‘Crossfire’ or — The United States of Genocide?

‘Crossfire’ (1947) opens with a shockingly brutal killing. We don’t see it occur (thank god) as the screen is almost pitch-black, but we hear it and that’s even worse (oh no!). What little light slices the screen reveals only the legs of two men in uniform fleeing the crime. The immediate suspects are a group of recently demobilised soldiers and when one of their wallets, belonging to a soldier called Mitch, is discovered at the murder scene then police Inspector Finlay (Robert Young) is convinced there’s a connection with the group, although he doesn’t quite know what that connection is.

Meanwhile Sergeant Keeley (Robert Mitchum) is convinced that although his group of soldiers were involved with the killing that Mitch isn’t the guy Finlay is after and so sets out to do some investigating of his own and, more importantly, clear his friend’s name.

Alibis are checked but these frequently further muddy the waters as no clear motive is being revealed. Why was this man, a man called Joseph Samuels, killed? Was it for money? Was it revenge? Was it even about sex as there are intimations of all sorts of fluid liaisons going on throughout (in the original book the victim was a homosexual and traces of that still linger in the film)? None of the reasons seem to fit until our suspicions perk up at the causal mention of a single word casually spat out — “Jew”.

Director Edward Dmytryk made two of my favourite noirs — ‘Murder, My Sweet’ (1944) and ‘The Sniper’ (1952). He manages to keep everything focused, tight and with just the right amount of style at play and that’s certainly the case with ‘Crossfire’ as a murder-hunt conducted in high contrast lighting and evocative compositions reveals a host of churning, yet nebulous, relationships, tensions, desires and hatreds. There is more than enough going on here to capture attentions and fire up thinking processes, even if it’s incredibly easy to identify who the killer actually is (that’s explicit from the get-go). But trying to figure out just where this movie is going? Well, that’s another matter entirely.

However, at one point I was worried ‘Crossfire’ might take the easy cop-out so many of these films can and that’s declare that any murderous, racist urges were the result of the trauma of War, that this was something exported back to the States from foreign, blood-soaked battlefields. But no! In an eye-opening speech Inspector Finlay talks about the persecution and killings of Irish Catholics in America a hundred years ago, essentially stating that the U.S.A. has always carried this darkness within itself. But it doesn’t stop there as we can feel the carriages of this train of thought shunting still further back — before the Irish there were the horrors of slavery and, before that, the wholesale genocide of a native population. This is not a warning but an exposé as, whichever way you cut it, anti-Semitism in America cannot be blamed on anyone else or any other foreign power. It’s an incredibly direct and powerful message and one that vitally needed (and still does) to be said, especially as America now found itself the most powerful nation on Earth after the War. Is this the birth of a bully we’re witnessing?

Yet this raises an interesting issue regarding ‘Crossfire’ as I wasn’t sure if I was watching a film noir with a powerful message or a message movie in the taut and tight garb of a noir (if this is a message film then can you imagine the full-blown, three course meal some other directors might’ve made of it?)?

Ultimately, though, none of that matters as this is still an excellent movie and one with a fantastic and atmospheric look. Robert Mitchum is decent enough as Keeley and Gloria Grahame is great as a mysterious woman with a weird “husband” (let’s face it — isn’t he her pimp?), although it is Robert Ryan (this is the film of the three ‘R’s although it is technically four if you include Ryan’s last name) who steals the show as a highly unsettling coil of barely hidden venom and contempt.

There are aspects of decency here as not everyone is hate-filled (good people do exist in this world) and there’s the sense that bigotry and racism might be the aberration as opposed to the norm, but if it is an aberration than it is one that certainly exists and it is, by no means, restricted to villainous dictatorships or openly fascist regimes. In this case it is a totally homemade, all-American product.

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Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.

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Colin Edwards

Colin Edwards

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.

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