Thursday, April 16, 2009

Crossfire: Classic Noir, Sterling Cast

Warner Bros. // 1947 // 86 Minutes // Not Rated

Reviewed by Steve Evans

“Hate is like a loaded gun!” ~ From the Promotional Poster.

Opening Shot
RKO Pictures became the first studio to deliver a dramatic condemnation of racism in America with this taut film noir attacking anti-Semitism. A fine cast of tough, cynical actors and an insolent femme fatale breathe life into the tawdry material. Warner Brothers delivers a nice package in this lesser-known noir.

A Bit of Plot…
Investigating the murder of a Jewish man, police investigators and an Army sergeant at the nearby military base come to suspect enlisted men.

Homicide Capt. Finlay (Robert Young, Father Knows Best) narrows his inquiries to three soldiers, including the brooding Montgomery (Robert Ryan, The Wild Bunch), who was in the victim’s room the night he was beaten to death. The detective is, by turns, aided and impeded in his investigation by Sgt. Keely (Robert Mitchum, Night of the Hunter), who wants to protect his soldiers when it becomes apparent that circumstantial evidence could send one of the men to the electric chair.

But soon Finlay and Keely realize they are investigating a hate crime. They join forces to capture a murderous bigot on the Army base.

Trashy barfly Ginny Tremaine (Gloria Grahame, It’s a Wonderful Life) plays a pivotal role in the climax, providing an alibi for an innocent man. Because he is married and dallying with this woman, the soldier initially refuses to talk. The resulting complications threaten to derail the investigation and let a killer go free.

Historical Context and Significance
Oscar nominated for Best Picture in 1947, Crossfire is based loosely on the novel The Brick Foxhole by Richard Brooks, a prolific writer whose wildly divergent screenwriting credits include Key Largo, The Last Time I Saw Paris, and The Blackboard Jungle, which he also directed. Decades later, he would write and direct Looking for Mr. Goodbar, starring Diane Keaton the same year she made Annie Hall.

The Brick Foxhole, Brooks’ first novel, was actually about the pick-up and murder of a gay man by a group of drunken GIs. RKO Pictures wouldn’t touch that theme in the 1940s, which is explicitly stated in a studio memo reprinted on the special features section of this disc. Instead, the script was written as a screed against racism, specifically anti-Semitism, with a noir overlay to give the story added bite. In an old video interview included on the disc, director Edward Dmytryk (Murder, My Sweet) says he opted for a noir lighting style because of its inexpensive simplicity. Quick lighting setups allowed Dmytryk and his crew to complete principal photography in a mere 20 days, the director says, which enabled RKO to beat other studios to the market with the first major Hollywood production dealing with racism.

The film features an interesting narrative structure, with Act One unfolding mostly in flashback, Act Two cross-cutting between the killer’s plans to cover his tracks and flashbacks from his perspective, and concluding in Act Three with a game of cat-and-mouse leading to the final confrontation and chase.

There’s fine acting all around, especially from the sensuous, enigmatic Grahame and sleepy-eyed Mitchum.

The Contrarian View
There’s no whodunit aspect to the film, as most viewers will correctly guess the killer well before Act Two (indeed, he is all but identified on the back cover of the DVD keepcase). On the upside, the detectives devise an elaborate trap to catch their suspect. One of the film’s great pleasures is watching this clever scheme unfold — but to a rather perfunctory ending.

A tense noir, Crossfire throbs with tough, baleful characters spitting vicious invective and throwing punches around like compassion went outta fashion. Terrific, nihilistic entertainment. Watch it with your favorite misanthrope tonight.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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