CROSSFIRE is not your ordinary Film Noir. Written by John Paxton based on a novel The Brick Foxhole by Richard Brooks (who would later become a writer/director of films like ELMER GANTRY and THE PROFESSIONALS), CROSSFIRE deals not only with war veterans struggling to return to ordinary life but with racism particularly anti-semitism. No stranger to the Film Noir genre, Dmytryk (who directed 1944'S MURDER, MY SWEET based on Raymond Chandler's novel) casts a who's who of Film Noir actors in CROSSFIRE including the three Robert's. He gives us Robert Mitchum (OUT OF THE PAST, THE BIG STEAL), Robert Ryan (THE SET UP, ON DANGEROUS GROUND), Robert Young (SECRET AGENT), and my favorite Film Noir femme fatale Gloria Grahame (IN A LONELY PLACE, THE BIG HEAT).
CROSSFIRE is a taut, briskly plotted Film Noir that begins like a punch to the gut ... literally. We see a man brutally beaten in an apartment. The killer is hidden in the dark, a lamp knocked over so we can't see the perpetrator. The killer grabs another semi-conscious man slumped on the sofa and they flee the murder scene. Investigating the murder is pipe smoking police detective Captain Finlay (Robert Young). He has few clues until a soldier named Montgomery (Robert Ryan) shows up at the door looking for his friend Corporal Arthur Mitchell (George Cooper). Mitchell's wallet is found on the sofa. Montgomery tells Finlay that Mitchell had an argument with the dead man named Joseph Samuels (Sam Levene) earlier that evening at a bar.
One of Mitchell's buddies not at the bar with him is Sgt. Peter Keeley (Robert Mitchum). Keeley is playing cards in Mitchell's room at the Stewart Hotel. Keeley is called in to be questioned by Finlay and learns Mitchell was out with Montgomery, not one of Keeley's favorite people. Keeley begins playing detective on his own separate from Finlay's investigation. Keeley sends the rest of the soldiers playing cards out to find Mitchell. Director Dmytryk provides flashbacks and differing viewpoints of the night in question from Montgomery, another soldier Floyd Bowers (Steve Brodie), and later Mitchell. We see soldiers Montgomery, Mitchell, and Floyd have a few drinks at a bar. The dead man Samuels is at the bar with his girlfriend Miss Lewis (Marlo Dwyer). Another soldier Leroy (William Phipps) spills a drink on Miss Lewis who leaves to change. Mitchell is having trouble readjusting to civilian life. He's homesick for his wife Mary Mitchell (Jacqueline White). Samuels notices Mitchell's anxiety. They talk and Samuels invites Mitchell back to his apartment for a drink. Montgomery and Floyd follow and invite themselves in.
Back in the present, Mitchell shows up at the hotel, staked out by Finlay, unaware of what's transpired. Keeley's men cause a diversion and Keeley whisks Mitchell out of the hotel to a dark movie theater. Keeley warns Mitchell that Montgomery is trying to pin a murder on him. But Mitchell can't recall the evening. Flashbacks take us on Mitchell's journey from the bar to Samuel's apartment and after. Mitchell shows up at a club called the Red Dragon where he meets a prostitute Ginny Tremaine (Gloria Grahame) from Virginia. They dance and kiss. She feels sorry for Mitchell and gives him a key to her apartment where he falls asleep. He's awakened by a mysterious man (Paul Kelly) who turns out to be Ginny's ex-husband Mr. Tremaine. Mitchell flees Ginny's apartment. Keeley tells Mitchell to stay put at the theater.
Finley knows Keeley is also trying to find the killer and convinces Keeley to work with him. Mitchell's wife Mary arrives in Washington D.C. Keeley tells Finlay and Mary they can find Mitchell at the theater. Mitchell recounts his night at Ginny's. Finlay and Mary go to Ginny's apartment to check on his alibi. At first, Ginny's not cooperative but she and her ex husband confirm Mitchell was at her apartment. With Mitchell's whereabouts cleared, Finlay sets a trap, cleverly tricking the killer into showing up at an apartment where he had strangled Floyd, the one eyewitness to Samuel's murder.
CROSSFIRE has many interesting angles that make it a cut above most Film Noirs. Set in Washington D.C. (home of the military and our nation's capital) it shows us demobilized soldiers, back in the real world after WWII but still serving their country, many wearing their civilian uniforms. But some of these soldiers came back with psychological wounds from the war. Arthur Mitchell is melancholy, homesick. He hasn't seen his wife since he returned and he's nervous and anxious about it, drinking himself into a stupor. Montgomery has anger issues with a racist bent. Whether Montgomery is spewing hate toward the Jewish bar patron Samuels or his fellow southern soldier Leroy for his Tennessee drawl, he's a powder keg ready to blow. Even Ginny's ex-husband Mr. Tremaine seems troubled, disillusioned. He enlisted to escape her but he can't live without her.
Dishonorably discharged, Mr. Tremaine hangs around, knowing his wife is a tramp (his words not mine).
I liked that we have two parallel detective stories going on in CROSSFIRE, one by the police and one by the suspect's friend. Capt. Finlay is calm, procedural as he smokes his pipe and methodically tracks the clues and interviews witnesses. But Mitchell's friend Keeley also begins investigating, not trusting either Finlay or the key witness Montgomery to save his friend's neck. Only when Keeley finds Mitchell and learns the truth does he need to unite with Finlay to catch the killer. Usually murders in Film Noirs are committed for lust or money. But CROSSFIRE introduces a new motive, a hate crime, a rare subject for a late 1940s movie.
Interestingly, in the novel, the victim is a homosexual, killed by a homophobic soldier. But the Hays Code which enforced decency in motion pictures protested that story point so the character was changed to a Jewish man in CROSSFIRE and the soldier a racist. You can see subtle hints of the homosexual storyline as Samuels goes over to talk to Mitchell at the bar and later invites him back to his apartment for a drink. But the filmmakers give Samuels a girlfriend (Miss Lewis). The three of them are supposed to go out for dinner but Leroy spills a drink on Miss Lewis and she leaves to change. Samuels was also in WWII (honorably discharged after getting wounded) so he recognizes Mitchell's anguish as he settles back into society after four long years of war.
Racism is still a strong theme to tackle for a Film Noir like CROSSFIRE. The filmmakers pepper the movie with strong statements about intolerance. When Montgomery complains to Finlay about people who played it safe (meaning they didn't enlist) "Some of 'em are named Samuels, some of 'em have funnier names" Keeley responds to Finlay "He oughta look at a casualty list sometime. There's a lot of funny names there, too." Finlay later ruminates that "Ignorant men hate what they don't know." But Finlay's most powerful speech comes when he tries to convince Leroy to help them catch the killer. Finlay draws from his own experience dealing with hate. "My grandfather was killed just because he was an Irish Catholic. Hating is always the same, always senseless. One day it kills Irish Catholics, the next day Jews, the next day Protestants, the next day Quakers. It's hard to stop. It can end up killing people who wear striped neckties."
The three Robert's -- Young, Mitchum, and Ryan - are superb in CROSSFIRE. I remember Robert Young who plays pipe smoking detective Finlay when he was older as Dr. Marcus Welby in TVs MARCUS WELBY, M.D. (1969-1976). But Young had been a leading man in the 30s and 40s, appearing in Alfred Hitchcock's SECRET AGENT even. As Finlay, Young brings a measured coolness to his character. He doesn't jump to conclusions or burst out in anger when Keeley interferes with his investigation. He waits for the facts to sort themselves out. CROSSFIRE is one of Robert Mitchum's earlier films. Produced by RKO, CROSSFIRE may have been the springboard to leading man status for Mitchum as he would appear in his breakout role as Jeff in Jacques Tourneur's 1947 Film Noir classic OUT OF THE PAST (also by RKO).
And no actor (except maybe Michael Douglas) has played more morally conflicted, agonized characters than Robert Ryan. Whether as the brutal cop in ON DANGEROUS GROUND (1952) or the conflicted lawman chasing his old partners in THE WILD BUNCH (1969), Ryan was perfect at playing conflicted men. In CROSSFIRE, it's a role of a lifetime as the racist soldier Montgomery. Ryan told the book's author Richard Brooks he would play the role of Montgomery because he knew bigots like him. In real life, Ryan was an active civil rights champion, nothing like his character Montgomery.
And then there's the beautiful, seductive Gloria Grahame in one of her best roles as Ginny Tremaine. With her pouty lips and blonde hair, Grahame could make a man do almost anything in a Film Noir film. Grahame only has a couple of scenes in CROSSFIRE but she's mesmerizing, one moment sexy and flirtatious, the next moment an alley cat with her claws out. Grahame stood out in a minor role as George Bailey's childhood friend Violet in Frank Capra's IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946) and went on to bigger roles in Nicholas Ray's IN A LONELY PLACE (1950) opposite Humphrey Bogart and Vincent Minnelli's THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (1952) with Kirk Douglas. in which she took home an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. One other actor to note is Paul Kelly as Ginny's current or ex-husband (we're never quite sure) Mr. Tremaine. In any other Film Noir, Kelly would be the man committing murder to have Grahame. In CROSSFIRE, Kelly's Tremaine is a pathetic man who watches different men come into his ex-wife's apartment. He observes but does nothing, having once been one of those men himself. But Kelly's Tremaine manages to do a decent thing amongst all the terrible things that transpire that night. It's a small but memorable role.
Director Dmytryk and his cinematographer J. Roy Hunt give CROSSFIRE the Film Noir look with a brutal murder silhouetted in black, low lighting spilling through bannisters and stairs painting the walls like prison bars, and plenty of dark streets and police offices. CROSSFIRE was a delight to discover and should be ranked higher on Film Noir lists as one of the best of the genre. With a knockout cast and crackerjack dialogue, CROSSFIRE is a must see for its mystery as well as tackling a social issue not covered much in movies let alone a Film Noir movie in 1947.