Walter Mencken 11 a.m., May 24
DVD Rentals: Crossfire (1947)
With a star-powered trio of Roberts (Ryan, Mitchum and Young) sharing the one-sheet for a film noir produced by the studio that helped define the post-war style, Crossfire should be a lot better than it is.
Only one of the three same-named leads is put to good use. Robert Young's Captain Finlay chews a pipe-end as he doggedly hunts down a brutal, anti-Semitic thrill-killer. In his office, Finlay appears trapped in a cage, the window panes behind him mimic jail bars; even the bottom-center pipe stems in their holder visually reinforce the air of incarceration.
As Sgt. Peter Keeley, Robert Mitchum spends a lot of time in the background apparently waiting for the lunch bell to sound. He is wasted, and probably in more ways than one. That leaves the screen’s most troubled man, Robert Ryan, in his first full-blown unveiling as a psycho-killer, to rise to the occasion. Unbalanced Bob is not the only reason to see this picture, just the best.
The subject of Richard Brooks' The Brick Foxhole was homosexuality, a public menace that privately made its way into Hollywood board rooms and bungalows throughout the ‘40’s. You could personally partake in so-called deviant sexual behavior, just don't put it in the pictures. On the other hand, degrading someone on the basis of ethnicity, religious denomination, or skin color had long been standard practice among studios.
All this gay talk, and the filthy thoughts it would ultimately plant in audiences' heads, had to go. Up the road, Fox was producing Gentleman's Agreement, a film aimed at blowing the lid off the heretofore taboo subject of anti-Semitism.
The solution was simple: substitute Jew-hating for gay-baiting! While blue noses would undoubtedly upturn at the thought of killing in the name of wanton sodomy, surely even the most censorious among us could find room in their heart to sanction murder based solely on religious affiliation.
Quickly assembling their cast, the R.K.O. production, helmed by Eddie Dmytryk, was pushed through in record time and the minor-major released their version to theatres a full three-and-a-half months ahead of the competition.
Roberts Mitchum, Ryan, and Young.
We begin on action as Sgt. "Monty" Montgomery (Robert Ryan) shadowboxes a "Sammy" to his death. The only possible witness (and fall guy), Cpl. Arthur "Mitch" Mitchell (George Cooper) lies passed out in a drunken stupor and has to be carried through the door by Monty.
Much to the surprise of Capt. Finlay, the next morning finds Monty returning to the crime scene and doing his best not to acknowledge the previous night's activities. As soon as he's in the presence of the law, Monty instantly shatters the cardinal rule of psychopaths by offering answers to questions yet to be posed.
Crossfire prefigures Kurosawa’s Rashomon in it's use of contrary flashbacks. Both Monty and Mitch are given ample screen time to present their sides of the story. Monty's narration squarely points the finger in Mitch's direction (and predates Hitchcock's Stage Fright with its use of a lying flashback), while the framed G.I.'s interpretation is clouded by drink.
The good news is in each version we get to see Monty overreact when his hillbilly chum Leroy (William Phipps) spills a drink on Sammy's girl.
Paul Kelly cannot tell a truth.
There's a moment in Blake Edwards' S.O.B. where William Holden asks if he ever violated a close friendship with a lie. He did and his defense goes something like "the fact that I'm telling you that I lied proves that I am not a liar." This form of cockeyed logic has never been put to better use than in what ostensibly appears to be a throwaway sequence featuring veteran character actor Paul Kelly.
Kelly plays the part of Mr. Tremaine, a discharged soldier with a bum ticker. His young, estranged wife Ginny (Gloria Grahame) met Mitch at a local dance hall and is his sole alibi.
Mitch dries out in her (their?) apartment when Mr. Tremaine, a quizzical Everyman with a world-weary demeanor softened by a mischievous streak, returns unannounced to add a touch of surrealism to the day's events. Tremaine is one of the most fascinating characters in all film noir. After every declarative statement, he pauses and confesses, "That's a lie."
His contrary personal testimony, while in no direct relation to the murder, infuses the picture with more social relevance than either killer, victim or motive can supply. This oddball and strangely affecting scene is a standout that anticipates David Lynch by decades.
In their haste, the filmmakers left a few bloopers that are obvious even on the small screen. At exactly 44 minutes in, be sure to enjoy the reflection of a boom operator clearly visible in Steve Brodie's hotel room mirror. At the 70 minute mark, a par light can be seen outside Finlay's office window.
There are also a few maddeningly inexplicable leaps in logic. Monty must be part homing pigeon. The fact that he is never told where Sammy (Sam Levene) lives doesn't prevent him from crashing the party. Finlay and his men stakeout a dance hall awaiting Mitch's return.
When the unwitting soldier shows up, a pal (Lex Barker) improvises a diversion. Pushing Mitch to the floor, Barker makes a quick exit. Everyone, and I mean everyone in the place chases after Barker leaving Mitch to make a peaceful getaway. Barker had been there all evening, and surely Finlay or one of his men would have seen through his rouse and followed the right man.
Reels later Finlay calls an end to a meeting in his office with Mitch and Det. Dick (Richard Powers). Finlay exits through the front door and briefly interrogates an antsy Monty before walking back into his office to find Keeley, who was nowhere in sight when Mitch and Dick left, waiting for him.
In case you missed the message, the film ends with Finlay preaching about how his Irish grandpappy was castigated for being a priest-loving spy from Rome. He delivers his homily to simpleton Leroy who functions best as patronizing audience identification.
Crossfire received five Academy Award nominations including one for Oscar (and personal) favorite, Gloria Grahame. It takes a half hour for the smoldering Ms. Grahame to appear as Ginny Tremaine, the Red Dragon gin mill's most sought after dance partner, but it's worth the wait. Her damaged good-time gal is the type of broad any guy would love to marry...for six hours.
For a film that lacks subtlety, they should have given a bonus to the guy who decided to include Shine, the bitter, anti-racist anthem popularized by Louis Armstrong, in the background when Mitch and Ginny first meet.
The esteemed, always wished-for Kenneth MacDonald (beloved as Stooge-villain Ichabod Slipp and “Ladies’ Man” Herbert H. Hebert's sire) pops up momentarily to deliver some news. I mentioned Richard Powers earlier, but some of you may know him better as Tom Keane, Plan 9 from Outer Space's Col. Tom Edwards.
The most uninspired bit of casting remains George Cooper as Mitch. Even though he's onscreen more than Mitchum, Cooper received 9th billing below Kelley (who appears in two brief, but key scenes) and Jacqueline White, the actress who plays his wife. One can understand why the studio, not wanting to get in the way of the star triumvirate, cast the bland and Brylcreemed Cooper.
Why didn't Mitchum play the part of Mitch? On his worst bender, Bob Mitchum would never pass out and he's one of the few men from the period capable of besting Ryan in a street fight. There would have been no murdered Hebrews on his watch.
Nothing stands in Ryan's way: the voice splinters and cracks. Dialog falters as it tries to find an escape route through gritted teeth. The "drunken” opticals may be a bit much, but credit Dmytryk for devising an ingenious way of adding menace by photographing Ryan through a progressive number of gradually widening lenses that mirror his inner dementia.
Monty is the old Army buddy you do not relish bumping into at a watering hole. His guttural "Hey, Jewboy" is packed with so much conviction and personal contempt, I found myself blowing out the Shabbas candles. I watched one scene - Monty turns on Sammy for not wanting to share his liquor -- from behind my couch. For a film with many a moral, I took away only one: Jews shouldn't drink.
This column is a revised version of a December 2, 2008 review from the now defunct Emulsion Compulsion blog.
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