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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Crossfire
Crossfire
Warner Bros. // Unrated // July 5, 2005
List Price: $19.97 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by DVD Savant | posted June 25, 2005 | E-mail the Author
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Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Crossfire is a landmark 'social-conscience' film, a story so concerned with delivering a civics lesson that its noir foundation seems beside the point. Beautifully made by a core group of Hollywood liberals - the kind for whom hunting season would soon be declared by the House Un-American Activities committee - the movie breaks ground by acknowledging anti-Semitic hatred as a real force in America. An excellent thriller with freshly-written characters, it gave a big boost to the careers of Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan and was nominated for a host of Oscars, including Best Picture. We don't normally associate Films noir with recognition by the Academy ... the film's preachy theme obviously appealed. This is probably the movie that Louis B. Mayer was sweating over when he denounced message pictures ... its producer Dore Schary would soon be bucking for his job at MGM.

Synopsis:

Soldiers in Washington, D.C. immediately after the war spend their time 'crawling' from bar to bar, and on one night a murder takes place. Civilian Joseph Samuels (Sam Levene) is beaten to death, and the apparent culprit is Corporal Arthur Mitchell (George Cooper), who was reeling drunk at the time and cannot account for his time except through a dance hall girl named Ginny (Gloria Grahame). Montgomery (Robert Ryan) and Peter Keeley (Robert Mitchum) help detective Captain Finlay (Robert Young) sort out the conflicting facts while Mitchell's wife (Jacqueline White, of The Narrow Margin) arrives to find Mitchell hiding out in a movie theater. The more Finlay looks into the motiveless killing, the more he becomes convinced that, as Keely insists, Mitchell is innocent.

Crossfire is more complicated than the average dark thriller, immediately post-war. Besides being a murder mystery, it's an examination of a new motivation for murder in a Hollywood movie. It tries to present the post-war world as it was: Returning soldiers were not all victorious saints and they experienced wartime brutalities that had nothing to do with the enemy or combat. Wartime army camps simply concentrated existing prejudices; factual accounts (as found in books by Studs Terkel) tell us that one reason that black and white soldiers were segregated was over fear of murderous race riots. Cruelties to any minority imaginable were common. Although it's no accident that the Congressional witch hunters often targeted Jewish writers, the probable objection to the makers of Crossfire was the committees felt it was part of a deliberate conspiracy to sully America's image and weaken its morale. A soldier - in uniform - is a sadistic killer. Other soldiers are indifferent or band together to help a suspect evade the police. There's no automatic endorsement that the authorities are going to dispense justice fairly.

Pictures like Cornered and Ride the Pink Horse had ex-GI characters that carried the war experience with them, but John Paxton's script is specifically about soldiers recently returned home and not yet adjusted to civilian life. There's a whole gallery of interesting male attitudes. Laid-back Robert Mitchum is easy-going and friendly, yet is cynical and doesn't believe in anything in particular. The disturbed Robert Ryan is a bully who tries to impose his twisted version of reality on those around him. The film's central character is an emotionally disturbed artist apprehensive about restarting civilian life with his wife Mary, and afraid that he has lost his desire to return to his drawing. The smaller roles don't conform to Army PR about life in the ranks either - young Tennesseean Leroy isn't very bright, and Floyd Bowers is cowardly.  1

In a way, Crossfire is a disturbing response to William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives. That picture's dramatization of the returning soldier's period of adjustment is a lot more reassuring. Instead of Virginia Mayo's shallow war bride, Crossfire has Gloria Grahame as a b-girl/probable prostitute living in a miserable relationship with a tortured weakling of a husband (Paul Kelly) who won't let go of her. The husband has one of the strangest scenes in film noir, introducing himself with a series of sordid lies.

Crossfire successfully converted its liberal message into boxoffice gold, mainly by surrounding it with an entertaining movie populated by interesting characters. Yet it can be criticized by conservatives as a stacked deck. Robert Young's detective smokes a pipe in placid reflection and behaves more like a psychological counsellor than a cop solving a crime. When it comes time to deliver the author's message of tolerance, the platitudes come in a preachy torrent, as if Young had stepped into a pulpit. He gives a Knute Rockne-like inspirational story of his own grandfather, murdered because he was an Irish Catholic. Conservatives (and bigots) probably resented the condescending attitude.

Frankly, for a bunch of realistic ex-soldiers and cops, these guys are incredibly sensitive about the idea of ethnic bigotry. The script takes pains to tell us that the victim Joseph Samuels actually was an honorable soldier wounded in the Pacific theater, assuring us that everything that Robert Ryan's Montgomery believes is 100% false. Samuels can't be just an ordinary guy, he has to be a war hero - just as fifteen years later, Sidney Poitier had to be an African-American superman. The most telling bit of rigging in this supposedly 'hard-hitting' exposé is the addition of a brief bit where a major assures us that the kind of racist hate we're seeing in Washington never existed in the Army. No sir.

I suppose that's a good lesson for makers of message movies: One message at a time is best. Crossfire avoids any talk about war conditions and sticks to its more unusual subject of post-war discomfort. It is awkward enough when Robert Ryan gets on a soapbox, and any more preaching would be unwelcome. 2

With its surprising performances and clever mystery plot, Crossfire would have been a hit even if the murder victim wasn't of any particular ethnic group. But the novelty of a real social issue slipping into an escapist Hollywood movie helped generate a trend. The 100% ethics lesson Gentleman's Agreement hasn't aged nearly as well, and many other movies about blacks passing as white are as dated as some of Stanley Kramer's later efforts. Bad Day at Black Rock, also produced by Dore Schary, operates identically to this earlier story, exposing bigotry through the thriller genre.


Warners' DVD of Crossfire is a fine presentation, transferred from a good B&W element with only a couple instances of visible damage, a broken frame here and there in the negative. J. Roy Hunt's low-key cinematography lets us finally see that Gloria Grahame's impossibly low-cut dress is really made of some sheer fabric that implies forbidden cleavage.

A short and uncredited featurette discusses the wider issues of the movie and its fight with the censors, explaining how Richard Brooks' original book was about the murder of a homosexual, not a Jew. For those interested in more detail, there is Alain Silver and James Ursini's info and observation-packed commentary. It starts slow but goes much deeper into the issues, giving a good discussion of the effects of the blacklist on the politically oriented writers and directors of the late forties. Archival statements by director Edward Dmytryk tend to jump around the issues. He was robbed of a career and had to flee to England, where he made one great picture, Christ in Concrete. But unlike other expatriates Dmytryk recanted, named names and cooperated with the committees and the American Legion to buy a pass back into the studio system. There's no mention of the fact that Dmytryk, like Elia Kazan, were considered sellouts and were despised by other blacklist victims barred from resuming their creative lives.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Crossfire rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: featurette Hate is Like a Gun; commentary from Alain Silver and James Ursini, with archival comments by Edward Dmytryk.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 24, 2005


Footnotes:

1. The talented William Phipps plays Leroy. He's one of the most obscure actors to appear (like William Schallert) in scores of key Science Fiction films in the 1950s. He starred in Arch Oboler's apocalyptic Five, and was in both of 1953's Martian invasion movies, War of the Worlds (as one of the three luckless greeters of the first cylinder) and Invaders from Mars (Colonel Fielding's #2 in the subterranean finale).
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2. Take the superior lynching movie Try and Get Me! for example. Every other dialogue line is about the moral responsibility of newspapers not to incite mobs with unnecessarily provocative headlines, but somebody saw the need to drag in a bizarre character (an Italian-accented scientist) to further harangue reporter Richard Carlson over his social conscience. He might as well be delivering speeches about good nutrition, because we've already heard enough.
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