Monday, June 15, 2015

Summer of Darkness: Crossfire(1947)

The classic period of film noir, as it's generally understood, came of age in the postwar years, counteracting the optimism most Americans seemed to be feeling with the fatalistic cynicism of a country who had just seen hell. Sure, things looked bright and cheery now, but it's hard to forget the nightmares and atrocities so recently committed. It's no coincidence that many of the early film noir directors were refugees from Hitler's Germany. Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Robert Siodmak all fled to Hollywood prior to the war, and their styles and preoccupations came with them. Almost all film noir, however, carried those weights with them, in either literal or more ethereal stylistic ways. Few, however, are as direct in their dealings with the horrors of World War Two as Crossfire.

That is not to say that Crossfire is a searing and nightmarish depiction of a world at war. Quite the opposite, actually. The film bears very little in the way of the trademark stoicism and resignation traditional to film noir, and instead embraces the optimism of post war America while also acknowledging the presence of the shadows. Crossfire deals with the attempts of police detective Finlay(Robert Young) to piece together the brutal killing of a Jewish man, where the only three suspects are servicemen back from the war. Mitch(George Cooper) is the initial prime suspect, having been seen last with the dead man, and being blind drunk to boot. Montgomery(Robert Ryan) plays a faintly antisemitic soldier who attempts to defend Mitch, and Sgt. Keeley(Robert Mitchum, rounding out the trifecta) lends his even handed judgment to Finlay's attempts to find the killer. 

Crossfire is a message movie, and handles it's subject matter bluntly and directly. Joseph Samuels was killed simply because he was Jewish, and the film's goal is to let us know why that's a tragedy. It would be easy today to look back and poke apart the film's simplistic moral, it's heavy handedness, or the direct way it conveys it's points, but it's important to remember when this came out. Crossfire premiered less than two years after the end of WWII, when much of the audience would have been returning soldiers, or their families. The worries presented here would have been very current, and it's easy to see why the filmmakers felt so compelled to impart this wisdom.

But again, this film isn't a miserablist bit of finger wagging. The film believes in the innate goodness of people. OK, of the innate goodness of Americans, at least. The military and other authorities are all depicted as morally upstanding and kind, with only Montgomery acting as the rare bad apple. The audience stand-in is most likely the character of Leroy(William Phipps), and as Finlay lays out the films grand statement, that bigotry and blind hatred are as dangerous as bullets in a gun, he speaks directly to us, the audience, through Leroy. Leroy is us; maybe a bit dull, but generally wishing to do good and follow the path of righteousness, but also too eager to follow the wrong leader at times.

The film may begin and end in the shadows, with a brutal killing on both sides, but in the middle comes the day. As Finlay reaffirms the ideals of America just after the nightmare of a worldwide war, the Declaration of Independence is framed just over his shoulder, and behind him the large windows show the sun shining on the Capitol Building. 

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