When I was attending college back in the days before air-conditioning and ice cubes, I was lucky enough to take a film class titled “The Hollywood Social Problem Film” with professor David Desser. One unit of the class dealt with Anti-Semitism and featured screenings of Gentleman’s Agreement and Crossfire. Dr. Desser was an ideal choice to teach this unit because he would later publish (with Lester Friedman) American Jewish Filmmakers, the definitive book on that subject. I learned a lot in his class. I was something of a naïve, sheltered suburban boy entering college, and the class helped to open my eyes to certain unsavory realities of our country. (For instance, I learned the private beach club my parents belonged to in the 1960s and ’70s was restricted.) Dr. Desser carefully curated every film screened in that class, and it was in that context that I first saw Crossfire. Thanks, Dave.
Crossfire is an amazing film that does six or seven things at the same time and does all of them well. That is why I am so thankful for Warner Archive’s recent Blu-ray upgrade. The film looks amazing, with contrast that shows off the film’s moody, expressionistic lighting schemes. Crossfire is a seminal film noir and a seminal low-budget film. The sets all look half-finished and in-progress, which underlines the film’s theme of rebuilding a life after the war.
Crossfire is an actor’s showcase: Robert Young, Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Sam Levene, and Gloria Grahame all turn in some of the most impressive work of their careers. Grahame was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award; other nominations included Robert Ryan for Best Supporting Actor, Edward Dmytryk for Best Director, John Paxton for Best Screenplay, and the film for Best Picture. It won none of these.
Crossfire is famous for being one of the first American films to tackle the subject of Anti-Semitism. Key to the film’s murder investigation plot is the fact that one of the characters hates all Jews. The film is very clear about how stupid and un-American these feelings are. Detective Finlay gives several characters mini-civics lessons under the guise of questioning them and solving the crime. He theorizes, “The motive had to be inside the killer himself. Something he brought with him. Something he'd been nursing for a long time. Something that had been waiting. The killer had to be someone who could hate [the victim] without knowing him. Who could hate him enough to kill him, under the right circumstances, not for any real reason, but mistakenly and ignorantly.”
I was watching the film last week, in the wake of the horrifying Atlanta shootings, and it made me wonder if Americans will ever wake up to this scourge. Substitute one race or religion or minority for another and it just happens again and again in an endless, nihilistic spiral. Crossfire was made 74 years ago, but what it has to say about hate is still trenchant, still timely, still tragic.