I am a devoted fan of Robert Mitchum, droopy eyes, awesome walk and all. I am also very enthusiastic about film noir (not surprising, since a large portion of Mitchum’s work was noir). Crossfire, made just two years after the end of World War II, focusses on a largely ignored consequence of the war: the sudden demobilisation of soldiers—men who, after years of knowing exactly whom they were supposed to hate, suddenly found themselves with no target for all that festering anger and hatred.
This is a taut, suspenseful film, but also a thought-provoking one, and perhaps a little ahead of its time.
It begins in a room, where in a sudden flurry of shadows, with a lamp being knocked over, a man being hit, and two men swiftly leaving the room—a murder is committed. The police, led by Captain Finlay (Robert Young) arrive when the alarm is raised by a woman, Miss Lewis (Marlo Dwyer) who had a date with the dead man, Joseph Samuels (Sam Levene). Miss Lewis, who was Samuels’s girlfriend, tells Finlay she last saw Samuels at the hotel bar, where he’d been talking to three soldiers.
Finlay also discovers a clue: a wallet that’s slipped down behind a sofa cushion. The name on the wallet is that of a Corporal Arthur Mitchell.
When they’ve finished questioning Miss Lewis, Finlay orders one of his officers to drive her home. The man opens the front door to find a soldier outside, just about to enter. This is Sergeant `Monty’ Montgomery (Robert Ryan). He tells Finlay he’s looking for a buddy who’d been in this apartment earlier that evening. Finlay tells Monty to come along to the station, and sends someone to find Mitchell `Mitch’.
Mitch and the rest of his detachment are currently stationed at the Stewart Hotel, in the process of being demobilised. The Military Police aren’t able to find Mitch—nobody knows where he is—but they find the man who shares Mitch’s room: Sergeant Peter Keeley (Robert Mitchum). Keeley is told the cops want to talk him about Mitch killing Samuels, so Keeley goes to the station.
Keeley tells Finlay that Mitch couldn’t kill a man. He also tells him that Mitch used to be an artist before the war, and that the violence and horror of war has taken its toll on him. Mitch’s wife, whom Keeley talked to on the phone earlier that day, is on her way to meet Mitch. “He needs his wife,” says Keeley.
While Keeley’s talking to Finlay, Monty arrives. He admits that he and three other soldiers, including Mitch, a guy called Floyd Bowers (Steve Brodie), and Bowers’s friend, Leroy (William Phipps), had been at the bar earlier that evening. A minor accident—a drink nudged by Leroy (Monty calls him `a dumb hillbilly’)—onto Miss Lewis’s dress got the men talking.
Leroy went off, and since Bowers was in a chatty mood, Monty got busy listening to him. When Monty next noticed, Mitch was going off with Samuels, to Samuels’s room.
“I figured that if that Jew-boy was setting up the drinks someplace, we might as well be getting in on it,” says Monty, as an explanation for why he and Bowers went to Samuels’s room. He goes on to talk about how he and Bowers began helping themselves to drinks in Samuels’s room, until Mitch, who was also there, began feeling sick and left the room.
Monty echoes Keeley’s conviction that Mitchell couldn’t have murdered Samuels; he just wasn’t capable of it. But Monty also does nothing to conceal his contempt for Samuels. He believes firmly that Samuels was of the type that `played it safe during the war’ and wriggled out of being conscripted—they are the guys, says Monty, with the `swell apartments and the swell dames’. He doesn’t say it in so many words, but he makes it fairly clear that the type he’s talking about is Jews.
Finlay is obviously somewhat disgusted by Monty, and Keeley tells Finlay (after Monty’s left) that Monty is a liar and not to be trusted.
Back at the hotel, Keeley tells his men to go out onto the streets, find Mitch and keep him away from the cops thronging the Stewart Hotel.
Keeley is sitting and guzzling coffee at the bar when Mitch (George Cooper) walks in. One of his colleagues creates a diversion and before the cops and the Military Police know it, Keeley and his men have spirited Mitch off. Keeley takes Mitch to all-night movie theatre, and once Mitch is safely ensconced in the balcony, tells him to spill the beans.
Mitch is confused and bewildered, but his story is more or less the same as Monty’s. He’d gotten sick of listening to Monty speaking at the bar, says Mitch, and so he moved off. Samuels began talking to him, and Mitch found himself liking the man. So much so, says Monty, that Samuels invited Mitch to dine with him and Miss Lewis. The rest—Mitch going to Samuels’s room, Monty and Bowers gate crashing, Mitch feeling sick and leaving—happened as Monty described it.
But Mitch has an addendum: what happened after he left Samuels’s room. He tells Keeley he went to a bar, where he met a blonde called Ginny (Gloria Grahame). She reminded him of his wife, and he got talking to her—then danced with her in the pub’s backyard. Ginny invited him to come over to her apartment and she’d make him some spaghetti. Mitch agreed, and since Ginny wouldn’t be home for a few hours yet (she `works’ at the pub—at what, we can guess), she gave him the key to her apartment.
So Mitch went to Ginny’s empty apartment, where, exhausted as he was, he went to sleep. When he woke, it was to open the door to a stranger. This man (Paul Kelly) told Mitch he was Ginny’s husband; then that he wasn’t, but loved her and wanted her to marry him; and then that he couldn’t possibly love Ginny, but she was a good source of income.
At this point, Mitch was getting more and more confused; and then he remembered that Keeley had told him to come back to the Stewart Hotel by midnight (which, as Mitch doesn’t yet know, was because Mitch’s wife would have arrived). So Mitch came back—and was grabbed by Keeley and gang.
Back in the present, Leroy (Monty’s `Tennessee hick’) comes rushing into the theatre with another soldier. They have news for Keeley: Leroy’s found Floyd Bowers, who’s in an apartment on Maryland Avenue, appears scared, and needs money. Keeley tells Mitch to stay put at the theatre, while he goes with Leroy and the other man to find Floyd.
Meanwhile, on Maryland Avenue, Floyd and Monty are having an argument. Floyd is all nerves. His hands tremble when he tries to light a cigarette, and he’s almost getting hysterical. From their conversation, one thing becomes apparent: both Monty and Floyd know something about Samuels’s death. I can smell a rat here.
Much more happens in Crossfire. Through the night, Finlay chases clues, interrogates everybody from Ginny to Mitch’s wife, and finally joins hands with Keeley in an effort to get to the truth. The motive becomes obvious to both of them fairly soon, and with the motive, they realise who the culprit is—but there is no evidence to pin down the suspect. And in the meantime, there’s been another murder…
Overall, a very good film. Great noir, of course, but also with a moral angle to it: the hatred that racial and religious discrimination can engender. Except for one minor lapse where it gets a little melodramatic and preachy, it’s well handled.
What I liked about this film:
The characterisation. All the characters—especially Monty, Finlay, Mitch and Ginny—are well drawn, believable, three-dimensional people. And the acting is uniformly good: Robert Ryan especially is very good as Monty: he had me hating him heart and soul. I’ll probably need to see a film with Robert Ryan as the hero in order to try and get to like him.
The plot itself: it’s simple, but isn’t actually a whodunit. About midway through the film, it’s obvious who killed Samuels, but the lack of proof—and how Finlay solves that problem—makes it gripping till the very end.
The premise. Anti-Semitism was a sore point in the US even in the 1940’s, and to have made this film at the time shows, I think, a laudable progressiveness.
What I didn’t like:
Too little Robert Mitchum! Though I thought the other two Roberts—Ryan and Young—were excellent, they actually had much more of a role to play in this film than Mitchum. That, as far as I’m concerned, is not a happy situation. Sigh.
And yes, there is a longish speech by Finlay towards the end which is a little too `in your face’. I guess I’m used to that sort of thing in Hindi cinema, but it came as a surprise in Hollywood. It’s slightly incongruous, given the brisk, business-like tone of the rest of the film, but all right: it’s forgivable.
Little bit of trivia:
I thought Ittefaq (made in 28 days) was a record of some sort. Crossfire beats that: this one was made in 20 days.
See it. It’s a well-made noir film, with lots of thrills and enough mystery, but an intelligent, somewhat offbeat, and definitely praiseworthy basis to the plot.