Crossfire (1947)

crossfire 1.png

Like any self-respecting film noir, it opens with men whaling on each other amid stylized darkness. Edward Dmytryk’s Crossfire is an issue-driven picture and it’s an important one given the cultural moment in which it came into being. There’s no doubting that.

But though the imagery is spot on and we have numerous noir regulars, it doesn’t feel like a noir film in the semi-conventional sense. Maybe it’s because the issue it was looking to root out takes precedence over any of its more formalistic qualities and that’s perfectly fine.

From a practical standpoint, Dymytrk opted to shoot the film with low key lighting as it’s a cheaper set-up and also a lot quicker which allowed the picture to be churned out in a mere 20 days. However, it’s still quite befuddling how a film this short can still somehow be incomprehensible at times.

Like any good procedural it whips out a long list of characters introduced in every sequence who either have significant amounts of screentime or show up for a few moments and still manage to play a crucial part in this obscured piece of drama.

Realistically, Crossfire can be touted as the film of the three Roberts: Young, Ryan, and Mitchum. Robert Young will always be heralded as a television father much like Hugh Beaumont and so while I can never take him quite seriously in such a role as a police investigator, he certainly doesn’t do a poor job as Captain Finlay.

Paradoxically, Robert Ryan is one of those actors who is probably grossly underrated and yet as far as personal taste goes I’ve never liked him much (Though my esteem steadily rises). Maybe that simply pertains to the kind of characters he often played such as the belligerent Montgomery in this film. They are not meant to be affable and he does a wonderful job of eliciting a scornful reaction.

Likewise, Robert Mitchum has arguably the least important role of the three, but he still has that laconic magnetism that wins us over, portraying one of the other soldiers caught up in this whole big mess. Sgt. Peter Keeley is a bit of a tough guy but also ready to watch the back of his brothers in arms. He’s our counterpoint to Robert Ryan.

The minor players list out like so. The victim of it all was a man named Samuels (Sam Levene) who crossed paths with the demobilized soldiers in a bar and seemed nice enough. He even struck up a conversation with a homesick G.I. named Mitch (George Cooper) who Keeley guesses might be a prime suspect for murder.

Jacqueline White is the wanted Corporal’s concerned spouse while Gloria Grahame plays a characteristic noir dame who might prove to be an invaluable witness on his behalf, if only she’ll cooperate.

This is yet another link in the chain of post-war crime pictures where soldiers were returning home only to meet a new kind of disillusionment (ie. The Blue Dahlia or Act of Violence). A certain bar scene played over from multiple perspectives proves to be a pivotal moment, but it’s full of fuzzy recollections and screwy bits of information. No one seems quite sure what happened and the film banks on this ambiguity.

However, it’s about time to cease skirting around the obvious and say outright what the film is an indictment of. It’s anti-Semitism. “Jew-boy” is the trigger word. Though the film requires some reading between the lines, thanks to the production codes, there’s no context needed to understand what that means. It’s instantly apparent bigotry is rearing its ugly head.

As such, Crossfire shares a similar conviction with the year’s other famed issue-driven picture The Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) and it brings to mind the wartime short film headlined by Frank Sinatra, The House I Live In (1945).

But, of course, when you begin to analyze one group of people there always seem to be others still being marginalized whether Japanese-American, African-American, Mexican-American. You name it. And that’s part of what makes such a portrait fascinating. To see to what extent the lines of inclusion will be drawn up.

Though it’s evident that he’s preaching, there are still some steadfast truths coming from Robert Young as he tries to convince a soldier (William Phipps), still wet behind the ears, what he must do for the sake of his conscience. There’s a need to stand up to the bigots because hate is always the same. They hated the Irish and the Italians before just like they will continue to hate some other people group in years to come.

Even if the history gets pushed to the fringes and it doesn’t get taught in school, that doesn’t make it any less of the truth or any less of our history. It’s possible to contend that we are made stronger, not weaker when our troubled history and past indiscretions are fully acknowledged. Only then can we learn, heal the wounds, and pursue a better future together.

So Murder, My Sweet (1944) is still a superior film noir from Edward Dmytryk and probably a great deal more fun, but there’s no denying the message that’s at work behind Crossfire.

3.5/5 Stars

The Woman on the Beach (1947)

woman on the beach.png

The Woman on the Beach is ripe with subject matter that feels akin to Jean Renoir as much as any Hollywood picture possibly could be. Since the beach, in his specific case, initially evokes not the California coasts but the shores that might have so easily cropped up in the paintings of his renowned father Auguste Renoir. Marrying that preconception with the domain of beguiling femme fatales makes it all the more disconcerting.

But this is also a story of what it is to be an artist and you can see Renoir using the materials at his disposal to grapple with such themes which were no doubt ruminating in his own mind.

Like any director of irrefutable substance, Renoir was probably aspiring to do far more with the medium than his American backers would have preferred and that could explain why his movie was cut down from an unspecified length into the version we now have.

It’s true that the film is yet another collision of worlds with a tortured American tough guy like Robert Ryan paired with a French master of composition and commentary like Renoir. But far from being a mere incomprehensible jumble, the results are still revelatory if not quite flawless.

The opening underwater dreamscape proves to be an entrancing interlude as it plays out in Robert Ryan’s subconscious, brought to us by a self-imposed exile like Renoir no doubt with obstacles of his own to do battle with.

If we want to try and be standard in our appraisal of the picture by providing the cadence of the plot, it’s about a Coast Guard officer (Robert Ryan) stationed on the West Coast who is taken with a woman (Joan Bennett) he comes across when she is picking up firewood on the beach.

There’s an almost uncanny lucidity to how she pinpoints his deepest fears in their initial encounter and they come to the conclusion that they’re pretty much alike. How Peggy Butler can be so sure is slightly beyond the point. Certainly, it doesn’t make sense in rational terms.

Here again, we are met with the bewitching gaze of Joan Bennett that first came to my attention in a portrait found within a dream of a film called Woman in the Window (1944). She’s undoubtedly one of the underrated noir sirens out there because she was one of the preeminent talents in casting a spell of enchantment to entangle her male companions. Ryan falters much like Edward G. Robinson did previously, twice over.

Charles Bickford gives a performance of equal import as the blind artist Tod Butler, a man who is as attached to his work — a passion that he can no longer realize — as much as he is to his wife. They want to get rid of him in one moment and they think he’s faking his frailty in another but all these preoccupations fall by the wayside.

Thus, The Woman on the Beach cannot be branded as a pure film-noir but instead a vein of those crime pictures grafted with Renoir’s own sensibilities. Even if the studio knew in part what they were getting, it still makes sense that they were not completely satisfied.

It looks to be one of those sordid love triangles that were always a mainstay of film noir but, again even in its short running time with footage lopped off, it works beyond that and despite Hollywood’s best efforts (whether intentionally or not), Renoir’s going to have a voice.

To a degree, it’s possible to see some sort of progression from Le Bete Humaine (1938) in its stylized atmospherics highlighted by billowing smoke, psychological duress, and oh yes, an alluring gal playing opposite Jean Gabin in Simone Simon.

Aside from the luminescent Bennett, a few other ideas leave a lasting impression whether it’s the turmoil of an artist caught in the throes of obsession or the dreams that overtake a man plagued by post-traumatic stress. This picture has more to offer than you might expect.

It brings to mind John Huston’s Red Badge of Courage (1951) another cannibalized picture that in its present form is about two-thirds of a minor masterpiece. There’s still an exceptional spirit and resonance to what was leftover. It can only lead us to imagine what might have been on both accounts.

This would prove to be Renoir’s last film in the States before he washed his hands of the whole industry and returned to his native land to continue the creation of high-regarded works like he had never left. True, this is a picture that is often neglected but that’s simply because there are other works of great repute. That does not speak entirely to the detriment of The Woman on the Beach.

3.5/5 Stars

On Dangerous Ground (1951)

on-dangerous-ground-1Father hear my prayer. Forgive him as you have forgiven all your children who have sinned. Don’t turn your face from him. Bring him, at last, to rest in your peace which he could never have found here. ~ Ida Lupino as Mary Malden

On Dangerous Ground is essentially a throwaway plot about nothing but Nicholas Ray turns it into to something — something about everything that is universal and even transcendent about film. Bernard Herrmann’s score draws the audience in with a killer hook as he did for many of Hitchcock’s most iconic films later in the decade.

There are cop killers on the loose and the force is on high alert. The particular cops that we have the benefit of following get the honor of scrounging around every dive bar and crummy joint in town where the scum of the earth dwell at all hours.

It’s in these opening vignettes that we are introduced to the seedy underbelly of the urban wasteland. It’s no good but there are innumerable interesting characters and they’re not all bad. There’s Doc at the drugstore ready to fix ailments while also being handy for a sundae. Streetcorner newsmen are ready with a tip in a pinch almost on cue.

Still, Jim Wilson (R0bert Ryan) is all out of sorts — restless and prone to aggressive outbreaks. He’s not sparing the rod when it comes to apprehending criminals and questioning riff raff. And the very fact that Robert Ryan almost always has a nondescript expression on his face make his more heated outbursts unnerving. It’s enough of an issue that the police chief (Ed Begley) has to get on him. His partners warn him too, namely, the veteran Pop who has his share of ailments while still finding some time to wax philosophical about life.

Soon, enough is enough and Wilson is transferred to a case out in the country tracking down the culprit in the murder of a young girl. And in these moments On Dangerous Ground becomes all too real. He’s actually on thin ice if you want to get really technical, in both the figurative and literal sense. The vengeful patriarch (Ward Bond) is out for blood, waving around his shotgun just waiting to fill someone full of lead. And as it happens, the story becomes a snowcapped manhunt out in the country with Nicholas Ray developing a second distinct world in stark juxtaposition with the first.

If you wait for Ida Lupino’s entrance you will not be disappointed because it is a fabulous one indeed. She and Robert Ryan do make a heady combination as the film devolves into an extraordinary sensitive picture. Ray’s use of closeups near the end is remarkable in creating an immense intimacy between his protagonists. It leads to the question, can a film about police brutality also be about a policeman’s loneliness? In this case, the answer is yes. Because it seems like a great deal of the people within this story are in a similar state. There are frightened youths as well as alienated and isolated individuals who do not know how exactly to deal with other humans. But thankfully we can all learn.

On Dangerous Ground isn’t so much a cynical film as it is melancholy and so, far from seeing its ending as a cop-out, it actually feels like an extension of what Ray was doing all along. It’s this passionate almost spiritual escape from the world at large as reflected in the setting and ultimate outcome. The cop starts to untangle the mess of his life and begins to settle on a firmer foundation. His story need not end in the bowels of darkness. A holiday in the country is still attainable for him.

4/5 Stars

 

 

The Set-Up (1949)

SetupPosterWhat it manages to bring together within the frame of a meager B-film plot is quite astounding, balancing the brutality and atmospheric visuals with the direction of Robert Wise to develop something quite memorable. Boxing movies have been bigger and better, but film-noir has a way of dredging up the grittiest pulp and the Set-Up is that kind of film.

Its fight sequences are violently staged with human forms evoking the early realist images of George Bellows. However, it’s as much of a backroom drama as it is a fighting film. We see the payoff taking place behind Stoker Thompson’s (Robert Ryan) back as his manager (George Tobias) cuts a deal with the opposition without telling his main man what’s going on. He figures Stoker is all washed up at 35. There’s no way in heck he can beat the young buck he’s up against.

The dressing room is full of has-beens, young guns, and hopefuls who in just a few minutes paint a picture of what the boxing world really is. It’s a cruel game that is sweet in victory and sometimes even deadly in defeat. Still men of all backgrounds and values are drawn to it for one reason or another.

In fact, they are not the only ones. One of Robert Wise’s most formidable allies in this film are his close-ups that ratchet up his drama by utilizing the emotive reactions of his crowd. He builds a cadence introducing each nameless face early on and riding their reactions all the way through the fight. There is the woman who feigns repugnance only to reveal her ugly penchant for brutality. There’s the tub of lard who fills up on every concession imaginable while greedily watching the violence unfold. Then, the nervous husband who is constantly hitting and jabbing a phantom opponent. The list goes on.

We also witness the initial reluctance of Stoker’s girl (Audrey Totter) to go see him get beaten to a pulp. This is more than just fighting–it affects their future life together. And while he gets ready to fight, she listlessly wanders the streets too frightened to watch him get his block knocked off and still not yet empowered enough to change things. All she can manage is a jaunt through an arcade parlor, a few furtive glances overlooking the passing trains, and finally a lonely visit to a midnight diner. But this is hardly casting blame mind you.

The bottom line is that Stoker doesn’t see his girl ringside, and it feels like everyone down the line has abandoned him. There’s a need for vindication–to prove his worth when no one will give him a second thought. And that’s a dangerous place to be when people are betting on you to take a fall compliantly, namely one big whig named “Little Boy.” But Thompson’s not about to do that, fighting until he has nothing left to give. And he wins someway, somehow.

It’s when he gets ready to leave the building after the crowds have filed out and the trainers have left for home, that he meets an ominous welcoming committee. It’s not an unsurprising conclusion, but still, Thompson’s story finds a silver lining amidst all the violence. This film is a miracle of the studio age and Wise makes it an incessantly interesting piece of noir.

3.5/5 Stars

The Professionals (1966)

220px-Movie_poster_for_-The_Professionals-Who wouldn’t be enticed by a film entitled The Professionals? It feels a little like an amalgamation of The Magnificent Seven, The Dirty Dozen, with a  little sprinkling of Mission Impossible, and dare I say The Wild Bunch? We have a band of four big-time pros who are brought together to rescue the wife of a man named Grant (Ralph Bellamy). She is being held at ransom in the heart of Mexico. That’s no small task in the wake of Pancho Villa and the Mexican-American conflict, but these men are the best of the best.

The leader is none other than Lee Marvin (of The Dirty Dozen) with his prematurely white hair, leading the band as Rico Fardan, a skilled tactician, and former U.S. Army Officer. He is joined by Jake Sharp (Woody Strode), who is the best tracker around and also a crack shot with a bow and arrow. Next, comes skilled horseman and pack master Hans Ehrengard (Robert Ryan), who keeps mainly to himself. The most dynamic part is that of Bill Dolworth (Burt Lancaster), an unscrupulous scrounger who nevertheless is a good shot and an artist when it comes to using explosives. He’s not what you call a trustworthy type, but Rico would trust this man with his life and that says a lot.

Richard Brooks story is straightforward enough. This dream team goes in with their mission clear: The man who stands in there way is revolutionary turned outlaw Jesus Raza (Jack Palance), who is the one keeping Maria (Claudia Cardinale) captive.

As they push forward, they witness the brutality of Raza and his men as they raid a passing train and execute many of the occupants. Soon Fardan and his crew move in on Raza’s compound and wreak havoc one night so they can pull Maria out and take her to safety. But she seems like a very reluctant damsel in distress. She also seems very intimate with Raza. That’s the first sign that something’s up, but still, they follow the parameters of the assignment and pull her out.

Retribution follows and after a gunfight The Professionals flee through the mountains with Raza in hot pursuit. They use explosives to try and impede the progress of the rebels, and then Dolworth resolves to stay back to bide his partners time so they can get across the border. It’s at this point that he fights like one of the magnificent seven, in an impressive rearguard action that has his foes befuddled.

It’s when he actually comes face to face with his enemy that things become interesting. They know him and he knows them. Once upon a time, he fought with Raza and he was also acquainted with the lively female marksman Chiquita. When they finally get back to good ol’ Mr. Grant they find he’s not as straight-laced as they once thought, so they make a costly decision. They lose out on their big payoff but do the honorable thing by setting Maria free.

The Professionals gives us want we want. Honestly, we want cool characters and fun action sequences and that’s essentially what we get. There’s quite a bit of fairly graphic violence too for a ’60s western signaling a slow change in the genre. Lee Marvin is impeccable as the self-assured, tough as nails commanding type. Lancaster is, of course, the most interesting, and I can only imagine he had the most fun because playing a scoundrel would undoubtedly be a treat. Strode, Palance, and Cardinale were enjoyable to watch in their own rights as well since we did not necessarily need a whole lot of depth from them. It was only Robert Ryan’s role that felt rather like a throwaway part that did not have much to it. No matter, the Professionals was still an enjoyable all-star western.

J.W. Grant: You bastard.

Rico: Yes, sir. In my case an accident of birth. But you, sir, you’re a self-made man.

4/5 Stars

Caught (1949)

Caught_(1949_film)Max Ophul’s Caught is an interesting mix of soap opera drama and dark, brooding noir. It follows aspiring model Leonora Eames (Barbara Bel Geddes), who is obsessed with improving herself through charm school, landing a modeling job, and finding a rich husband. She’s not the only one in a world of young pretty girls who thinks money makes the world go round.

She’s a little bit different than the others, but they have slowly made her buy into the whole system. Then, one night she gets what all these gold digging girls could only dream of, she meets the filthy rich and oddly-named Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan), and it’s all quite by accident.

Soon more to prove a point than for love, Smith marries Leonora, and she tries her best to love him like a good wife. But he’s too busy and too difficult to get close to. She spends all her days stuck at home and unhappy with Smith’s hired aide Franzi Kartos (Curt Bois). Leonora realizes she needs something else and heads out to get a job away from Smith and his money.

The first opportunity she gets is as a receptionist for the doctor’s office of a kindly young pediatrician and his older colleague across the hall (Frank Ferguson). He pegs her as an odd applicant from the beginning but allows her to come on and work. Once she commits, Leonora proves to be a hard worker and she and Dr. Quinada (James Mason) hit it off, though he still finds her peculiar.

Once more, Lcaught2eonora tries to patch things up with Ohlrig who begs her to come back home, which she does. Because she wants their marriage to still work out. However, Leonora also gets some big news from a doctor that complicates the situation. She truly is caught. She cannot leave Smith due to their marriage and other difficulties while her affections truly lie with kindly Dr. Quinada who feels the same.

Ultimately, there has to be a showdown and so there is. Leonora has to make her decision. Then Smith has one of his angina attacks and she doesn’t want to help him. It causes her increased guilt and ensuing complications. But Ohlrig doesn’t die and Leonora finally has the future she wants with Quinada.

caught3Max Ophul’s was always a master with these types of melodramas and his trademark dolly shots are as prevalent as ever, developing some of the scenes wonderfully. It becomes more than a plot but a visual presentation too, and the shots often are augmented by how he moves in and about a room.  Robert Ryan steps into the villainous role easily and James Mason is a surprisingly amiable good guy. Also, though his role is small, Frank Ferguson is nonetheless pivotal and thoroughly enjoyable as a fatherly figure. Of course, Barbara Bel Geddes is a worthy protagonist, because she is ultimately the one trapped between her two male counterparts and she is the one who goes through the most mental torment with Ohlrig potentially being close behind.

Above all, Caught is a timeless indictment not simply of corrupt capitalism but a generally misguided philosophy that money is everything. Quinada has the best approach, realizing that money is necessary, but it can never buy you happiness or remedy your relationships. Smith never figures that out and it is difficult for Leonora to leave that worldview completely behind — as it is for many of us.

4/5 Stars

Act of Violence (1948)

ActofViolenceAct of Violence is an interesting post-war moral tale from director Fred Zinnemann. Frank (Van Heflin) returned home from war a hero. He now has a small child with his pretty young wife Edith (Janet Leigh) in the vibrant California town of Santa Lisa.

Little is known about his P.O.W. past and all his comrades were killed. Except one. His friend Joe (Robert Ryan) is still alive but he is plagued by a crippled leg now. He finds out about Frank’s whereabouts and it become his personal vendetta to straighten him out. The innocent Edith is in the dark about the whole ordeal and with the shadow of Joe constantly haunting him, Frank must family face the specter of his past.

He goes off on a business trip to escape and there out of desperation he winds up hiring a hit man to get Joe off his back. The two former buddies set up a meeting (which is really a trap), But as would be expected it does not work out as planned. Justice is dealt but there is still a strange sense of moral ambiguity. This is  certainly not Zinnemann’s best work, but it brings up some interesting questions about moral scruples and personal conflict.

3.5/5 Stars