A slap. A punch. Then, a quick one-two to the bread basket.
Two men fight, their faces shrouded in darkness, their shadows on the wall. One man clearly the aggressor, the other clearly the punchee. The brawl moves off-frame, but we hear it continue, our eyes fixed on a canvas couch and table lamp.
Suddenly, the punchee’s knocked into the lamp. Lights out. Nearly ten seconds of pitch black follow before the aggressor wrangles light from the lamp’s bulb.
The punchee lays face-down on the floor. The aggressor pulls another man to his feet – unconscious? drunk? – and the two exit the room.
That, my friends, is the knockout open to Edward Dmytryk’s 1947 socially conscious film noir CROSSFIRE, one of two films released that year that dealt with anti-Semitism (the other being Elia Kazan’s GENTLEMEN’S AGREEMENT). Based on the novel THE BRICK FOXHOLE by writer and director Richard Brooks, the original story’s homophobic narrative was replaced with one of racial hatred to satisfy the Hollywood Hays code.
In the film, a Jewish man’s murder mystery unfolds through a series of inventive flashbacks, subtle suggestions, and postwar ennui, all held together by the cool, understated performance of Robert Young as jaded detective Finlay. Robert Mitchum joins the fun, his soft yet don’t-screw-with-me demeanor in full swing. Steamy siren Gloria Grahame‘s in it, too, as a disgraced dancehall girl. But it’s Robert Ryan who commands the frame as Montgomery, an ex-soldier with a grudge to bear. His brutish, menacing presence plays pitch-perfect.
CROSSFIRE threads its message of social and political intolerance into its eighty-six minute manhunt in beautifully subtle ways. Early in the film, Young’s Finlay questions a person of interest. Denying any real acquaintance with the murdered Jewish man, the POI responds:
POI: Of course, I’d seen a lot of guys like him.
Finlay: Like what?
POI: Oh, you know, guys that played it safe during the war. Scrounged around, keeping themselves in civies. Got swell apartments, swell dames. You know the kind.
Finlay: I’m not sure that I do. Just what kind?
POI: Oh, you know. Some of them are named Samuels. Some of them got funnier names.
Later, in a scene rippling with subtext, Young’s detective and Mitchum’s soldier talk about the racial hatred at the heart of the murder without ever addressing it outright. At one point, Young’s detective muses “You usually have to know something about a man to have a reason to kill him.” Moreso than the murderous act itself, it’s riveting stuff to watch these characters come to terms with the motivations behind the murder.
What I Learned = CROSSFIRE might come across as a preachy picture, but it delivers its message in such a unique fashion that you forget you’re being told how not to behave. Granted, this was a different time, but the storytelling’s on superb display here. In particular, two contrasting elements of the film play off one other to great effect. One element you might call “full disclosure” – we know who the killer is halfway through the picture, if not before. The other element I’ve noted above – subtext. There’s some wondrous dialogue going on here, and it’s that very talking-around-the-thing-we’re-talking-about that comes across so unforced, so natural, that we look beyond who committed the crime and hone in on the how and the why. That clash of knowledge versus revelation gives CROSSFIRE a sharp edge, one that holds up almost 63 years after its release.
CROSSFIRE was nominated for 5 Academy Awards. It was the first B-movie to be nominated for Best Picture. It’s available on DVD from Warner Home Video and features a behind-the-scenes documentary as well as commentary from Alain Silver, James Ursini, and Dmytryk himself.