Friday, February 18, 2011
[This is a contribution to For the Love of Film (Noir), the second Film Preservation Blogathon hosted by Ferdy on Films and Self-Styled Siren. The blogathon has been organized for the benefit of the Film Noir Foundation, who do important work to restore and preserve the noir heritage. Please consider donating to the Foundation during this week. The blogathon will run from February 14-21, and during this time I'll be posting about some noirs to raise awareness of the blogathon and its worthy cause.]
Crossfire is a fascinating noir with a message that was, in the post-WW2 era, remarkably topical, slowly creeping up from beneath its mystery surface. At first, the film appears to be just another strikingly shot suspense picture about murder and violence, opening with a brutal sequence staged in half-darkness, as several men struggle, their shadows cast on the walls until one of the men is thrown to the ground, knocking over a lamp, leaving the screen momentarily completely dark. After a beat, one of the men switches the light back on, checks on the body on the floor, and leaves with another man, all of this in half-darkness with only the lower halves of the men's bodies visible, the rest obscured by shadows. It's an intense introduction, swift and brutal, the stark lighting adding to the sense of menace and brutality in this anonymous killing. The rest of the film follows the investigation into this murder, as what initially seems like the unfortunate result of a common drunken argument turns out to stem from much darker, uglier impulses.
The investigation, conducted with calm precision by the police captain Finlay (Robert Young), centers around a group of soldiers who were with the murdered man, Samuels (Sam Levene), before his death. The three soldiers — Mitchell (George Cooper), Montgomery (Robert Ryan), and Floyd (Steve Brodie) — met up with Samuels at a bar and went back to his room with him, but at that point the various stories diverge, leaving it unclear who killed the man. Mitchell seems like the most likely fall guy at first, but his friend Keeley (Robert Mitchum) thinks otherwise and begins looking into things himself. The film employs a Citizen Kane-like structure with different people filling in the blanks in the night of the murder, but the device is vestigial, as it becomes clear relatively early what's really going on here.
At first, some broad clues are dropped in the dialogue, hints at something beyond a typical drunken brawl, and eventually the film dispenses with the flashback structure entirely and just reveals who the killer was, well before the climax. The reason for this abandonment of the film's central mystery is that director Edward Dmytryk, working with a script adapted by John Paxton from a Richard Brooks novel, is thrusting at something much deeper than a whodunnit mystery. The film morphs halfway through from noir mystery into an impassioned treatise against prejudice and bigotry, against the kind of hatred that, as Finlay says, is "like a loaded gun," ready to go off at any moment. The film's source novel was about anti-homosexual bias, but the message is translated to be about anti-Semitism for Hollywood, both because any overt mention of homosexuality was still impossible in the cinema of the time, and because a film about anti-Jewish bigotry would arguably be even more relevant in the years after the war, as the horrors of the death camps became public knowledge.
In any event, despite the specifics of this murder's prejudiced motive, the film mounts an argument against prejudice and hatred in any form. At the film's climax, Finlay delivers what would in any other film be a distractingly on-the-nose and lengthy speech about prejudice and bigotry; so many films are interrupted by such obvious message moments, but it almost never works as well as it does here. Part of it is Young's performance as the police captain who remains calm and generic until his big moment, when he unleashes an intensity of feeling that's surprising in this previously unshowy man. He delivers this speech with such depths of sincerity and emotion in his voice that he overcomes, through sheer force of will, any sense that this might be just a pro-forma message interruption of a thriller narrative. More than that, though, it's such a profoundly admirable speech, simple and direct in its language, not written especially cleverly, but written nonetheless with real feeling for its ideas. And its ideas, as specific as they are to the post-war era, are sadly still relevant in any number of contexts: the idea that prejudice is eternal and simply shifts from one target group to another over time; the idea that the violent form of hatred that results in murder is simply an outgrowth of milder, more prosaic forms of bias and dislike. This latter idea, with the memory of Hitler's extermination program still bracingly fresh, hits especially hard, as a reminder that murder and violence are only the most extreme forms of sentiments that are often widespread in society.
Young gets these messages across brilliantly in this extended sequence, which culminates in his linkage of anti-Semitic sentiments to earlier forms of prejudice against Irish immigrants, suggesting that such virulent hatred can afflict any group. Robert Ryan, as the bigoted Montgomery, with his Irish surname, doesn't get this: he sees only his own closeminded preconceptions about people, and he's so hateful he can barely contain his nasty remarks. He's nearly incapable of hiding his poisoned mind, which reveals itself first in insinuating remarks about "those people." Ryan's sneering, glowering performance is a fine counterpoint to Young's tranquil demeanor and steady progress towards the truth. Ryan plays a man who can seem ordinary or even charming for a few minutes at a time before something much uglier begins leaking out. That he's a soldier, someone who had just returned from fighting a war against one of the vilest, most hateful regimes in history, only deepens the bitter irony — and Ryan, the prototypical square-jawed American, allows the darkness of this character to slowly consume him. As he's gradually revealed as the villain of this story, he inhabits the role more and more fully, until he's captured in a closeup, looming over a fellow soldier, glaring down at him with threatening, angry eyes, his former innocuous manner entirely submerged.
Crossfire is the rare topical film that reaches across time to retain its power in the modern era. The situations it depicts don't feel remote, not by any means, and its direct, unflinching examination of irrational hatred — whether racial, ethnic or sexual — makes it both an important film and an affecting one. For once, the shadows of the noir don't just hide another story of bad dames and greedy men. Instead, what's lurking in the shadows is both more familiar and more frightening: hatred of a man just because of how he was born, violence incubated in feelings of prejudice and bias, the seeds of genocide planted in the minds of seemingly ordinary people who carry around their hatred like loaded guns.