UN VOYAGE DANS LES TENEBRES: Week 7 – Battle Noir Didactica

If you sit down to watch a film noir, you can expect to be both shaken and stirred. You might have to turn your head away a few times at the violence (or you might find yourself staring agog at the screen, baffled by what this sub-genre of film got away with in the mid-20th century.) You’ll certainly feel a few ironic shivers at the final twist. You might laugh a couple of times, and once in a while, you might be moved to tears. What you might not expect from film noir is to be educated. 

And yet, many a noir straddled the post with films of social consciousness. Next week, we’ll be watching a movie that begs for prison reform. And this week, our main film explores the sickness of anti-Semitism. That it’s preaching about hatred against Jews in 1947, after World War II is over and after the Nuremberg Trials deduced that a holocaust had indeed be perpetrated against an entire race of people, might feel like a case of “too little, too late.” But then Hollywood was late to the anti-Nazi party: the studios made a pretty penny sending American films to Germany, and they didn’t want to upset that economic gold mine. Although most of the studios were run by Jewish men, they didn’t like to air their private feelings – or make movies about Jewish people; instead, they sought to hide their shabby immigrant backgrounds and “fit in” as contemporary, successful Americans.

As it happens, Crossfire wasn’t the only film to tackle the subject that year: Gentleman’s Agreement, directed by Elia Kazan and starring Gregory Peck, was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won three, including Best Picture and Director. The main movie we are talking about today, Crossfire, scored five nominations, including Picture and Director for Edward Dmytryk, and won none of them. It did earn the Prix du meilleur film social award (Best Social Film) at the Cannes Film Festival and made a star of Robert Mitchum, propelling him forward into last week’s film, Out of the Past

I’m a Jewish man, but the things I really liked about Crossfire were the things that snuck around the anti-Semitic plot, chiefly the minor characters and the whole structure and look of the film. Other things interest and/or frustrate me: the parallel lives of the directors of this film and Gentleman’s Agreement, particularly in how they relate to the Communist witch hunt, and the fact that Cross Fire should have been, but in its time could not be, about something else: an indictment against anti-gay violence.

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The film is based on a 1945 novel, The Brick Foxhole, written by Richard Brooks and published while he was serving as a Marine. In the novel, as well as in subsequent films he wrote and directed, Brooks explored his hatred of prejudice in all forms. The victim in Foxhole was gay, but the Hays censorship board did not allow mention of homosexuality in any form in the cinema. Thus, when the novel was adapted for film by John Paxton (who had also written Murder My Sweet, also directed by Dmytryk), the victim was changed into a Jewish man. 

They could be dancing . . . but they’re not.

Crossfire opens with the murder of that man, Joseph Samuels, and the brutal killing is captured as shadows against the walls of his darkened apartment. Captain Finlay (Robert Young) leads the police team to investigate Samuel’s death and quickly learns that earlier in the evening the victim had met up with a group of demobilized soldiers and appears to have entertained them at his home. Finlay gets information from a couple of these soldiers: first, “Monty” Montgomery (Robert Ryan) shows up looking for his buddy, Corporal “Mitch” Mitchell (George Cooper) and narrates a flashback to when they and two of their fellow soldiers ran across Samuels and his girlfriend in a bar. Later, we hear Mitch recount the same series of events, only his version doesn’t gibe with Monty’s, and it is clear that one of them is lying. Finlay suspects the liar is Mitchell. 

Five’ll get you ten, it’s Monty. 

Robert (Ryan) vs. Robert (Young) vs. Robert (Mitchum)

Ryan is incredible playing a psychopath with a boundless hatred for Jews, hicks, people of color – anybody different from himself.  – that he can barely contain behind his air of boisterous bonhomie. Mitchum, as Sergeant Keeley, who was playing cards during the whole affair and is thus not a suspect, functions here as the troop member who tries to steer Finlay into an accurate assessment of these soldiers and their relationships. And Young is a quiet presence as Finlay, who has the task of delivering the “big speech” about what happens when a nation of immigrants turns against each other. This is the moment where the film resonates strongly with modern audiences, and if I had my way, it would be forcefully shown to every deplorable yahoo who stormed our Capitol on January 6. (Sadly, as a friend suggested, very few of the people who stormed the capital would sit still for any film shot in black and white.)

As fine as the three Roberts are, my greatest plaudits are reserved for the minor characters. Steve Brodie and William Phipps play two fellow soldiers who suffer under the thrall of Montgomery’s bullying tactics. Sam Levene and George Cooper are heartbreaking as, respectively the victim and the wrongfully accused soldier who is clearly suffering from PTSD. 

Gloria Grahame as Ginny – not your usual “bad” girl (with George Cooper as Mitch)

And then there’s Gloria Grahame as Ginny, a taxi dancer who can provide Mitch with a half of an alibi, and Paul Kelly as the extraordinary Mr. Tremaine, one of Ginny’s “customers” who can provide the other half. In terms of the mystery, every one of these characters holds an important piece of the puzzle; more important is how, as a whole, they show the terrible emotional toll the entire nation was burdened with at the end of the war. There’s a moment in the dance joint where Ginny is so overwhelmed by Mitch’s naïve kindness that she excuses herself and holes up in the back garden to compose herself. And when she spits out the offer to cook Mitch some spaghetti back at her place, you know she’s taking a huge chance that this man really only wants spaghetti. Later, when the police question her, her hardness can’t disguise the hurt she feels that Mitch didn’t wait around for the meal. 

Crossfire is a different kind of noir in that the ending brings justice against the evil rampaging the community (quite a harsh justice, but there you go) and a sense of hope for everyone else. That, I assume, is because the movie wants to be a taut crime drama that offers a glimpse of hope to those who open their hearts to acceptance. A fellow class member was shocked at the harsh way Monty spits out the word “Jew,” even to Samuels’ face. At another point, he tries to appeal to Finlay’s sympathies by dismissing Samuels as a civilian “Jewboy” who dodged military service, and then Finlay informs him that Samuels had actually served with honor and became a real war hero. I thought to myself, “I’ll bet a significant percentage of film audiences in 1947 casually embraced anti-Jewish attitudes and needed to be shocked out of their complacency.

How much more shocking – and interesting – the film would have been if it had had the guts to tackle homophobia. As it is, you can’t help feeling the gay vibes throughout if you focus on the central triangle of Samuels the victim, Monty the killer, and Mitch the patsy. When the men meet in a bar, Samuels has the sensitivity to hone in on Mitch’s unhappiness, even as his “buddies” ignore it. He pulls Mitch away for an intimate tete a tete, and you immediately see the anger – jealousy? – on Monty’s face, interrupted from pouring his own nasty heart out to Samuels. 

The triangle: Samuels cares for Mitch; what’s Monty going to do about it?

Then Samuels invites Mitch over to his house to talk, an offer embraced by Samuels’ girlfriend – who seems much more like a girl friend – at which point Monty stalks them and invites himself into the apartment where his overt friendliness becomes more and more threatening. In terms of dialogue, it’s all made to work as an anti-Jewish killing. But the body language, the intimacy of the party leading up to the dance of death in the shadows – all of that lends itself to another interpretation. And I can’t help feeling that a man as drawn to the military as Monty is, having fought the Nazis for the past couple of years . . . well, it makes more sense that his psychosis is tied to his hyper-masculinity (and, I would guess, his own insecurities there) and how it reflects against the sensitive artist Mitch, the puny hillbilly soldier Leroy (Phipps) and the kindly Samuels. 

An interesting footnote: both director Edward Dmytryk and producer Adrian Scott were members of the Hollywood Ten, who were blacklisted and imprisoned by HUAC for refusing to name names. Elia Kazan, director of Gentleman’s Agreement, cooperated with the Congressional sub-committee and, despite engendering a lot of bad feeling within the industry that haunted him to his death, suffered no ill-effects in his career. As for Dmytryk, six months into his one year prison sentence, he, too, decided to cooperate and named people he knew who had attended Communist meetings – including his friend, Adrian Scott. Dmytryk’s career rebounded, while Scott was, to all intents and purposes, finished in the business.

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As Elliot warned us, the connections between Crossfire and this week’s bonus film, They Live by Night are nominal: they both emerged from RKO with a year between them in release. Plus, Nicholas Ray, the film’s director, and supporting actor Howard da Silva had enough ties to the Communist Party to bring them to HUAC’s attention. Ray escaped notice due to his close friendship with RKO producer Howard Hughes, but da Silva’s film career was shut down. (He eventually returned to the theatre and was a successful actor on Broadway, notably – and ironically? – as Benjamin Franklin in the musical 1776.)

There’s also a lurid connection in that one of Ray’s wives was Crossfire actress Gloria Grahame, and their marriage was purported to be very noir-like. First of all, Ray was almost certainly bisexual, and then he claimed as grounds for divorce having found his wife in bed with his 13-year-old son, Tony. Grahame vehemently denied this . . . although she did end up marrying Tony after he had become a big boy! Their marriage lasted three times as long as her union with his father. Ah, Hollywood!

Perhaps Ray’s most famous work is Rebel Without a Cause, which is one of the most highly fever-pitched chronicles of teen alienation and the generation gap one will ever see. He also directed one of the weirdest Westerns of them all, Johnny Guitar, starring Joan Crawford, which I cannot recommend highly enough. Again, I don’t want to be accused of finding homoerotic subtext everywhere I look, but it abounds in Ray’s work – in the connection between James Dean and Sal Mineo in Rebel and in the charged relationships between Crawford and her arch-enemy, played by Mercedes McCambridge, and between Johnny himself (Sterling Hayden) and his “rival” for Crawford’s affections, interestingly called “The Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady). Any of you out there scoffing need to watch that film and contact me. 

They Live by Night marks Ray’s directorial debut. One of the things that distinguishes it from any of the other films noirI’ve seen in class is how much the story imbues its criminal elements with genuine romance. The two protagonists, Arthur “Bowie” Bowers (Farley Granger) and Katherine “Keechie” Mobley (Cathy O’Donnell) have been starved of love their whole lives, and a huge part of the tragedy is their horrific timing in finding and falling for each other. Bowie’s life is a series of unfortunate events: imprisoned for life at 16 for allegedly helping to kill someone, he has hitched a bust out of prison with two hardened bank robbers, Chicamaw (da Silva) and T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen), who figure he can drive the getaway car during the future spree they’re planning. 

Some friendship! Chicamaw (Howard da Silva) and Bowie (Farley Granger)

They hole up with Chicamaw’s brother (Will Wright), so hopeless an alcoholic that he can’t be trusted with a dollar, and his daughter Keechie, who at the start is shy and plain and totally devoid of hope. But Keechie falls for the equally shy Bowie, and Bowie falls for Keechie, and for about half a minute they are happy . . . 

I had never seen Cathy O’Donnell in a movie, and she is extraordinary. She reminded me a little of Eva Marie Saint in On the Waterfront, and yes, you film buffs are shaming me for having never watched The Best Years of Our Lives, a flaw I will try and rectify soon. O’Donnell’s film career was relatively brief, and while she made a number of early TV appearances, by 1964, her acting career was over. She is wonderful as Keechie, making a subtle and completely realistic transition as she unwillingly embraces the possibility of love. This is no Charlotte Vale-like transformation from duckling into swan; Keechie stays the same, but the possibility of true love simply makes her more . . . luminous. In the most general sense, Keechie represents the good woman found in noir, except she’s no self-sacrificing pushover. She has already been toughened up by life with her father, his booze and his criminal cohorts. She clearly has a problem believing that any promise of a way out of her life will amount to anything more than a dead end.

A rare moment of comfort (but it’s noir, so notice the bars)

But the real revelation to me was Farley Granger. I know him primarily from two films: Strangers on a Train and Rope. In both of them, he seems stiff, and his presence pales besides the more dynamic performances of his male co-stars. Here he is simply wonderful as a boy who has been led down the wrong path so many times that he is helpless at making the right decisions. You can tell Ray is as transfixed by Granger’s coltish beauty and energy as Keechie is by the way he films the actor, but it’s the vulnerability Granger shows here and in no other film I can remember that makes the biggest impact. Bowie is a true noir victim, buffeted about by fate, and by the petty flaws of everyone he knows. In a way, he presages James Dean’s Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause, and it’s one of those ironies that Dean, a peer of Granger’s, managed to have the more flashy and successful career (albeit a tragically short one) playing similar parts, one of them for the same director. 

Because the primary story here concerns a young couple on the run, They Live by Night has often been compared to the history of Bonnie and Clyde. For me, though, the ending is pure Shakespeare as one young lover, driven to desperate extremes by the venality of all the adults in his life, makes the ultimate sacrifice in order to preserve his love – even if it’s only the memory of that love – for his girl. I said at the start that once in a while film noir might move you to tears. Honestly, that’s a rare occurrence, given the bleakly ironic lens through which noir views life. But here . . . you might need a handkerchief. 

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We’ve been on a Robert Mitchum tear the past couple of sessions. Next week, we change it up with a double dose of Burt. (Lancaster, that is.)