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Tag Archives: J. Roy Hunt

Crossfire (July 22, 1947)

Crossfire
Crossfire (1947)
Directed by Edward Dmytryk
RKO Radio Pictures

In 1947, social-issue pictures were starting to come out of Hollywood that tackled a formerly taboo subject — antisemitism.

This might not seem like such a big deal today, but it was a big deal at the time.

No matter how artful or moving some of its products are, the film industry is still a business, and any subject that challenges the status quo or that might hurt ticket sales is extremely difficult to make a film about. And despite the fact that in the ’40s the majority of studio heads were Jewish, they preferred to release films that depicted a homogenous, idealized vision of America.

Richard Brook’s 1945 novel The Brick Foxhole is about a homosexual who is beaten to death by his fellow Marines. Producer Adrian Scott convinced the studio bosses at RKO Radio Pictures that an adaptation of the book would pass muster with the production code if the gay character in the novel were changed to a Jewish character.

Crossfire is a social-issue picture wrapped in a murder mystery. It’s likely that many ticket buyers didn’t realize the film would contain a message about antisemitism, and were attracted by the “three Bobs” in the credits (Robert Ryan, Robert Young, and Robert Mitchum) or the lurid promise of violent death in the poster.

Whatever drew people into the theater when the film opened, however, nothing kept them away in the weeks that followed. Crossfire was a big hit, and was eventually nominated for five Academy Awards, although it lost out to Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement, Twentieth Century-Fox’s more “prestigious” take on antisemitism. (In the case of best picture, best director, and best supporting actress, the awards went to Gentleman’s Agreement. In the case of best supporting actor and best adapted screenplay, the awards went to Miracle on 34th Street.)

Edward Dmytryk, the director of Crossfire, once said in an interview that he used “film noir” techniques primarily to save money, and because he wanted to spend more time working with the actors than doing setups. Dmytryk and his cinematographer, J. Roy Hunt, worked six and a half hours a day, and did about seven setups a day.

Ryan, Mitchum, and Young

Dmytryk was an excellent director, and Crossfire is an exceedingly well-made film.

He shot Crossfire in 20 days, less than the 22 days he was allowed with his $500,000 B-movie budget. Because of this, RKO was able to beat Twentieth Century-Fox’s Gentleman’s Agreement to the box office. (But not, ultimately, in the Oscar race.)

The darkness and shadows that creep into each shot disguise the simplicity of the sets, and the performances from all the actors are exceptional, especially Robert Ryan as the vicious, Jew-hating soldier named Montgomery, and Gloria Grahame as a lonely B-girl named Ginny.

The beating death of the Jewish man, Samuels (Sam Levene), that opens the film takes place in darkness, so the culprit is not seen. But the mystery doesn’t really persist. Montgomery is the likely suspect right from the beginning. His sneering dismissal of the “kind of guy” Samuels was makes his guilt seem pretty obvious during the scene in which he’s interrogated by the police detective, Finlay (Robert Montgomery).

The film quickly switches gears, however, and focuses on the search for a missing soldier named Mitchell (George Cooper), whom the police suspect of the murder. The jaded and world-weary Sgt. Keeley (Robert Mitchum) helps Detective Finlay, but ultimately shields Mitchell, helping him hide in a movie theater while Keeley and his buddies try to sort out what really happened.

Mitchell was pretty drunk, and can barely remember what happened at the party that evening. But the last words we hear Montgomery say in Mitchell’s flashback to the party — “What’s the matter, Jew boy? You afraid we’ll drink up all your stinking wonderful liquor?” — cement Montgomery’s guilt.

Grahame and Cooper

Mitchell’s sad and lonely journey through the night is classic noir stuff. His strange encounters — like the ones he has with B-girl Ginny and later with her “husband” (played by Paul Kelly), whose name we never learn — are haunting.

While Crossfire is occasionally preachy, this can be forgiven, especially considering the time when the film was released.

Unlike Brute Force (1947), which showed what American fascism could look like at the upper echelons of authority, Crossfire is a portrait of the rank and file of fascism — the dumb, mean, resentful men who “just carry out orders,” and do so happily. Ryan doesn’t overplay his role, and he’s all the more scary for it.

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The Devil Thumbs a Ride (Feb. 20, 1947)

Felix Feist’s The Devil Thumbs a Ride has acquired a fearsome reputation over the years, so I wasn’t prepared for how weird and funny it ended up being.

This film has more oddball characters than you can shake a stick at. The protagonist, Jimmy Ferguson (Ted North), is a bra and panties salesman driving a 1941 gray convertible who has a bad case of the hiccups and a wine bottle on the seat next to him with a rubber nipple attached to it. It was a gag gift from his buddies, and he swears he only smells like booze. He hasn’t had a nip since before dinner. But he sure seems drunk, especially at the beginning of the movie.

There’s also a detective who keeps his dog in his car and belts his trench coat around his chest, a young gas station attendant who has a funny-looking daughter, an alcoholic night watchman who takes a $1 bet that he can’t drink an entire glass of whiskey like it’s water, and a wrongfully arrested wedding party who prove they’re not the people the cops are looking for by having the groom remove his toupee.

The one character who doesn’t come off like a caricature — and the major reason for the film’s enduring legacy — is Steve Morgan, a sociopathic robber, forger, and killer. He’s played by Lawrence Tierney, an actor whose notorious offscreen exploits — arrests for drunken brawling and driving under the influence — often overshadow his talents as an actor.

Toward the end of his life, in an interview with Rick McKay, Tierney said that he didn’t enjoy making The Devil Thumbs a Ride. He said, “I resented those pictures they put me in. I never thought of myself as that kind of guy. I thought of myself as a nice guy who wouldn’t do rotten things. I hated that character so much but I had to do it for the picture.”

Assuming Tierney wasn’t rewriting history, and he really did hate playing Steve Morgan, none of his discomfort is visible onscreen. Cruelty and duplicity are as natural for Steve as breathing, and despite this, he’s the most likable person in the film. The hapless salesman who gives Steve a lift is too goofy-acting and stiff to elicit much audience sympathy. And the cops who pursue Steve following his robbery of an old man outside of a San Diego bank are too incompetent and obsessed with playing poker to really root for.

Steve controls and manipulates people effortlessly. Within minutes of getting in Ferguson’s car, he’s renamed Ferguson “Fergie” and has picked up a couple of passengers of his own at a gas station — a bottle-blonde party girl named Agnes (Betty Lawford) and her prim, dark-haired friend Carol (Nan Leslie).

The Devil Thumbs a Ride is an hour-long paean to bad behavior. It moves too quickly for the viewer to stop and consider all the contrivances that lead Steve, Fergie, Agnes, and Carol to Fergie’s boss’s beach house in Newport. Along the way, there’s more boozing, lying, property destruction, and running from the cops than you’ll find in most movies twice as long.

It’s not quite a “lost classic” of film noir, like Detour (1945), and its humorous moments outweigh its chilling moments, but The Devil Thumbs a Ride is still well worth seeking out.