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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.               

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

THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955)

There is an interesting spiritual tension running throughout Charles Laughton’s THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955).  It is one, not so much of good versus evil, but of innocence verses cynicism.  As this unique film set during the depression begins, Ben Harper (Peter Graves) leaves a large sum of money, stolen in a bank robbery, with his two small children.  The police closing in, he instructs son John (Billy Chapin) to hide the money in a safe place.  Also closing in is Ben’s former cellmate, The Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum).  Powell will do anything to get his hands on the bank loot.  Ben is later hanged for a killing committed during the robbery, giving Powell an opportunity to worm (and I do mean “worm”) his way into Ben’s shattered family.  It is here that we see the most profound example of innocence and cynicism as Ben’s daughter Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) is immediately enamored of this ravenous wolf while John is filled with suspicion for the monster who will soon become his stepfather.  Also taken with Powell is the children’s mother, Willa (Shelley Winters).  She, along with most of the town adores this Bible quoting character.  In fact most everyone in this small town quotes scripture fanatically.  Along with this religiosity comes an almost pathological hatred of sexuality, especially of the feminine sort.  As an old lady proudly remarks of her sex life with her husband of forty years: “I just lie there and think about my canning!”  Powell also warns Willa on their wedding night that there will be no sexual relations, as a woman’s body is made solely for making babies and he has no interest in having  children.  Willa later states “My whole body is quivering with goodness!”  This, of course, presents another tension: One between human nature and the harsh standards set by fanaticism.  The sexual tension in the film is beautifully illustrated as Powell, seething with self-righteous hatred for female sexuality and the temptations it imposes on men, watches a stripper perform in a nightclub.  To our surprise (the film was made in 1955, after all) Powell’s switch blade suddenly pokes through his pants pocket.  A phallic image so blatant, it must have caused the censor spasms of anxiety way back when. 

As Willa realizes that Powell is only after money, the crazed preacher kills her in a scene so brilliantly stylized, it guarantees Laughton’s status as a master filmmaker in this, his only film as director.  (Also unforgettable are the shots of Willa’s corpse and car submerged in a lake, the water causing her hair to wave as though being blown by the wind on a summer drive.)  The couple’s bedroom is designed and lit to resemble a church and Robert Mitchum gives a chilling performance as he stares out a large window, his right hand raised to God.  His wife is in bed, her hands folded over her chest as though in a casket.  She knows her husband only wants the money but amazingly still believes he was sent by God to deliver her from her sins.  But she does know…Again the switch blade comes out – this time to finally sacrifice a woman who is abhorrent in Powell’s mind.  All this twisted religion is presented by Laughton and screenwriter James Agee as a crutch as is the alcohol abuse presented in the film.  This is apparent in the depiction of “Uncle Birdie” (James Gleason) an elderly friend of John’s.  He is the only character in the film with no interest in religion, but when he spies Willa’s body in the lake, he indulges in booze and mumbles in a drunken haze “I swear on..the book…”  Even this proud man reaches for a Bible and strong drink in times of trouble. 

The aforementioned tensions – between sexuality and religion, innocence and cynicism – are magnificently illustrated in Powell’s tatoos.  “Love” on the one hand and “hate” on the other, these elements of existence are forever intertwined as Powell demonstrates by linking his fingers together.  But there is another tension or conflict in the film and in life:  That of false or twisted religion and the real thing.  The false is represented by Powell and the hypocritical towns people who gather as a lynch mob when the preacher is finally arrested for Willa’s murder.  Earlier in the film, at one of Powell’s religious  revivals, torches throw shadows on the walls that remind us of burning KKK crosses.  The real deal is represented by an elderly woman, Miss Cooper (Lillian Gish) who takes in abandoned children and rescues John and Pearl when they flee from their homicidal stepfather.  Children, as presented here, are the ultimate innocents, and they must be brought up right.  The first shot of Miss Cooper’s kids has them suddenly standing up in a garden, coming into frame as though they sprang out of the ground. 

The conflict between the two approaches to faith is demonstrated as Miss Cooper, waiting for the inevitable confrontation with Powell, joins in a hymn Powell is singing outside her window.  The two will forever be interlocked like love and hate. 

There is an interesting depiction of animals in the film.  Like the humans around them, they can be either victim or victimizer.  Cooper watches an owl kill a rabbit and remarks “It’s a hard world for little things.”  After she shoots a menacing Powell, the maniac minister screams out like a stuck hog, a bestial moment for a wild animal.  It is a comical moment as well, which confused me the first time I saw the film…Then I remembered the animal references.  Miss Cooper is one of God’s “little things” indeed – fragile and gentle for the most part – but she has the true faith in the true God by her side…and a loaded gun. 

The villainous preacher would become a rank stereotype in future films and TV shows, but Charles Laughton was somewhat of a trailblazer.  If this trail was subsequently beaten down and worn out Laughton was not to blame, as he seemed, at least with THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, to greatly admire genuine religious convictions and ideals.

CREDITS: Directed by Charles Laughton.  Written by James Agee.  Based on the novel by Davis Grubb.  Photography by Stanley Cortez.  Music by Walter Schumann.  With Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, Peter Graves, James Gleason, Don Beddoe and Evelyn Varden.

July 12, 2012 Posted by | American Film, film directors | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments