It’s an oft-repeated story: Guy walks into a bar with his army buddies. Guy ends up getting picked up by another guy and goes to his apartment. Guy wakes up God-knows-where, discombobulated by God-knows-what substances he’s consumed hours earlier, with no memory of what happened after he left the bar. Later, he discovers that he’s wanted for the murder of his recently met “companion” and is being pursued not only by the police but by the murderer as a potential witness. Meanwhile, his buddies are both pursuing their misbegotten comrade down alleys shrouded by a darkness more than night, and the killer as well, who is probably embedded within their own ranks.
Crossfire, whose plot follows a variation of this outline, is a 1947 film adapted from the novel The Brick Foxhole by future writer/director Richard Brooks. Due to the Hays Office’s prohibition on references to homosexuality, writer John Paxton, producer Adrian Scott and director Edward Dymytryk came up with a provocative substitution; making antisemitism the motive for the crime. By today’s standards this switch waters down the story’s impact. Following WWII, it seemed that overt antisemitism was passé in polite discourse (the subject of Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement) while homosexuality was still only spoken of in faint whispers. Within the growing evolution of film noir, Crossfire’s portrayal of anti-Jewish prejudice underscores the erasure of anti-fascist themes in public space after WWII, and how certain films adopted and resisted those trends.
To grapple with Crossfire’s politics, one must struggle with the fact that critics and fans can’t agree on the definition of film noir. Is it a genre, a style, or a hybrid of both? Is it confined to an era, and if so, when does it begin or end? I would argue that a film noir isn’t simply a hard-boiled urban crime drama set in the Cold War, nor is it simply an expressionistic style used in a psychologically motivated murder story. To quote Vivian Sobchack, film noir is a chronotope constituting “a premise that, in existing both concretely and visibly in both the films and the culture, materially grounds both the internal logic of the films and the external logic of the culture and allows each to be intelligible in terms of each other. “
In Crossfire, dive bars, flop houses, and all-night movie theaters are the dominant sites of public social interaction, making up the culture’s external logic. Such spaces are associated with the working-class residential grid, whose residents and tourists are consumers rather than producers. Film noir wedded ideologically preconceived notions that these places harbored criminality, rootlessness, and poverty to a baroque style of theatrical artifice. The result of this interface between social beliefs and melodramatic narrative creates what Mikhail Bahktin called “a piece of human history, historical time condensed in space.”
In Crossfire, as well as other noirs, this process begins with selecting what part of the working-class public sphere to show. Actions conducive to moving the narrative forward take precedence while others get relegated to the background. In musicals, such as 1944’s Hollywood Canteen, the patrons’ ethnic and socio-economic diversity offers a heterogenous vision of the WWII-era nightclub. Crossfire’s crowd of roving soldiers on leave, taxi dancers with alienated, potentially violent husbands (played by noir stalwarts Gloria Grahame and Dan Duryea for a bit of intertextuality), and a homicidal, racist sergeant (Robert Ryan, ditto) presents a more hostile environment.
Crossfire’s condensation of spatial archetypes distinguishes it from other film noirs insofar as it erases any specific correspondence of the setting to any actual city, concocting a mixture of anonymity and universality. The characters have no specific proprietary relationship or localized belongingness to their environs, although they partially understand the space’s normative public usage and how those traditions can be subverted under pressure. The cozy, book-strewn psychologist’s apartment becomes the site of his sadistic murder. A possible one-night stand in a sleazy rooming house is interrupted by the host’s stalking ex-husband. The darkness of a downtown movie theater serves as a haven for the wrongfully accused’s buddies to share information and evade the prying eyes of the authorities. The characters’ violations of the normative usages of those locations intensify the pursuit while conveying the notion that urban space is inherently unstable.
This conflation of moral impermanence and spatial instability fertilized the soil from which film noir grew. Like most postwar American crime melodramas, Crossfire hyperbolizes selective aesthetic elements (costumes, décor, photography, performance, music, and dialogue) to dramatize its character’s environmental confusion. The murder is silhouetted in a shadow on the wall in the victim’s apartment. The killer’s arrest is framed by shadows cast by the slats of a staircase. Opaque corners, doorways, and windows confine the characters in vertiginous Fibonacci spirals. Dutch angles, chiaroscuro lighting, and a discordant, aggressive orchestral score enhance the conflict between an impersonally malevolent environment and the characters’ search for a more orderly sense of security.
The dialectic between individual needs and the environment provides not only a subtext for Crossfire but the whole film noir canon. The film’s baroqueness doesn’t entirely exclude a real-world reading into its social significance. The tension between individual needs (and the sense of security necessary to achieve them) and society’s inability to meet them exists concurrently in Crossfire’s invocation of film noir tropes and in the material world the audience inhabits. The key question is whether the noir chronotopography, the connection of place and time that Sobchak calls “lounge time”, supports or defies Hollywood’s ideological agenda. The text provides no easy answer.
Film noir has long been read as an extension of debunkerism: a critique of the real estate boosters and business interests promoting urban growth, particularly in Los Angeles. It is remiss to think, however, that film noir offers an entirely anti-capitalist critique. These narratives, as Norman Klein writes, erased L.A.’s ethnic diversity and communal cohesion, particularly in boroughs like Bunker Hill and Angelino Heights, whose Victorian houses and steep streets provided many a film location in the 1940s. Eric Avila has pointed out that film noirs’ demonization of older proletarian spaces coincided with government-subsidized lending policies that moved white-collar managers and skilled workers to suburbs with covenants outlawing mixed-race neighborhoods, thus erecting a barrier from the perceived evils of the cities. Hollywood films fostered a deep distrust of “chocolate” downtowns, validating suburban voters’ opposition to low-income housing and support for racially targeted crime suppression. While the crime films of the 1940s promulgated a counter-myth to civic boosterism, they nevertheless produced the same result — an ideologically driven promotion of white flight and urbanized zones of de jure segregation.
As you can see from the description above, Crossfire isn’t exempt from this trend. The film’s style intensifies the negative depiction of spaces corrupted by the transience of its characters. In fact, the destabilizing threat of traumatized vets let loose in an alienating environment is a noir motif running through films like Deadline at Dawn, He Walked By Night, Somewhere in the Night, High Wall, The Blue Dahlia, and Act of Violence. Yet in calling attention to the persistence of antisemitism, Crossfire raises awareness of the racism and ethnocentrism that flourished in a country that just fought a war to oppose it. In fact, it invokes the promise of a more socially heterogeneous country that once existed in those spaces.
Beginning in the late 19th century, the development of what Kathy Peiss called “cheap amusement” zones, like movie theaters, amusement parks, and concert venues, attracted Americans from all walks of life, providing leisure-based alternatives to the more gender-, class- and ethnically exclusive domain of the saloon and fraternal lodge. Many of these new venues were developed by Jewish and other Eastern European entrepreneurs, and they nourished a culturally mixed moral economy, developing new modes for heterosocial dating rules and consumer tastes.
Social reformers, long suspicious of how saloons and working-class social clubs fostered political and labor agitation, expressed new concerns about the effect of these zones’ cross-class attractiveness on America’s youth. Yet the passage of the 19th Amendment, by driving many of these spaces underground, allowed for cross racial patronage poly-ethnic mixing in nightclubs and other public venues. The most noticeable of these zones was Harlem, where white music lovers patronized Black musicians. Even gay bars in Greenwich Village attracted a tourist industry. The memories and personages of jazz music and faint echoes of the 1920s “pansy craze” were preserved in the movies despite Hays Office censorship.
Liquor licensing boards following Prohibition attempted to domesticate activities associated with those spaces by force of the law. Nevertheless, as Lewis Erenberg states “vision that consumption, personal freedom, and fulfillment…kept alive the dream of nightclubs as the epitome of smart city living.” WWII further enhanced the reputation of urban nightlife as an extension of modern values, presenting the egalitarianism of public space as an example of anti-fascist values. In Hollywood Canteen, a Warner Brothers vehicle selling the war effort, the high culture of Hollywood cosmopolitanism mixed with the low comedy of Jack Benny. Black servicemen sat at tables alongside their white campmates, their presence acknowledged by none other than Bette Davis from the bandstand. The Andrews Sisters breach the demarcation of the proscenium by shimmying off the stage and joining the crowd during “Cow Cow Boogie”. One number even celebrates the zoot suit, the flamboyant style of clothing at the center of the 1943 race riot involving Chicano youth and the US Navy. The wartime era embraced diversity as a positive reflection of American values, coupling the fluidity of racial and ethnic boundaries to a sense of patriotic mission.
At first glance, Crossfire represents the slide into the representative demonization of proletarian public space that one might expect in the era of working-class white flight. Its representation of urban decline reinforces notions that cities are beset with poverty, crime, and anxiety; conditions mirrored in the feelings that the noir aesthetics evoke. And yet, the murder of a sympathetic Jewish analyst harkens back to the time when the presence of ethnic players was a commonly recognized part of the American tapestry. It projects ambivalence towards the anti-urbanism of the noir genre in 1947 by exposing the bigotry of the white, middle-class provincialism at the core of civic boosterism.
The glimmer of political resistance hinted at in the film wasn’t lost on the film industry’s critics. Dymtryk and Scott were blacklisted and jailed for their membership in the Communist Party and refusal to name names in front of Congress. This, and many of their earlier, more aggressively anti-fascist films were used by HUAC and publications like Red Channels to falsely associate the “Jewish” film industry with exploiting negative conditions of American life to undermine patriotism. As discourse rationalizing book bans and stifling discussion about diversity re-emerges in contemporary political life, it is important to call attention to old movies like Crossfire that were conscious of this trend all along. It is also important to recognize how movies can use a popular style to both accept and challenge ideological trends, often in the same moment. If sunshine and darkness represent the dialectic of the American imagination of the postwar era, Crossfire demonstrates the presence of a dialectic within the night, one in which past and present talk to each other in the shadows.