We collect the original writeup and the valuable comments & additional research which followed the appearance of this NOTW. The images originally included in the 2017 post have not been included in this digest.
NOIR OF THE WEEK: CROSSFIRE (1947)
Posted by Don Malcolm on 2/8/2017, 8:35 am
"INTOLERANCE, SUPPORTED BY LOYALTY...PITTED AGAINST SOCIAL JUSTICE..."
Why "creaky," 70-year-old CROSSFIRE is must-see filmmaking in [any year!]
Revered, then reviled--and subjected to a long "frog-in-the-pot" revisionism that privileged an inchoate collision of irony, cul-de-sac formalism and "every man for himself" cinephilia that has ground the collective vision of film into a coarse powder unsuitable even as a "jump-cutting agent"--CROSSFIRE (1947, Edward Dmytryk) is a film that needs to re-emerge from the prison-house of "preachiness" where it has long been incarcerated.
[image of Adrian Scott, Edward Dmytryk and John Paxton, the creative team behind CROSSFIRE]
It didn’t help that Dmytryk, one of the Hollywood Ten, was the only one of those Ten who went back to HUAC at the height of the Blacklist and named names. The unique edge that gives CROSSFIRE a tone and approach differing from virtually all other "social problem noirs"--a fleeting group of films made in the shadowy interregnum between the two versions of the Hollywood Witch Hunt (1947-1951)--never reappeared on film screens.
And now, in 2017, in a USA that bears all the earmarks of the social conditions described by CROSSFIRE’s soon-to-be murder victim (Sam Levene, sneaking in a morsel of the homosexual subtext censored from the film)--a world where festering hate is poised like a puma readying to strike its prey, we need to set aside the inbred inclination to distance aesthetics from politics by forcing each into artificial compartments that are the mental analogue to the USA's "Big Sort."
We need to see that seventy years of on-and-off, frog-in-the-pot social warfare and a concerted effort to provide comfortably numb niches of elitism in every phase of life have left us unable to implement the vision of a nation sustained by diversity. Though CROSSFIRE was not able to encompass all of that into its screenplay--that's asking a LOT for 1947, by the way--it goes about 75% of the way, which was nothing short of a miracle. And it proved to be a short-lived miracle--one whose creators found themselves competing for Academy Awards at the same time they were facing prison sentences at the hands of HUAC.
[image of Robert Ryan as Montgomery shaving, from a sequence in CROSSFIRE]
To watch CROSSFIRE with an open yet critical mind today seems impossible for those with a vested interest in magnifying the "preachy" portions of the film, as if these brief interludes invalidate the spooky, nocturnal world of charged particles that ricochet across its story. Working backward from not wanting to be seen wearing their heart on their sleeves, critics eventually find fault with everything and anything in the film--from a so-called "lack of nuance" in Robert Ryan's portrayal of the racist bully Montgomery, a human time bomb lying in wait for a hate crime, any hate crime--to the "too avuncular" Robert Young, whose character was denied a more dynamic backstory due to the Hays Code's frantic insistence that the film have a stable moral center and thus becomes too consistently a good guy for the tastes of post-modern meta-ironists who've come to insist that every hero be at least a sociopath--until they no can no longer appreciate just how seminal CROSSFIRE's mix of low and high, cynicism and compassion, collective justice and individual self-destructiveness really is.
[image of George Cooper and Gloria Grahame in the nightclub sequence]
Tagging along on the hunt for a hate-murderer, we witness America on the cusp of social change, etched without the knowledge of just how long such change would take and the rapidity with which it would then be taken for granted. We can see that killing the bully--whether he is a bigoted, psychotic soldier or a bigoted, psychotic POTUS--does not address the problem that CROSSFIRE otherwise so masterfully explores. The "preachy" passage in the film sends us fleeing from ourselves, pointing fingers at others, hoping that someone will shoot us as we run so that we won’t have to own up to the task of reforming hate, of accepting collective guilt, of healing society’s flaws.
[image of Paul Kelly from the second apartment scene in CROSSFIRE]
And the way we do that is captured in the strange, premonitory moments found in the eye of CROSSFIRE's hurricane--scenes where a pathetic pathological liar (Paul Kelly) appears in midst of the murder investigation, adding an off-center surreality serving to show that the truth is itself stubbornly suspect and is vulnerable to being rendered hopelessly opaque. Kelly's iron grip on personal possessiveness is a preview of America's emerging culture of emotional selfishness that would slowly encroach upon liberal values, eroding them from within, eventually rendering them querulous and quaint.
[Grahame and Cooper dancing during the nightclub sequence]
The economic hierarchy so suffocatingly prominent in the world today can be glimpsed in CROSSFIRE's single-minded pursuit of prejudice and its cancerous effect on society, and this is what critics use to marginalize its message. The film is uneasy about where its protagonists will go, surrounded by hate and uncertainty and fractured gender roles. American culture is just as uneasy about these things in the present day, divided by a racial backlash that shows that the Montgomerys in this country have become armed with both bullets and a self-enclosing rhetoric. And yet critics still want to sidestep this film, looking for an illusory sugar-coated multi-culturalism while simultaneously looking to insulate themselves from the ravages of a globalized oligopoly.
WHAT we need to do to counteract this is to place CROSSFIRE in the context of social problem-social justice films that don't flinch from the ugly underside of these issues, and to screen it in theaters during 2017, in the way that TCM has done with other, more mainstream films. (It will likely require someone other than that corporatized entity to do so, however--it would be hard to balance social justice with the "lifestyle" exigencies of a "wine club.") [NOTE: TCM did include CROSSFIRE in its February 2017 "31 Days of Oscar" schedule due to its five Oscar nominations--no wins--but the film screened in mid-afternoon, not prime-time, due to an odd decision to alphabetize the master list of films to be screened during this special month of programming.]
Such an effort would require perseverance, but the result just might shift the tenuous dynamics between politics and film by reintroducing a long-lost historical perspective. In that way it would become clear that CROSSFIRE--and many courageous works made at the time: Abraham Polonsky's FORCE OF EVIL (1948); Alfred Werker's LOST BOUNDARIES (1949); Jules Dassin's THIEVES' HIGHWAY (1949); Joseph Losey's pre-Blacklist trio THE LAWLESS (1950), M (1951) and THE PROWLER (1951); Russell Rouse's THE WELL (1951); Herbert Biberman's SALT OF THE EARTH (1954)--captured something that both present-day critics and filmgoers desperately need to re-engage: a collective conscience that opposes the imposition of institutional intolerance, and which refuses to reward loyalty to it by repairing and upholding the banner of social justice as the truest safeguard of freedom and as the liberating agent of self-expression.
[lobby card for CROSSFIRE depicting Robert Ryan in a threatening pose]
Each of the films in above list implores us to push back against the all-too-prevalent reality that “hate is a loaded gun”—but CROSSFIRE was there first. We need to give it its due--and we need to do so now. Watch it again--or for the first time--with open eyes.
CROSSFIRE (RKO, 1947) Director: Edward Dmytryk Producer: Adrian Scott Screenplay: John Paxton from the novel "The Brick Foxhole" by Richard Brooks Photography: J. Roy Hunt
With Robert Young, Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Gloria Grahame, Steve Brodie, Sam Levene, Paul Kelly, Jacqueline White, George Cooper
(The title of this article has been extracted from the original review of CROSSFIRE in the New York Times that appeared on July 23, 1947—written by Bosley Crowther. A notorious curmudgeon who reveled in hatchet jobs, Crowther gave CROSSFIRE a rave.)
Posted by Solomon on 2/9/2017, 6:21 am, in reply to "NOIR OF THE WEEK: CROSSFIRE (1947)"
What do you make of "Gentleman's Agreement", also 1947?
For some further perspective, consider http://www.nytimes.com/1986/03/04/nyregion/yale-s-limit-on-jewish-enrollment-lasted-until-early-1960-s-book-says.html
"Not until 1946 would a Jew become a full professor at Yale College. Not until 1947 did the Corbey Court eating club for law students accept Jews, finally extending membership to a small group that included Robert M. Morgenthau, now the Manhattan District Attorney. And not until 1965 did a Jew become a member of the Yale Corporation, when William Horowitz, a banker in New Haven, was elected to the board that sets university policy."
The kind of anti-Semitism and the reasons for it exhibited by Ryan's character I suspect differ in well-defined respects from that of the Ivy League colleges at that time.
How does the movie explain Ryan's attitude? How do we explain the Ivy League policies of that time? We need to answer the "why" question. Why is Ryan the way he is? Why were Harvard and Yale limiting Jewish enrollments?
Does "Gentleman's Agreement" go into these questions?
Posted by svetov on 2/9/2017, 12:57 pm, in reply to "Re: NOIR OF THE WEEK: CROSSFIRE (1947)"
The film is explicitly about anti-Semitism. Not to say this is to miss the point, I believe. Since the mass murder of European Jews had only occurred two years before that, from 1940-1945, the film is an attempt to deal with this mania, which is very different from racism, at least in the forms for which we use the terminology today. Politically, both the left and the right can adhere to this form of madness. By the way, what does "economic hierarchy" mean in the context of the film? No comprendo.
Posted by Don Malcolm on 2/9/2017, 2:19 pm, in reply to "Re: NOIR OF THE WEEK: CROSSFIRE (1947)"
Not quite right, Marc. The murder in the film is a convenient "hate crime" for Montgomery, who may have committed a different crime if the circumstances were changed. (It's clear that he's a stick of dynamite just waiting to explode--albeit one crafty enough to cover his tracks.) That's the reason for Robert Young's "preachy" stuff at the end of the film--which is to show that hate crimes based on prejudice happen to other social and ethnic groups. (Remember they couldn't talk about homosexuality in 1947, but because of the Holocaust the Hays Office was unable to slam the lid down on them discussing anti-Semitism.)
"Economic hierarchy" in 1947 (and, unfortunately, 2017 as well...) refers to the still-divided sources of wealth and power in America, and the fact that much of the ethnic prejudice comes from white folks who resent others getting a leg up in terms of income and status (heaven forfend that anyone would use the term "class" in America...). That hierarchy looked to be loosening and shifting in the 60s and 70s, but the clampdown first manifested itself in the Reagan/Thatcher regimes and we've been in a strange battle over it ever since. Montgomery and his pals are guys who got to see a lot more of how that hierarchy works than would usually be the case by being in the war, with all of what they saw reinforcing their prejudices and "alternate facts" with which to cope with it. Rather than seeing it for what it is and trying to dismantle it, they lash out against those who appear to be gaining the most from how they are apparently "gaming" the system. Ironically, by creating fear and disruption as a result of their actions, they aid those at the top in retaining control over the economic hierarchy.
Posted by ChiBob on 2/9/2017, 2:42 pm, in reply to "Re: NOIR OF THE WEEK: CROSSFIRE (1947)"
Divide and conquer whether it’s by class, by race, ethnicity, scab versus striker, has always been a hallmark of how those in power maintain their power. Harvey Keitel’s character in Blue Collar mentions this circa 1977. I can’t imagine a similar statement being made in a domestic film today.
The next divide will be the old versus the young as attempts to privatize Social Security are made and Medicare will be “modified”. The plan being that those that have those programs now will keep what they have, as long as “I’ve got mine”, then self - interest will override the future welfare of their children and grandchildren. It’s cynical and morally bankrupt, but there you have it. All the while, those like Montgomery, with their mass of fears and resentments, will continue to be useful tools who might just drag the rest of us down with them.
Posted by Don Malcolm on 2/9/2017, 3:36 pm, in reply to "Re: NOIR OF THE WEEK: CROSSFIRE (1947)"
Yes, and some credit should be given for showing at least one film at NC15 that got semi-explicit about this, but the problem is that the heist scheme that follows is not a credible way to respond to such a realization.
All of which goes to the point of why showing FORCE OF EVIL is the way to connect the most dots for those who are willing to have those dots connected. It's not about self-destructive tendencies from those who are alienated by their realizations, it's about how people rationalize living with (and profiting from) a fatally flawed system.
Posted by Don Malcolm on 2/9/2017, 6:00 pm, in reply to "Re: NOIR OF THE WEEK: CROSSFIRE (1947)"
GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT is a pure "social problem" film, and it is designed to attack anti-Semitism in a way that is much more "civics class"-oriented than CROSSFIRE. Neither film can explore the question of "why" at any level of satisfactory depth, because to do so would stop each film dead in its tracks.
What each film does is go after a revelation of prejudice by indirection--CROSSFIRE slowly brings us back to an attempted cover-up of violent bigotry, while GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT pits its lead character into situations where unspoken prejudice and discrimination become visible, showing that a long-standing tradition of WASP culture was to circle their wagons socially and enforce a kind of "secret upper class" that co-existed alongside the mostly-illusory clichés of the Horatio Alger myth.
The latter film is at its best when it shows how ingrained these unconscious attitudes are, which--as befits a "social problem melodrama"--is revealed most sharply in the relationship between Gregory Peck's character (the impersonator) and Dorothy McGuire's character (whose social standing and blinkered world-view are being disrupted as collateral damage in the wake of Peck's impersonation).
CROSSFIRE shows a wider cross-section of the issue (expanding as it does beyond anti-Semitism) while GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT focuses more on the top-down aspect of the problem and how ordinary people are influenced by what are essentially unspoken dictates.
They make for interesting viewing back-to-back...but, of course, the unspoken truth is that no one would ever go to a movie theater to see either of these films, much less on the same double bill!! :-)
Posted by Dan Hodges on 2/9/2017, 8:58 pm, in reply to "Re: NOIR OF THE WEEK: CROSSFIRE (1947)"
I recommend this book by Peter Roffman and Jim Purdy: Hollywood Social Problem Film: Madness, Despair and Politics from the Depression to the Fifties
Posted by Solomon on 2/10/2017, 5:25 am, in reply to "NOIR OF THE WEEK: CROSSFIRE (1947)"
The abstract of this paper is http://stevenalancarr.pbworks.com/f/sp11_antisemitismandpostwarhollywoodabstract.pdf
Posted by svetov on 2/10/2017, 9:15 am, in reply to "Re: NOIR OF THE WEEK: CROSSFIRE (1947)"
Edited by svetov on 2/10/2017, 9:15 am
Solomon, that is a fascinating compendium by that scholar. Of particular interest in his bibliography is: United States. War Dept. Bureau of Public Relations. "Western Europe in the Wake of World War II, June 17-July 18, 1945, As Seen by a Group of American Motion Picture Industry Executives Visiting the European and Mediterranean Theatre of Operation As Guests of the Military Authorities." By Francis S. Harmon. [Washington DC]: n. p., 1945 - available as a pdf. One needs time to digest it. Thanks for posting it!
Posted by Solomon on 2/10/2017, 12:03 pm, in reply to "Re: NOIR OF THE WEEK: CROSSFIRE (1947)"
Thanks for alerting me to the references and their pdfs. The above one discusses a bunch of Hollywood treatments of Jews, including CROSSFIRE. The American Jewish Committee tried to get Schary, who was Jewish, to cancel it. Their arguments were very weak. Schary debated them and he knew exactly what he was doing with that movie.