Crossfire

Edward Dmytryk USA | 1947 | 86 mins

Four army buddies - Leroy, Montgomery (Robert Ryan), Floyd and Mitchell - visit a nightclub while on leave. They meet the club's owner, Joseph Samuels and his girlfriend (Gloria Grahame). Mitchell is invited to Samuels' apartment, Floyd and Montgomery following later. There an argument erupts and Montgomery savagely beats Samuels to death. But the police wrongly suspect Mitchell, who doesn't help himself by fleeing the scene and hiding in a cinema, and it's up to Sgt Keeley (Robert Mitchum) to discover the real murderer.

Crossfire, then, is an intriguing combination of a common noir theme - the return of the GI, changed by his wartime experiences, to an America that has itself changed as a consequence of the war, and with questions as to what he fought for - with the liberal-minded message picture. What makes Crossfire's message interesting is the change that its screenwriter made from the source novel. There the prejudice in question was not anti-semitism but homophobia. Probably attributable to both the Studio Code of the time - which placed strict limits on all forms of ‘deviancy' in the movies - and to self-censorship on the part of the film-makers, this change helps show the limits of Hollywood's progressive tendencies at the time. (See also Home of the Brave, Gentleman's Agreement and Pinky)

One factor which perhaps acts against Crossfire's intentions, especially when compared to Orson Welles' subtle characterisation of a Nazi in The Stranger (1946), is Robert Ryan's portrayal of Montgomery as a psychopath. While helping prevent audience identification with the character - I'm not like that; I hope he gets caught - it might also have inhibited the extent to which audiences were forced to examine their own prejudices - so racists are psychopaths, well, I'm not a psychopath so I can't be a racist.

Ironically, though, none of this was enough to prevent director Dmytryk from getting into trouble in the McCarthy witch hunts. The balance between attacking fascist enemies of American democracy aand being understood as a leftist enemy of American democracy was a fine one.

Review by Keith H Brown
Taken from EUFS programme spring 2000