down minimalist sets and lighting designed to look like it is coming from real-world sources. The alternating angles in certain sequences, like the savage beating that opens the movie, are striking indeed. Robert Ryan is superb of course, but John Paxton's script leaves his character pretty one-dimensional, an anti-Semite with no background, explanation or even other characteristics, aside from cunning and sadism. Mind you, that is quite realistic in itself. Raging bigots in real life frequently don't have "reasons;" they simply are shits. Movies, however, thrive on fleshing things out, and Ryan's obvious dreadfulness allows the audience too much distance from his bigotry.

Robert Young was as good as he could be with the policeman character, quietly waiting for Ryan to hang himself. The Siren often finds Young underrated. Not much he could do with a lengthy speech about prejudice, however. It involves Young's Irish grandfather and the bigotry he faced, and the Siren wasn't quite sure of the point: "Oh my GOD! you mean they discriminated against CHRISTIAN WHITE PEOPLE too?" Seemed sufficient to the Siren that the victim was killed for being Jewish. Even in 1947, did they have to drag larger segments of the audience into the Great Oppression Sweepstakes so they would understand that this was wrong? Perhaps so, the Siren afterthought, as she recalled that same year's Gentleman's Agreement, in which we learn about anti-Semitism by watching a Gentile suffer from it.

It is mentioned often, but worth noting again, that in the novel Crossfire is based on, the victim was a homosexual. He was changed to a Jew to get past the censors. In the movie, despite the presence of a girlfriend, the murder victim gives a distinct impression of picking up a young soldier in a crucial early scene in a bar. Doubtless this did not register with many 1947 audience members, but the Siren still thinks it was deliberate.

Ryan's guilt is telegraphed early and the script does only a so-so job of stretching out suspense concerning his fate. Instead of furthering gripping the audience, developments like a sequence involving Gloria Grahame playing (what else) a floozy just seem like padding. The Siren's favorite part of the movie was Robert Mitchum, whose presence is a touch ironic considering some intemperate anti-Jewish remarks he made when well into his sunset years. But here he looks great, sounds great and does a lot with a smallish part that is also somewhat underwritten. The Siren will long treasure the look Mitchum gives his own shoulder, seconds after Ryan's character has given it an unwelcome, brotherly pat.

10 comments:

Peter Nellhaus said...

I saw "3 guys named Bob" many years ago at NYU. I don't remember the film very well and part of the problem may have been my attitude towards Dmytryk. If you haven't seen it, rent Christ in Concrete, also known as Give Us this Day. It's Dmytryk's most obvious film in terms of its politics, and also arguably his best, and most personal film. Based on my own research into the Hollywood Ten blacklist, I'm a bit more generous towards some of the people who caved to HUAC than I was when I was younger.

Campaspe said...

Peter, I am too. It is so hard to know what you would have done under the same circumstances. Dalton Trumbo said as much later in life, too.

I haven't seen Christ in Concrete, but I am fascinated by Dmytryk's career arc -- the way his films got so much more conventional post-conviction.

That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

Funny. I just watched that last weekend. I thought Marcus Welby was awful, although I'd blame the script, which gave him little to do but hold his pipe. I was much more drawn to Ryan than Mitchum. Ryan really never gave a bad performance, but I think you could argue that Mitchum has phoned it in many a time. Mitchum as a good guy, or even worse as in this movie, an agreeable guy, is generally a bad idea. For my money, I could have stood a lot more of Gloria Grahame. One night with her would have cured that unbearable mope soldier for life. I kept wishing Ryan would have killed him! Poor Gloria: Stuck in a lonely place again...

goatdog said...

I'll have to check this out again. I saw it a while ago, around the same time that I saw Gentleman's Agreement, and in comparison this one seemed really great and daring, but it might have been just because it was contrasted with GA's more sedate and safe take on the subject.

Campaspe said...

TLRHB - I think that I have seen so many "psycho bigots" that even though this was something of a template, I couldn't give Ryan all the credit he probably deserved. Certainly he is very, very good but it is not a complex part. Young was all right, considering the part, but that speech about his grandfather borders on unplayable, especially when they film him all but talking to the camera like FDR. I think I liked Mitchum because his performance was mostly reaction, and Mitchum reacts so well. I hope you write up all your own impressions, I would love to read them.

Goatdog: I should re-watch Gentleman's Agreement. When I saw it years ago I remember thinking the acting was so good, but the script was so preachy and dull. And visually it was dull, too, as I remember.

Alex said...

Don't simply assume that the audience didn't catch the gay undercurrent of the film. Mark Rappaport, perhaps the most neglected of great American directors, used the bar scene in Crossfire as a notable example of hidden gay themes in his The Silver Screen.

In The Silver Screen, Rappaport uses this movie (and several other WWII-era dramas) to note that the bars catering to ex-servicemen during and immediately after the war were widely known as gay pick-up spots.

I think we should give credit to Ryan here - it is the first notable negative portrayal of a violent bigot in Hollywood film (as opposed to positive portrayals of violent bigots, which weren't uncommon). Yes, it's not a part subtly written or conceived, but Ryan does work the part for all it's worth. Plus, I'm not sure that a more complex violent bigot (I mean, the guy just very casually murders someone for being Jewish, something that usually took Nazis years of propaganda and training to build someone into) would have even been comprehensible to audiences at that point.

Flickhead said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Flickhead said...

Siren, I second Peter's vote for Christ in Concrete. Here's my review from a few years ago.

Gloria said...

William Phipps, who played the young soldier Leroy, recalled being quite anxious as this was his first role in films (however, this seems appropiate for the character). Phipps warmly recalled that Mitchum's friendliness helped him to cope with his screen nerves.

Another interesting point of this film is about the homecoming of soldiers... I don't know if Dmytrik meant to underscore the irony that a soldier killing enemy soldiers in the front is a hero, but the same soldier killing people back at home is a psycho, but this comes to mind every time I see the film.

Campaspe said...

A. - did not assume that at all, which is why I said "many." I am sure that the hep twigged to the bar scene, but I can assure you that my quite well educated grandparents in Alabama would have taken it entirely at face value. As for the first violent bigot -- I think we have to give that dubious honor to Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms. "Above all, Battling hates those not born in the same great country as himself."

Flickhead, thanks for the double rec and the review. I am looking forward to it.

Gloria - I do think that is a key part of the film, one I should have mentioned as thematically it is quite important. They are the same people, but now the impulses and atavism that combat may have brought out are supposed to be submerged into civilian life.