Crossfire (1947): Dmytryk Film Noir, Starring Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan

Edward Dmytryk’s fascinating film Crossfire, starring Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan, was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, but it lost in each of its nominated categories to Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement, which swept the most important awards.

Its nominated screenplay, by John Paxton, was based on Richard Brooks’ novel The Brick Foxhole, though in a typically Hollywood manner, it changed the book’s homosexual hero into a Jew.

In retrospect, Crossfire is a better film than Gentleman’s Agreement in every aspect: theme, characterization, acting, and visual style.

Dealing with racial bigotry, this tense noir thriller is about a psychotic sergeant (Robert Ryan, who “specialized” in playing such roles), who beats a Jewish ex-sergeant to death. Detective Finlay (Robert Young), helped by Sergeant Keeley (Robert Mitchum) sets out to trap the killer.

All the noir conventions and devices are evident in Crossfire, beginning with its stylized and somber black-and-white cinematography by J. Roy Hunt and Roy Webb’s evocative music.

In the 1949 Oscar race, the major competitor for Kazan’s agit-prop “Gentleman’s Agreement” was Edward Dmytryk’s similarly-themed “Crossfire,” which lost in each of its five nominations.

Like Gentleman’s Agreement, Crossfire has its share of liberal messages and speeches against prejudice. But it boasts great acting by Ryan and Gloria Grahame, as a floozy dance-hall girl; both Ryan and Grahame were nominated for Supporting Oscar Awards.

Oscar Nominations: 5

Picture, produced by Adrian Scott
Director: Edward Dmytryk
Screenplay: John Paxton
Supporting Actor: Robert Ryan
Supporting Actress: Gloria Grahame

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context

Edward Dmytryk’s “Crossfire” lost in each of its five nominated categories. That “Gentleman’s Agreement” was voted Best Picture for ideological, not artistic, considerations is clear not only from its win over “Crossfire, but also in its win over David Lean’s masterpiece, “Great Expectations.” The Academy proved that when weighing a film’s contents against its style, the former counts more. The other Best Picture nominees represented lighter fare: “The Bishop’s Wife” and “Miracle on 34th Street.”