5 Key Moments from Crossfire (1947)

“Crossfire,” the 1947 film noir starring Robert Young as a detective investigating a hate crime, is engrossing and all too timely.

Crossfire (1947) is a detective drama starring Robert Young (later of Father Knows Best fame) as police detective Finlay, investigating the murder of Mr. Samuels (Sam Levene). The prime suspect is Mitchell (George Cooper), one of several Army men who served with Sergeant Keeley (Robert Mitchum) during World War II. 

Samuels and his lady friend Miss Lewis (Marlo Dwyer) befriended Samuels, who is “depressed and jittery” after the war, at a bar, inviting him back to Samuels’ apartment for drinks. Mitchell’s fellow soldiers, including the loud-mouthed Montgomery (Robert Ryan), later followed Samuels, Lewis, and Mitchell back to the apartment. At some point that Saturday night, a struggle broke out, and Samuels was beaten to death.

I watched Crossfire in preparation for an online discussion hosted by the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. My knowledge of film noir is limited—something I’m hoping to fix this year—but I found it a fascinating and distressingly timely tale. 

Here are five moments from Crossfire that stood out for me.

1. Samuels’ murder as a shadow play on the wall

The first thing we see in Crossfire is Samuels’ murder. We watch shadows struggling on the wall, thrown there by a small lamp in the foreground. After a few moments, the bodies casting these shadows knock the lamp off its table, throwing Samuels’ apartment, and the audience, into complete darkness.

It’s a stylistically striking opening scene, and probably carries thematic freight, too. This crime represents a moral darkness into which America is being plunged. Yet when Finlay confronts the killer at the movie’s end, we see a similar lamp foregrounded—perhaps suggesting that even in this darkness, the light can still shine.

2. Detective Finlay’s true confessions

Given his warm, kindly, gentle demeanor in Father Knows Best, it’s jarring, at first, to see Robert Young playing the world-weary detective battling apathy at the beginning of Crossfire. Finlay asks the mournful Miss Lewis questions about Samuels’ death with no hint of human compassion. Back at his office, he tells Sgt. Keeley, “Nothing interests me any more.”

Fortunately, the closer his case comes to a conclusion, the more interest and energy Finlay shows—especially in the “confession” he makes to Leroy (William Edward Phipps) about his own family’s American history near the end.

3. Dealing with post-war trauma

Crossfire’s sympathetic interest in the trauma soldiers felt after World War II reminded me that this theme also figured prominently in the Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame film, In a Lonely Place (1950). But where Dixon Steele responded to his trauma through violent outbursts, Mitchell responds to his by wrestling with “the snakes”—nervous jitters that leave him unable to communicate with his wife Mary (Jacqueline White) and unable to feel at peace with himself.

Notably, Mitchell didn’t face combat in the war. Nevertheless, the film regards his trauma and trouble readjusting to civilian life as real and valid. Montgomery does not—he dismisses Mitchell as “not tough” and “nuts”—but Samuels sympathizes with Mitchell, telling him: “One of these days maybe we’ll all learn to shift gears. Maybe we’ll stop hating and start liking things again, huh?”

4. Ginny’s mysterious male visitor

We never do learn exactly who is the man who finds Mitchell in the apartment of gin hall dancing girl Ginny (Gloria Grahame). He is played by Paul Kelly, but is only credited as “The Man.” At first he says he’s Ginny’s husband, but then says that’s a lie. Then he says he wants to marry Ginny, but admits he’s lying then, too. He says he’d like to be a solider, but then admits he doesn’t. Later, as Finlay and Mary are leaving Ginny’s apartment, he tells them yet another story about his connection to Ginny, and tells them to find him if they want to talk to him. They don’t even acknowledge him, they just keep walking down the stairs. 

The Man remains a complete enigma (although I can’t help but wonder, given his remark that any man in Ginny’s apartment is his business, and her comment that he doesn’t own her, if he is her pimp, and this is the only way Hollywood could present him under the Hays Code). He also emerges as a pathetic figure—talking and talking to others, but unable to connect with them out of his isolation. 

5. Finlay’s American history lesson

Crossfire doesn’t flinch from denouncing anti-Semtism and anti-Judaism. As hate crimes against Jews continue to rise in major American cities and across the country, the movie’s message makes it as timely, if not more so, than it was 75 years ago.

Finlay’s words to Leroy, convincing him to help catch Samuels’ killer, deserve to be repeated:

This business of hating Jews comes in a lot of different sizes. There’s the “you can’t join our country club” kind and “you can’t live around here” kind. Yes, and the “you can’t work here” kind. And because we stand for all of these, we get [the killer’s] kind. He’s just one guy, we don’t get him very often, but he grows out of all the rest.

We get this guy and his hatred more often than Finlay allows, but Crossfire’s insistence that America should be better than hatred is admirable. And at least Finlay is unafraid to acknowledge the ugliness of prejudice and hate in America’s past.

He calls it “American history.” “That’s history . . .They don’t teach it in school, but it’s real American history just the same.” Politicians and parents today, unwilling to let students in public schools grapple with unpleasantness in America’s past, should take note.

It’s surely no accident Finlay’s office, which has been smothered in shadows and darkness the other times we’ve seen it, is filled with morning light during the scene in which he delivers the above speech, and that we can finally see clearly on his walls not just the portrait of the late FDR but also his framed copy of the Declaration of Independence, and the Capitol dome outside his window.

This is aspirational American iconography. It announces the film’s hope and desire that America will not continue to e a nation of the senseless hate Finlay denounces—the hate that is always like a loaded gun, just waiting to go off.

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