Thursday, January 07, 2010

Caught in the Post-War Uproar

Crossfire (1947)
Directed by Edward Dmytryk
Starring: Robert Ryan, Gloria Grahame, Tom Keene, George Cooper, Robert Mitchum, William Phipps
Grade: B -

The actual prejudice depicted in Edward Dmytryk's Crossfire is buried underneath production code pandering and post-war guilt, the homophobic motivation of the killer in Richard Brooks' original novel consigned to the back-burner for a more contextually 'relevant' topic. As the aftermath of World War II highlighted the extent to which Jewish people had been persecuted by Hitler's Germany it comes as little surprise that RKO opted for a more socially-unifiable cause for Crossfire, and that the biggest film of 1947 was Elia Kazan's Gentleman's Agreement, an even more relentless study of anti-semitism in American society.

Crossfire's story of religious prejudice is situated within a similarly domestic arrangement, the murder of an American soldier sparking an investigation and the eventual discovery of bigotry and infidelity among the nation's supposed elite. It's interesting that both films target the upper hierarchy, and both feel completely "responsible" for helping its nation handle issues at the top, where it matters. Gentleman's Agreement in particular reveals its burdened sense of responsibility through stuffy, trepidated exchanges; Crossfire's problems arise from not having a complete handle on the subject, understandable given that the book was never about anti-semitism in the first place.

As Gaspar Noe circled around the events of Irreversible with the swooping intent of a hungry vulture, Dmytryk navigates the darkness in his suspect set of characters with a less dizzying but damningly effective fervour, the opening shot of the film a haunting silhouette of a clunking, clumsy murder, succeeded by vignettes of interviews and flashbacks of the kind where you're expecting a wavy transition. Dmytryk doesn't beat around the bush, delivering the noir setup and raising questions, and for the first half it works well. Gloria Grahame in particular delivers a delicious performance as a 'woman of the night'.

At times it feels like a lesser prologue to Welles' Touch of Evil, with its wannabe denseness and evening chaos, but as a mystery/thriller Crossfire has an engaging but hardly rousing plot, and so when it comes to introducing the anti-semitism we're into a distinct anti-climax. The promise of earlier dissipates into a "How will we hoodwink the killer into revealing himself?", (aided considerably by a brilliant turn from Tom Keene as the adamant detective) but the final act flounders with the absence of violence, mystery, and the captivating Grahame. Howard Hawks' Scarface had similar stumbling blocks; Crossfire becomes less impacting and more matter-of-fact when too conscious of delivering its issue, and sadly that plagues the latter half of this otherwise intriguing venture.

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