Director: Edward Dmytryk
Screenwriter: John Paxton
Adapted from: The Brick Foxhole by Richard Brooks
Cast: Robert Young, Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Gloria Grahame, Sam Levene
Nominations: Picture, Director – Edward Dmytryk, Supporting Actor – Robert Ryan, Supporting Actress – Gloria Grahame, Adapted Screenplay
We’re too used to fighting. But we just don’t know what to fight. You can feel the tension in the air. A whole lot of fight and hate that doesn’t know where to go.Joseph Samuels, Crossfire
For a low-budget, quickly shot film starring second-tier studio actors (that is, no big-name stars), Crossfire pulls no punches, slamming us in the gut with its timely—and still relevant—social consciousness. In fact, Crossfire being a B movie, with minimal set decoration and sparse lighting, better emphasizes the film’s anti-Semitic message, because there’s little else going on in the background to take attention away from the plot and narrative. That’s not to say the film is of low quality, just that it successfully uses its shortcomings to their full advantages.
The visual aesthetic of Crossfire is decidedly straight noir: from director of photography J. Roy Hunt’s low-key lighting to screenwriter John Paxton’s ambiguous characterizations to director Edward Dmytryk’s straightforward direction. However, it becomes much more of a social problem/message film once the murderer’s motive is revealed. While not as earnest and sentimental as its Best Picture cohort (and winner) Gentleman’s Agreement (Elia Kazan, 1947), Crossfire is more direct with its theme of the ignorance of hate, bigotry, and anti-Semitism. That candor—stemming from cautionary films of the 1930 and 1940s, such as Reefer Madness (Louis J. Gasnier, 1936) and I Accuse My Parents (Sam Newfield, 1944)—as well as its B movie status, proved to be eminently imitable as numerous subsequent B movies used its approach as a way to be more tantalizing and exploitive—an indication, perhaps, that the true message and purpose of Crossfire was lost on some.
Having seen Gentleman’s Agreement, I much prefer Crossfire’s treatment of anti-Semitism. Of course, a B movie from a financially declining RKO Pictures, and produced and directed by two of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten (Adrian Scott and Dmytryk, respectively) didn’t stand much of a chance winning Best Picture against a legend of a producer and a universally acclaimed theatre director (Darryl F. Zanuck and Elia Kazan, respectively—Kazan, in fact, won a Tony for his direction of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons six months before Gentleman’s Agreement was released). Where Gentleman’s Agreement can come off as pretentious because of its pedigree, Crossfire is unflinching and direct: hate is hate, not some easily impolite habit that can shamed away. At about seventeen minutes in, we’re clued in that this film is going to be more than just a noir whodunit mystery about the military and police butting heads over an investigation as Finley questions Monty about Samuels.
This isn’t subtlety or tiptoeing: this is an in-your-face confrontation. It’s uncomfortable in a way that grabs our attention and forces us to watch every scene and character with more scrutiny from then on. Finley does get, debatably, preachy late in the film as he’s tasked with emphasizing to the audience the central theme, but he does so in a way that isn’t judgmental or critical of anyone. His words come from a place of observation, not analysis: as he tells Keeley during their first meeting, “Nothing interests me anymore.” It’s a testament to the reality of life. Just because one man who hates Jews is taken care of doesn’t mean the problem is erased let alone solved. So long as distrust of “the other” is taught and allowed, that distrust can’t go away.
It’s a constant battle that requires all of us to do our part. We need to do what we can to not become, at the extreme, an uncaring bigot; but we also have to do just as much to not become as jaded as Finley seems. Still, it’s important to keep in mind to not fight hate with hate. We can’t be a part of the titular crossfire that only results in more hate and bigotry and evil.