Homicide detective Captain Finlay (Robert Young) is on the scene when a man named Samuels (Sam Levene) is found dead in his apartment. Demobilized soldier Montgomery (Robert Ryan) appears at the door and informs Finlay he last saw Samuels in the company of fellow G.I., Mitchell (George Cooper), but maintains the latter is incapable of committing murder. Mitchell’s buddy, Sgt. Keeley (Robert Mitchum) is drawn into the investigation and shelters the suspect from the cops. While circumstantial evidence points to Mitchell, Finlay and Keeley team up to expose the real guilty party and uncover the ugly motive behind the hate crime.
The first B-movie (in the old sense of the term, as in a supporting feature rather than a cheap exploitation film) to receive several Academy Award nominations, Crossfire boldly tackled anti-semitism in America, noting the irony of soldiers returning from the Second World War to find hate in their own backyard. Cloaked in the dreamlike shadows and light of film noir, this dealt with the subject more skillfully than the same year’s Oscar-winning Gentleman’s Agreement although the original novel on which it was based dealt with a another kind of prejudice. In the novel written by Richard Brooks, who went on to a distinguished filmmaking career in his own right, the victim was homosexual. With the Hollywood Hays Code prohibiting any mention of homosexuality, screenwriter John Paxton switched the killer’s motivation from homophobia to anti-semitism. However, the film functions as an indictment of all forms of racism as Finlay delivers a keynote speech linking Samuel’s murder to a long history of hate crimes against every perceived minority.
Like another great noir, The Killers (1946), Crossfire has a complex flashback structure incorporating multiple narrators, only in this instance not everyone tells the truth. Even though the identity of the killer is more or less obvious from the outset, it is up to Finlay and Keeley to sort out what really happened. In this mystery motive is more important than identity, allowing the investigators to shine a light on a wider social evil. When Montgomery asserts the kind of men who avoided the draft and stayed at home during the war were those with “funny names”, Keeley wryly remarks: “He ought to look at the casualty list sometimes. A lot of funny names on there too.” Even so, anti-semitism is only the tip of the iceberg as the film asserts hate is simply symptomatic of a wider malaise afflicting a nation still shell-shocked after World War Two, as evidenced from the various traumatised characters Mitchell encounters on his night-time crawl through the city.
These include the amazing Gloria Grahame, who gets a great intro emerging out of a near-dreamlike haze as the camera highlights her sultry eyes and a jazz horn mimics a wolf whistle. Grahame, who was Oscar-nominated for a role she ranked as her personal favourite, plays Ginny - the prostitute who emerges the one person able to prove Mitchell was not in the room when Samuel was killed. In an affecting scene, Mitchell’s wife Mary (Jacqueline White) pleads with Ginny to reveal all, prompting the hooker to defend her right to survive by any means. She is as much a casualty of war as any soldier lost in battle. Equally moving, it is the victim himself who kindly observes hate is prevalent because people are still caught in a wartime mentality and that change will happen as society moves on. Ironically this progressive message was the kind of supposedly subversive thinking that saw director Edward Dmytryk targeted during the anti-communist witchhunts in the late Forties.
Everyone in the outstanding ensemble cast gets their moment to shine, in particular the three Roberts: Young, Mitchum and Ryan. Robert Young invests his dynamic detective with pipe-puffing authority, Mitchum is at his charismatic best and Ryan is the epitome of sweaty, paranoid villainy. In fact, Ryan was stationed at the same base where Richard Brooks was serving in the marine corps and informed the author of his intention to appear in any film made of his book. Crossfire depicts a nation still grappling with the after-effects of the war but remains optimistic in the ability of ordinary Americans to band together and build a better world.