Crossfire

Edward Dmytryk, 1947

Crossfire is a dark and gritty film noir, brimming with the kind of expressionistic shadows and sardonic repartee you would expect from that style. It tackles some controversial issues of the time, depicting an anti-Semitic murder committed by a soldier unable to reintegrate into post-war civilian life.

A group of demobilized soldiers go out to share a drink, but listless Floyd Bowers (Steve Brodie) befriends a kindly Jewish man named Joseph Samuels (Sam Levene). They go back to Samuels’ apartment for a drink, closely followed by two of Bowers’ old army buddies. When Samuels is found dead later that evening, world-weary Captain Finlay (Robert Young) investigates the last people to see him alive. The imposing and outspoken Montgomery (Robert Ryan) points the finger at Bowers, who is conspicuous by his absence, but Sgt. Keeley (a reliably acerbic Robert Mitchum) is convinced of his innocence.

Robert Mitchum does his "off a horse" kind of acting

"Well I dunno, I never heard of no army..."

Various versions of events are told in flashback, including a wonderfully queasy scene from the perspective of a drunken Bowers, complete with warping images and double vision. Bowers’ alibi rests on the corroboration of a sultry seductress named Ginny Tremaine (Gloria Grahame). The problem is, she don’t like cops (“Nobody does,” adds Finlay) and is reluctant to cooperate. Things are further confused by a compulsive liar who may or may not be Ginny’s husband. He’s only in two scenes but he’s probably my favourite character, a screwball worthy of a Coen Brothers film. He looks a bit like William H. Macy, come to think of it…

She was a tramp when I married her. I didn’t know it at first, but I knew it before we were married. That’s one of the reasons I enlisted, to get away from her. But I couldn’t wait to get out, come back to her. When I did, she didn’t want me. Funny isn’t it? But I still want her, I still love her. You know what I just told you? That’s a lie. I’m not her husband. I met her the same as you did, at the joint. Can’t keep away from her. I want to marry her, she won’t have me. You believe that? Well that’s a lie too.

“Mr. Tremaine” (Paul Kelly)

"I could get you that exact same razor for twenty"

"Take back what you said about my mother!"

Captain Finlay eventually cottons on to Montgomery’s violent hatred of Jews, based on his sly prejudicial digs and his occasional displays of violent hatred towards Jews. The army are keen to distance themselves from him and his beliefs, and the message is driven home with a series of analogies used to persuade naïve young officer Leroy to help trap Monty. The analogies include hatred of Catholics, Quakers, people who wear striped neckties and plain ol’ folks from Tennessee – neatly avoiding homophobia, which was the subject of the original book. Leroy eventually agrees and everyone lives happily ever after. Except Monty, who dies… oh, and he killed another soldier too… and I guess Samuels was killed at the start… But almost everyone lives happily ever after.

Although the message is frighteningly patronising to modern audiences, the film holds up thanks to memorable dialogue and fantastic direction by Edward Dmytryk. It’s a classic example of limitations being used to an advantage, as the minimal lighting was merely a symptom of low budget and not any self-conscious artistic decision. The resultant inky shadows are striking, and Robert Ryan is a chilling and menacing villain. The moral of the story is overstated, but still it’s commendable when considered in its historical context. And at least it had the courage to state a message at all, unlike certain recent films which seem to drown in a sea of ambiguity.

Four dreidels

Four dreidels (bad taste?)

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