When it’s on: Thursday, 3 March (7.10 am)
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.