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Crossfire (1947), one of the best film noirs to come out of RKO Studios, is a film of many firsts. It was executive producer Dore Schary's first film for RKO (he would take over as chief of production at MGM in 1948). It was based on Richard Brooks' first novel, The Brick Foxhole, written while he was still in the Marines (he later became a Hollywood screenwriter/director). And it brought first time Oscar® nominations to both Robert Ryan and Gloria Grahame in supporting roles and to Edward Dmytryk for his direction. At the same time, Crossfire marked the last time Dmytryk and his producer Adrian Scott would work together after collaborating on such popular movies as Murder, My Sweet (1944) and Cornered (1945); both men would be called before the House Un-American Activities Committee after completing Crossfire and blacklisted for refusing to answer questions about their alleged Communist Party affiliations.
According to Dmytryk in his autobiography It's a Hell of a Life But Not a Bad Living, it was Adrian Scott who optioned the novel The Brick Foxhole for the screen: "It was a loose, rambling story of the frustrations of stateside soldiers at the end of the war. The book had a number of subplots, one of which concerned the murder of a homosexual by a sadistic bigot. Adrian had an inspiration: What if the murder and its aftermath were the whole spine of the story, and what if the victim was a heterosexual Jew? We could do at least a partial study of bigotry - particularly as it relates to anti-Semitism - and nothing like that had ever been done in Hollywood before."
At first Dore Schary was skeptical of the project. Despite his reputation for championing "message films," he felt that Crossfire would not appeal to the average moviegoer (this was based on a poll that showed only an eight percent interest by those polled). He also felt it would attract the unwanted attention of HUAC due to its controversial subject matter - anti-Semitism. Even with these qualms, however, the project was approved. In exchange for the relatively high cost of the name cast, which included Robert Young, Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan, the shooting schedule was reduced to an economic timeline of twenty days. Yet, thanks to cinematographer J. Roy Hunt, the film's atmospheric low-key lighting was accomplished quickly and efficiently resulting in one of the most visually impressive film noirs ever. Regarding Hunt, Dmytryk said, "In 1947 he was almost seventy. He had gotten into pictures about Year One by building his own camera, and he had never stopped inventing. Half the improvements on RKO's special sound camera - the best in the business at that time - were of his design...Because of Roy's speed in lighting, we were also able to reverse the usual statistics on time of preparing versus time of shooting. On the average short-schedule film, setting up and lighting take five to ten times as long as the actual shooting. On Crossfire, my actors and I were in action at least twice as long as Hunt and his crew."
The dark, pessimistic look and tone of Crossfire was further enhanced by a career-making performance by Robert Ryan as Montgomery, a psychotic racist whose hatred of Jews was terrifying to behold. "Ryan's powerful performance resists the kind of neat, limiting social classification that the film wants to attach to his sickness," Foster Hirsch wrote in The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir. "He plays with an intensity that transcends the film's own boundaries as a liberal social document." Yet, despite the acclaim and an Oscar® nomination for Best Supporting Actor (he lost to Edmund Gwenn in Miracle on 34th Street), Ryan had mixed feelings about Crossfire. In some ways, he felt the movie contributed to his being typecast as a villain for most of his career and tried to distance himself from it in later interviews. Instead, he preferred to point to his performance as the washed-up boxer in the film noir drama, The Set-Up (1949), as his best work.
Equally impressive in Crossfire, though in smaller roles, are Sam Levene as the murder victim, Gloria Grahame as a pathetic barfly, and Paul Kelly as her bitter ex-husband, a dishonorably discharged soldier. Crossfire marked a real turning point in Grahame's career, one that earned her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. Grahame later said "Strangely, it was a dialogue director, Bill Watts on Crossfire, who first made me realize how to play movies. It's thinking. I was doing my hair for a scene and he said, forget the hair. And he started talking, and I forgot the hair, the makeup and everything. All he did was talk to me about who the character was, where she was, what she was until I was so immersed in what it was all about. After that, maybe I just did it for myself" (From Suicide Blonde by Vincent Curcio).
Robert Mitchum, who lends a quiet authority to Crossfire in his role as the cynical sergeant who helps with the murder investigation, was on his way to major stardom in 1947. He had recently been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar® in Story of G.I. Joe (1945) and would soon be reaping critical acclaim for his work in Out of the Past and Pursued, both released the same year as Crossfire. But during the filming of Crossfire, Mitchum pretended not to care too much about acting and was quite the prankster, tormenting cast and crew members with the new air-powered BB gun he just bought. "Steve Brodie, who played Floyd Flowers in the film, got shot in the leg. It gave him a huge bruise that he said lasted forever," according to Lee Server in Robert Mitchum: Baby I Don't Care. "Dmytryk's status didn't exempt him from becoming another target. "I was sitting on the set and it hit me right in the fanny. Shot by a BB gun. I looked around and caught Bob standing on the sidelines pretending not to be there."
Thanks to Dmytryk's tight shooting schedule Crossfire managed to beat a similar-themed film about anti-Semitism - Gentleman's Agreement - to the theatres and stole some of the latter film's thunder, but not in the Oscar® race. At the 1947 Academy Awards ceremony, Gentleman's Agreement won three of its seven nominations including Best Picture; Crossfire didn't win any awards despite five nominations. Still, the film was a critical success and a box office hit for RKO. And its theme is still relevant today. Regarding this, Dmytryk wrote in his autobiography, that "After our rough-cut showing to the sound and music department, one of the young assistant sound cutters, an Argentine, complimented me on the picture.
"It's such a fine suspense story," he said. "Why did you have to bring in that stuff about anti-Semitism?"
"That was our chief reason for making the film," I answered.
"But there is no anti-Semitism in the United States," he protested. "If there were, why is all the money in America controlled by Jewish bankers?" I stared at him in astonishment. "That's why we made the film" was all I could think of to say."
Producer: Dore Schary, Adrian Scott
Director: Edward Dmytryk
Screenplay: Richard Brooks (novel), John Paxton
Cinematography: J. Roy Hunt
Film Editing: Harry Gerstad
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino, Alfred Herman
Music: Roy Webb
Cast: Robert Young (Capt. Finlay), Robert Mitchum (Sgt. Peter Keeley), Robert Ryan (Montgomery), Gloria Grahame (Ginny Tremaine), Paul Kelly (Mr. Tremaine), Sam Levene (Joseph Samuels).
BW-86m. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford