Crossfire (1947)

When it’s on: Thursday, 3 March (7.10 am)
Channel: Movies4Men
IMDb Link

Edward Dmytrk’s 1947 B-movie, Crossfire, is about as ‘Film Noir’ as cinema can get. Forget for a moment the plot. The action focuses on a group of men, two of whom are played by Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan. They’re ex-servicemen, recently returned from the war. We catch them playing card games, loitering in bars, drifting through their days. They’re bored, dealing badly with feelings of frustration and resentment, whether it’s Mitchell (George Cooper) wondering how he can possibly go home to his wife and lead a normal life, or Montgomery (Ryan), spilling over into hatred and bigotry. Those who have attempted to define the appeal and rise of the ‘Noir’ style suggest that it’s all down to men coming back home after serving in World War Two, struggling to readjust after their horrific experiences whilst on duty, and few films convey that sentiment quite as succinctly as Crossfire.

Ostensibly, it’s about a murder investigation. A Jewish man is killed in the opening act and the trail leads directly to a group of soldiers who joined him for a drink in his apartment. Initially, the finger of suspicion falls on Mitchell who’s gone missing. His room mate Keeley (Mitchum) catches up with him and hears his version of events – sozzled and morose, Mitchell left the man’s place and walked out into the night, eventually coming across a barfly (Gloria Grahame) with whom he shared a ‘moment’ before she handed him the keys to her flat and he fell asleep there. The key fact from his account is told almost as a side note – as he was exiting the Jew’s place, Montgomery was already getting handy with the man, slapping him around and calling him names. So clearly the imposing Montgomery is the killer, but how to link him to the crime?

That isn’t a a spoiler. Montgomery’s guilt is made clear fairly early, the rest of the plot centering on Detective Finlay’s (Robert Young) efforts to unravel the mystery and catch his man. Young leads a brilliant cast, one of those happy circumstances when even relatively minor roles happen to fall into the laps of great performers. By this stage in his career, Young was taking on more challenging parts than the comedies in which he’d appeared countless times, and Finlay is an excellent example – endlessly patient and possessing a cool intellect. He can also identify the murder for the hate crime it is and gets a fantastic soliloquy when discussing the fate of his Irish immigrant grandfather who came across prejudice when he arrived in America. The speech transforms his character from a smart detective and into a sort of crusader, bent on rooting out bigotry, which gives his task of finding the killer a personal dimension. Cooper is good as the innocent Mitchell, clearly damaged emotionally as a consequence of his experiences and representative of the mixed up messes many of the men in similar situations must have found themselves in. By his usual standards, Mitchum turns out to be a bit on the wasted side, playing the main link to Mitchell and coming to help Finlay in his search for answers. In truth, he was still on his way to the top but added enough layers of ‘seen it all’ cynicism to his performance to be memorable in a support role.

The film is stolen by Ryan’s Montgomery, a hulking psychopath who kills from senseless hate and then kills again to cover up his crime. The scenes where he’s delivering alibis to Finlay are cool, too cool, which add a chilling edge to his character. He’s beautifully shot also, especially in his moments with Leroy (William Phipps), another serviceman who’s from Tennessee and like others has clearly been the subject of Montgomery’s bullying ways. Ryan is photographed as though constantly towering over Phipps; a perspective shot when the two men are shaving cast him as a giant compared with the much slighter Leroy.

But then, there’s even time in Crossfire’s slim running time to explore its minor characters. Grahame is a revelation as the good time girl who takes pity on Mitchell, in turns gutsy, jaded and vulnerable in the part of a ruined woman who still has enough room in her broken heart for his sob story. The appearance of her ex-husband (Paul Kelly) offers a fascinating insight into their dysfunctional relationship, which clearly goes on long after the action has moved elsewhere. His exhortations to help Finlay with his investigation, which doesn’t merit a response, indicate just another ruined and pathetic life, which has no more use to anybody.

Crossfire is fine and clever film making, which thanks to its subject matter was nominated for five Academy Awards, including supporting acting nods for Ryan (who was so effective that he would try desperately to steer clear of similar roles) and Grahame. Dmytryk was close to being ostracised by Hollywood for refusing to testify to the House of Un-American Activities Committee, at around the same time as he was Oscar nominated for directing Crossfire. I watch the film now and think that it was just a waste of sheer talent. It’s a title bristling with invention and ideas, and to think of a career that was stifled when he was capable of producing work of this calibre seems very wrong.

Crossfire: ****

In a Lonely Place (1950)

When it’s on: Thursday, 9 July (2.55 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

‘I was born when she kissed me.
I died when she left me.
I lived a few weeks while she loved me.’

In a Lonely Place is a welcome sight on today’s schedules. It’s a quality picture, defined as Film Noir reasonably enough, and whilst one can argue that there’s so much going on beneath the central story and such virtuousity in the direction and cinematography that it transcends any genre labelling, it’s almost the definition of the Noir style. I think it’s Humphrey Bogart’s best performance, which is really saying something.

‘Bogie’ plays Dixon Steele, a jaded Hollywood screenwriter. Perceived to be something of a genius at his craft, Dix hasn’t in fact had a hit since before the war, and during those years served with aplomb, albeit bringing unsaid horrors back with him. These manifest in a violent temperament, sudden outbursts of physical force that keep others at a standoffish distance and himself disconsolate. One night, after being commissioned to write the adaptation for a novel, he takes a hat-check girl (Martha Stewart) back to his Los Angeles home because she’s read the book and can provide a quick synopsis. This done, the book duly dismissed as pulpy crap, he sends her home with money for a taxi. The following morning, he’s visited by police sergeant Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy), who reveals that the girl has been murdered in the night and, naturally enough, he’s the chief suspect. Nicolai’s an old friend from the army days, but his boss Captain Lochner (Carl Benton Reid) is not and, during questioning, tries to pin the crime on Dix. Another potential witness and Dix’s neighbour, Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame) turns up and, for reasons unknown supplies him with an alibi, confirming she saw the girl leave alone.

This prompts a romance to blossom between the pair, something that seems to suit them both. Dix suddenly finds his creative juices flowing, and helped by Lauren starts working night and day on his screenplay. we also learn a little more about Lauren, the fact she’s a new tenant in the apartment complex, having recently walked out on a relationship that was clearly abusive. Though Dix appears to be crazy about her, his infamous temper flares up more and more, which frightens Lauren whilst reminding her that no one has yet been caught for the hat girl’s killing.

The title of the film refers to Dix’s mind, a lonely place because his rages steadily alienate those around him, including the woman he loves. Whatever qualities he possesses, and there are many, such as his unlikely friendship with the washed up, drunk actor (Robert Warwick) he refers to as ‘Thespian’, in the end what people remember is his violent mood, something he’s unable to suppress, and it leaves him devoid of hope for a better future. It’s brilliant work from Bogart, the suggestion that he laid his own psyche bare to play the part of a complicated man capable of both great violence and terrible bouts of anger. More than anything Dix is tired, exhausted from wrestling with his own personal demons, the chance he sees in Laurel to escape them, and the awful implications held in the relationship’s breakdown, which is what will surely happen.

As good is Gloria Grahame, an actor who I find just about the sexiest of her era (and that’s really saying something). There were more beautiful women, but what Grahame tapped into within a world of femme fatales was a certain, elusive degree of vulnerability, the way she lays all her hopes on the line by coupling with Dix and then watches them fall apart. Horrible. Grahame was married to the film’s director, Nicholas Ray, a commitment that was collapsing during its making, but they kept their problems quiet to ensure he kept his job and the resulting tension was reflected in her performance, a sad thing who knows exactly where it’s heading with Dix and sees it through all the same.

As for Ray, the director’s own sense of pessimism was transparent on the screen. A genius responsible for such works as Rebel Without a Cause, Bigger than Life and Johnny Guitar, Ray specialised in tales of alienation and isolation, of which this is the perfect representation. In the process of separating from Grahame after he’d reportedly caught her in bed with his son, who was then 13, Ray photographed her as an almost unattainable object, living in the apartment opposite Dix but separated by a courtyard, sleeping naked with a heavy wooden door keeping her from the dangerous outside world. His shooting of Bogart emphasised both the facial lines of a troubled life and the glint in his eyes when he was moved to anger, capturing both the man’s weariness and his volatile temperament.

The book from which In a Lonely Place was adapted, by Dorothy B Hughes, had Dix as a serial killer and rapist who was exposed after trying to divert the authorities away from his crimes offering to help investigate the latest murder. In the film, he’s innocent of the crime yet guilty of failing to beat his personal traumas, leading to a finely wrought downbeat ending. It captures in a sublime way the post-war guilt and estrangement felt by many people, the sense of indefinable loss that kept them somehow separate from society. More than anything, it feels like an honest movie, a tragic and devastating look into real lives that don’t get the Hollywood ending that they crave, and that ironically plays out amidst the workings of the dream factory, but can enjoy a brief respite before the shattering conclusion.

In a Lonely Place: *****