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Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog

CROSSFIRE (1947)

Last week’s film dealt with inter group tensions in a very slight way.  This week, I have decided to explore a movie that is along similar lines, but with some meat on its bones.  It is a sinewy film in every respect, about anti-Semitism, called CROSSFIRE.  Edward Dmytryk’s work from 1947 follows a group of soldiers, just home from war, who are involved (in various ways) in the beating death of a middle-aged Jewish man.  Montgomery or “Monty” (Robert Ryan) considers himself the alpha dog.  He viciously brow beats some of the other soldiers and anyone else he feels is beneath him – especially Jews.  Keeley (Robert Mitchum) is an intelligent, well read man with a cynical streak about the military.  Floyd (Steve Brodie) is a nervous sort, and this trait will eventually cost him his life.  Leroy (William Phipps) is a quiet Southern boy from Tennessee.  And there is Mitchell (George Cooper), a sensitive artist who was seen leaving a bar with the victim, Samuels (Sam Levene), and becomes the main suspect in his killing. Eventually Monty, Mitchell and Floyd wind up in Samuels’ apartment, where the former helps himself to the host’s liquor.  Soon all three soldiers are drunk, leading to the inevitable tragedy.  We suspect Monty – who calls Samuels “Jew boy” – right from the beginning and we are eventually proven correct.  An embittered police detective named Finlay (Robert Young) sets a trap for the arrogant creep with Leroy’s help, exonerating Mitchell. 

Among the many fascinating aspects of this incredibly moving and suspenseful film, is the way Dmytryk and screenwriter John Paxton play against audience’s expectations, smashing stereotypes.  Leroy, the southerner, is shown to be a caring individual and not the crazed bigot of so many Hollywood hot-house depictions of the South.  In fact, he himself is the victim of Monty’s ugliest taunts and it is especially satisfying when he helps bring the killer down.  The Jewish Samuels (given a special depth by Levene’s sensitive performance) is a man who can involve himself in Mitchell’s problems with loneliness, because he truly cares about the returning veteran.  He is an insightful, kind and cultured man whose apartment is adorned with small ceramic busts, perhaps of classical music composers.  He is anything but a Shylock, and makes the most enlightened statements of the film when he comments on the pent-up hatred of so many soldiers after fighting a war against hate, and no longer having an outlet for their anger.  This frustration is a central theme of the film and finds its expression in the constant drinking depicted, slowly burning cigarettes, a coffee pot boiling over and in a most ferocious act of violence – the brutal murder of a man who only wanted to help.  This Jewish man’s killing is the ultimate irony considering the fact that the beast who kills him has just returned from a war fought against a regime that murdered six million Jews.  Also ironically, Samuels is known by a shortened version of his last name – “Sammy” – just as Montgomery is known as “Monty”. 

There is a jaundiced eye cast on soldiers and the military, especially by a man who is a soldier himself – Keeley.  Early in the film he tells Finlay “Soldiers go crawling or they go crazy” and “Soldiers don’t have anywhere to go unless you tell them.”  Monty is a career soldier who looks down on “citizen soldiers”, and at times seems obsessed with the military.  He assumes that the Jewish Samuels has avoided the draft (he is proven wrong in the end) and especially hates him because of this.  There are admirable military traits depicted, however: In a spirit of comradery, Mitchell”s fellow soldiers pull together to help him out of his jam and – once again flying in the face of stereotype – this man who has spent the last several years killing for uncle Sam, is a dedicated artist.  But hanging over everything is Keeley’s cynicism.  Only at the film’s conclusion, after Monty is brought to justice, does Keeley use the word “soldier” with pride.  “How about a cup of coffee, soldier?”, he asks Leroy. 

Above all CROSSFIRE is a film about outsiders.  Leroy is a rural Southerner in the big city.  Mitchell is the lonely artist.  “Ginny” (Gloria Grahame), the girl Mitchell picks up in a gin joint (the one place she belongs as her name is associated with her place of employment) is a poor girl from Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania.  Keeley is the soldier who doesn’t really belong soldiering.  Monty is a hater at odds with a changing world.  And above all, the ultimate outsider, the Jewish man Samuels.  Even Finlay, the cop, is an outsider.  “Nobody likes cops” he tells a disapproving Ginny.  But he has class: Everyone else chain smokes cigarettes while he is a pipe man. 

The artistry of the film’s visual design is immense.  Virtually every scene takes place at night, in darkened rooms often lit by a single light.  Shadows are everywhere.  Only one scene takes place in the light of day: Finlay, in his office, discovering Monty’s guilt and his motive of anti-Semitism. Throughout light is used impressively, such as the moment when the detective tells of the motive behind the murder of his Irish Catholic Grandfather, one hundred years earlier. “He was a dirty Mick!” Finlay says, as he leans in close to the lamp on his desk, speaking in the words of the killer. Suddenly his face is illuminated harshly, accentuating his harsh words.
At times the power of the film is overwhelming. This is due in part to Roy Webb’s intense music score and J. Roy Hunt’s cinematography, the aforementioned low-key quality of which adds an extra layer of depth to John Paxton’s screenplay. Director Dmytryk’s startling use of camera angles is also aided immeasurably by Hunt’s lighting. All of this expertise is spectacularly on display in the scene of Floyd’s slow crack-up under the strain of knowing Monty’s deadly secret. As he disintegrates in front of Monty, it becomes obvious that the killer will kill again. Key elements in this scene are the performances of Steve Brodie and Robert Ryan. They are flawless, as are just about all of the portrayals in this exceptional film.
It is a sad side note to one of the best films of the forties, that it was a subject of controversy in 1947. It seems that Edward Dmytryk and producer Adrian Scott were duped by the communist party U.S.A. and became members earlier in their careers. Refusing to testify before the House Unamerican Activities Committee, both were given brief jail sentences. The director eventually agreed to testify and was allowed to go on with his career. Scott did not testify. His career was over.
CREDITS: Produced by Adrian Scott. Directed by Edward Dmytryk. Written by John Paxton. Based on the novel THE BRICK FOXHOLE by Richard Brooks (in which the victim was a homosexual, not a Jew). Photography by J. Roy Hunt. Edited by Harry Gerstad. Music by Roy Webb. With: Robert Ryan, Robert Mitchum, Robert Young, Steve Brodie, William Phipps, George Cooper, Sam Levene, Gloria Grahame.               

June 5, 2013 Posted by | 1940s cinema, film directors, films about prejudice, screenwriters, suspense films | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

SCANDAL AT SCOURIE (1953)

Prejudice became a popular subject for Hollywood movies with the “social realism” movement that emerged following world war II.  Inspired by the twin thrusts of Italian neo-realism and a desire to explore America’s own racial problems after a war against imperialism and fascism, the movement produced several thought-provoking films.  Directors and producers such as Elia Kazan (PINKY, GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT), Stanley Kramer (HOME OF THE BRAVE) and Joseph L. Mankiewicz (NO WAY OUT) seemed to be engrossed in a national guilt trip.  Understandably so, considering our sorry record of racial and anti-Semitic injustice.  Throughout much of our history Catholic/Protestant relations (in some regions of the country) were almost as bad as relations between blacks and whites and Jews and gentiles.  With this in mind, a film set in Canada during the nineteenth century caught my attention when I noticed it in the listings for Turner Classic Movies.  From roughly the same era as the films listed above, SCANDAL AT SCOURIE (1953) interested me because it is one of the few American pictures to tackle the Catholic/Protestant divide and because it is set in Canada.  Since it is a period film, director Jean Negulesco and writers Norman Corwin, Leonard Spigelgass and Karl Tunberg, are more concerned with whimsy than social comment. 

In turn of the century Quebec, a Catholic orphanage burns down facilitating the need to place the children in new homes.  Along with the other little ones, Patsy (Donna Corcoran) is placed on a train bound for Ontario by Sister Josephine (Agnes Moorhead).  Patsy carries along her pet goldfish named Harold, in a jar of water.  We are well aware that Harold will be some sort of symbol or metaphor, and since Patsy named him after the hymn “Hark The Herold Angels sing”, we are clued in that he will serve as a guardian angel for the child, as well as providing a mirror of her own experiences.  Trying to find a new home for the fish, Patsy plans to set him free in a pond by the Scourie, Ontario train station.  However, she meets Vicky McChesney (Greer Garson), who, immediately taken by Patsy’s charms, decides to adopt her, giving the youngster and her fish a new home.  A Protestant, Vicky is certain her husband Patrick (Walter Pidgeon) will be as charmed as she is, and dismisses any possibility he will be put off by a cross cultural adoption.  The audience agrees with her, since he and Patsy already share a connection through their first names.  After the initial misgivings of Mr. McChesney, the family is formed and the new parents give Harold a model castle for his jar, just as they have, in a sense, given Patsy a storybook home. 

But Patrick is an important member of the community, serving as “Reeve” or Mayor of the town, as well as holding other important positions.  When a political opponent (Philip Ober), who also happens to be a newspaper editor, publishes an editorial suggesting Patrick has adopted Patsy in an effort to buy votes from the Catholic population, tensions rise.  Questioned at a campaign rally about the rumor, Patrick proceeds to pound the curious fellow into the dirt.  We then dissolve to a shot of schoolboys in a violent tussle, with the filmmakers suggesting that such inter faith squabbles are childish.  Since the very first shot of the film is of a small bridge over a pond, we are secure in our belief that everyone will come together.  Indeed, the climactic scene takes place on this very bridge, but the film has a few more melodramatic turns before getting us there.  Nothing, however, that is too involving, as this is a generally feckless film with little emotional hold on its audience.  Matters are not helped by the utilization of a ridiculous sound effect every time Harold is shown.  And several supposedly light-hearted moments prove embarrassing. 

Canada has a reputation as a “kinder, gentler nation” (Phil Donahue’s words) among American intellectuals and Canadians themselves.  However accurate this assessment, one thing is certain: A significant amount of cruelty exists in all populations, across all borders.  Though rather inexpertly explored in SCANDAL AT SCOURIE, this is an undeniable fact of life.                       

CREDITS: Produced by Edwin H. Knopf. Directed by Jean Negulesco. Written by Norman Corwin, Leonard Spigelgass and Karl Tunberg. Photographed by Robert Planck. Music by Daniele Amfitheatrof. With: Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Donna Corcoran, Agnes Moorehead, Philip Ober.

May 28, 2013 Posted by | 1950s cinema, American Film, film directors, films about prejudice | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment