Crossfire (Edward Dmytryk, 1947), often classified as a film noir, and one of the first Hollywood films dealing with antisemitism, didn’t start out with that theme in mind. Instead, the film was based on Richard Brooks’ 1945 novel The Brick Foxhole and Brooks, then serving in the Marine Corps, made anti-gay prejudice – and the resulting violence it engenders – the focus of his book. However, screenwriter John Paxton was forced to change this to antisemitism to appease the Production Code, which forbade any mention of gay culture in the cinema of the period.

Budgeted at $678,000, Crossfire was a “B” project for RKO with a very short shooting schedule of just twenty days. Director Edward Dmytryk used only 140 setups (a complete change of camera angle and lighting) to make the film, far fewer than most feature films, averaging seven setups per day – a very fast pace indeed. He was still proving himself as a director, having only recently graduated from program pictures, such as the Boris Karloff horror film The Devil Commands (1941) for Columbia Pictures, and the sensationalistic Hitler’s Children (1943) for RKO, dealing with the ascending Hitler youth movement. Hitler’s Children was shot for $200,000 in a few weeks, but raked in nearly $3.5 million in release, saving the thinly capitalised studio from near bankruptcy.

Despite this, Dmytryk was still assigned such projects as Universal’s Captive Wild Woman (1943), a particularly repellent and racist horror film, until he finally clicked with a prestige project: Murder, My Sweet (1944) for RKO, starring former crooner Dick Powell as Raymond Chandler’s private detective character Philip Marlowe. Murder, My Sweet was a huge success, and Dmytryk followed it with the rousing war film Back to Bataan (1945) starring John Wayne, and then Till the End of Time (1946), about soldiers returning from World War II.

This led to the production of Crossfire, which put Dmytryk firmly into the front rank of Hollywood filmmakers of the era, and was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Dmytryk usually shot his films very quickly, and the title of this essay comes from the style of lighting he favoured in Crossfire and other of his RKO films of the period: a splash of light from either the left or right of the screen, or perhaps below or above, illuminating the scene with a burst of incandescence that then trails off into the dark, as ably executed by veteran cinematographer J. Roy Hunt. Hunt’s aggressive, fast paced cinematography renders Crossfire in bold pictorial strokes, often plunging the screen into complete darkness before a detail emerges during a scene – much more avant-garde than a conventional Hollywood film of the era.

Superficially a murder mystery, Crossfire centres on the beating death of one Joseph Samuels (Sam Levene), a harmless man who is killed seemingly for no reason. A group of returning soldiers fall under suspicion, particularly “Monty” Montgomery (a fiery Robert Ryan), who is clearly a raving antisemite, telling police Capt. Finlay (Robert Young, in a carefully understated performance) that Samuels was one of those “guys that played it safe during the war, scrounged around, keepin’ themselves in civvies, got swell apartments, swell dames . . . you know the kind. Some of them are named Samuels. Some of them got funnier names.” Monty’s inference is clear; he hates Jews. 

Monty also attempts to pin the murder on the blameless and somewhat clueless Cpl. Arthur “Mitch” Mitchell (George Cooper), one of the returning soldiers, but Capt. Finlay isn’t fooled by Monty’s attempts at misdirection. Mitch, in the meantime, gets drunk and wanders into a rundown dancehall, where he meets the suitably shopworn Ginny Tremaine (Gloria Grahame), who takes a liking to him, offers him the key to her apartment so he can sleep it off, and plans to meet him after she gets off work. As all of this is going on, another of the soldiers, Sgt. Peter Keeley (Robert Mitchum), starts adding up the various clues, and figures out that Mitch is innocent, convincing Capt. Finlay to follow up on his leads. Finlay decides to set a trap for Monty, as he becomes convinced Monty is responsible for Samuels’ death – a trap that proves lethally effective in the film’s final twist ending.

Crossfire is shot through with an almost existential sense of hopelessness, as typified by the drab hallways and dingy rooms the characters inhabit. Ginny’s cheap apartment is a sad and lonely place, made more surreal by the presence of a nameless man (Paul Kelly) who walks in unannounced and tells Cpl. Mitchell – who has been sleeping off his drunken binge – that he’s Ginny’s husband, or maybe he’s not, and laconically makes a pot of coffee while continuing to spin alternative reasons for his presence, much to Mitchell’s dismay. He’s another lost soul in a hostile world that offers little comfort, and little hope. The man finally admits he’s Ginny’s husband, although they are separated, and he later inadvertently serves as an alibi to clear Cpl. Mitchell of Samuels’ death. But even though the mystery of Samuels’ murder is finally solved, it seems that no one really belongs anywhere in the world of Crossfire, a zone of perpetual darkness and fatalism. These people simply exist, getting along as best they can in a cold, unforgiving post-war world. 

Gloria Grahame was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress for her work in Crossfire, much to RKO’s surprise. She’s on screen for just a few scenes in the film, but her world-weary demeanour makes every moment count; she’s one of society’s castoffs, cut adrift in a world that doesn’t care whether she lives or dies. Indeed, in most of her film work, Grahame’s parts are small, but have real impact; it’s as if her personality is so intense that the screen can barely contain it. For Grahame, Crossfire was another step towards genuine stardom; after bit parts in Richard Whorf’s Blonde Fever (1944) and a more memorable supporting role as the seductive Violet Bick in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Grahame’s complex and downbeat role in Crossfire allowed her a chance to show her true emotional range as an actor. 

Grahame was initially signed by MGM, but it was only after her contract was sold to RKO in 1947 that she was given a chance at bigger roles. Crossfire’s enthusiastic reception led to a loan out to Columbia, and her leading role opposite Humphrey Bogart in Nicholas Ray’s superb In A Lonely Place (1950) as Laurel Gray, a young woman who falls in love with troubled screenwriter Dixon Steele (Bogart), with tragic results. Yet during her tenure at RKO, Grahame was frustrated when she unsuccessfully campaigned for the leading roles in George Cukor’s Born Yesterday (1950) and George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun (1951), simply because RKO’s boss, the mercurial Howard Hughes, refused to loan her out. 

Eventually, Hughes relented, and Grahame’s career took off. Loaned to MGM for the role of Rosemary Bartlow, the somewhat scatterbrained wife of screenwriter James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell) in Vincente Minnelli’s acerbic look at Hollywood The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), Grahame won the Academy Award in 1953 for Best Supporting Actress. Grahame is in the film for just nine minutes, but her impact is immediate and undeniable. Grahame would have only a few more major films, including David Miller’s melodrama Sudden Fear (1952), starring Joan Crawford; Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953) as Debby Marsh, the tragic girlfriend of gangster Vince Stone (Lee Marvin); and Lang’s Human Desire (1954) as femme fatale Vicki Buckley, before her miscasting in Fred Zinnemann’s overblown version of the Broadway hit musical Oklahoma! (1955) led to the start of the downturn in her career. As someone who felt most at home in the darker world of noir, Grahame felt out of place in a wholesome mainstream musical, and her performance seems tentative and atypically insecure. In all, it seems to me that Hollywood never knew what to do with Grahame’s particular skill set; the films she never got to make (two of which are cited above) show that she knew what she had to offer, but the system often worked against her. 

Ryan’s full-throttle performance is clearly the centrepiece of Crossfire, neatly balanced by Robert Young’s calm but relentless pursuit of Monty, but Grahame’s portrayal of Ginny adds another dimension to the film – an insight into what it’s like to live in a world of constant struggle simply to survive. Monty is a part of that world, a part that threatens the fabric of society. As Capt. Finlay notes in the film, “hating is always the same, always senseless. One day it kills Irish Catholics, the next day Jews, the next day Protestants, the next day Quakers. It’s hard to stop.”

And yet, although Crossfire was a resounding success, bringing in more than $2.5 million at the box-office in the United States alone, trouble was brewing on the horizon. Shortly after the film’s release, Dmytryk and numerous other Hollywood directors, writers and actors were called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1947, which was investigating the supposed Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry. Dmytryk had briefly been a member of the Communist Party in 1944-1945, but renounced this affiliation and resigned from the Party, feeling that his participation had been a mistake. 

However, HUAC wasn’t content to let the matter rest, and Dmytryk became known as one of the Hollywood Ten – people who refused to name names in what was essentially a witch hunt, resulting in the destruction of literally hundreds of careers. Refusing to answer HUAC’s questions, the Hollywood Ten were cited for contempt of Congress, sentenced to prison terms, and fired by their respective employers. Dmytryk initially fled to England – then a haven for blacklist victims – where he directed two minor films, and then returned to the United States where he was immediately arrested and put in prison. After serving four and a half months of his sentence, Dmytryk agreed to cooperate with HUAC. He named 26 names in all, including the producer of Crossfire, Adrian Scott. Each of these people’s careers suffered immense damage as a result; some worked under aliases (as screenwriters), some fled the country, others dropped out of the industry altogether. For his part, Dmytryk remained unrepentant, claiming that the names he gave HUAC were already well known to the committee, and that his actions were above reproach.

Almost immediately after his testimony, Dmytryk found work with producer Stanley Kramer, in the remarkably vicious serial killer film The Sniper (1952) and The Caine Mutiny (1954), which starred Humphrey Bogart as a captain whose complete mental breakdown during a storm causes his fellow sailors to mutiny. Gradually, however, his career plateaued, and after directing the rather disastrous Bluebeard (1972) with Richard Burton, Dmytryk reinvented himself as an academic, teaching at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Southern California, in addition to writing several books on film theory and practice, as well as an autobiography, Odd Man Out: A Memoir of the Hollywood Ten (1996), in which he defended his interactions with HUAC.1 

Crossfire is thus an end and a beginning for Dmytryk. One of the best and most compact films that Dmytryk ever made, it was an obvious culmination of his work as a “B” director at Monogram, Universal, RKO and Columbia, demonstrating his skill and speed as a filmmaker, both in technical aspects and in his work with the actors and writers who collaborated with him on the project. But in the almost immediate aftermath of the film, by cooperating with HUAC, Dmytryk destroyed the careers of many of those whom he had worked with. After that, his films, with a few exceptions, are conventional studio work, lacking the energy and intensity of his earlier work. 

It’s ironic that the person who made such an effective film about discrimination, which is what Crossfire in essence is, would himself become a person who would cause such damage to so many of his colleagues. Dmytryk’s decision to cooperate with HUAC furthered his own career, but destroyed the lives of those who believed in him and championed his work, including his closest associates. That’s the paradox of Crossfire; a sincerely made film about a serious problem, created by a man who subsequently betrayed many of the values the film embraced.

Crossfire (1947 USA 86 mins)

Prod Co: RKO Radio Pictures Prod: Adrian Scott Scr: John Paxton Dir: Edward Dmytryk Phot: J. Roy Hunt Ed: Harry Gerstad Art Dir: Alfred Herman, Albert S. D’Agostino Mus: Roy Webb 

Cast: Robert Young, Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Gloria Grahame, Paul Kelly, Sam Levene, George Cooper


  1. Edward Dmytryk, Odd Man Out: A Memoir of the Hollywood Ten (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996).

About The Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Professor Emeritus of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, editor of the book series Quick Takes: Movies and Popular Culture for Rutgers University Press, which has to date published more than twenty volumes on various cultural topics. He is the author of more than thirty books on film history, theory, and criticism, as well as more than 100 articles in various academic journals. He is also an active experimental filmmaker, whose works are in the permanent collection of The Museum of Modern Art. His recent video work is collected in the UCLA Film and Television Archive. He has also taught at The New School, Rutgers University, and the University of Amsterdam. His recent books include Synthetic Cinema: The 21st Century Movie Machine (2019), The Films of Terence Fisher: Hammer Horror and Beyond (2017), Black & White Cinema: A Short History (2015); Streaming: Movies, Media, and Instant Access (2013); Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood (2012); 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (2011, co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster); and Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (2009). Dixon’s second, expanded edition of his classic book A History of Horror (2010) was published in 2023. Dixon's book A Short History of Film (2008, co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster) was reprinted six times through 2012. A second, revised edition was published in 2013; a third, revised edition was published in 2018; and a fourth revised edition with a great deal of new material will be published in early 2025. The book is a required text in universities throughout the world. As an experimental filmmaker, his works have been screened at The Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, Anthology Film Archives, Filmhuis Cavia (Amsterdam), Studio 44 (Stockholm), La lumière collective (Montréal), The BWA Katowice Museum (Poland), The Microscope Gallery, The National Film Theatre (UK), The Jewish Museum, The Millennium Film Workshop, The San Francisco Cinématheque, LA Filmforum (Los Angeles), The New Arts Lab, The Exploding Cinema (London), The Collective for Living Cinema, The Kitchen, The Filmmakers Cinématheque, Film Forum, The Amos Eno Gallery, Sla 307 Art Space, The Gallery of Modern Art, The Rice Museum, The Oberhausen Film Festival, Undercurrent, Experimental Response Cinema and other venues. In addition, Dixon’s films have been screened at numerous film festivals throughout the world, including presentations in London, New York, Toronto, Paris, Berlin, Monterrey (Mexico), Urbino (Italy), Tehran (Iran), Naples (Italy), Athens (Greece), Bosnia and Herzegovina, Rybinski (Russia), Palermo (Italy), Madrid (Spain), Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), Australia, Qatar, Amsterdam, Vienna, Moscow, Milan, Switzerland, Croatia, Stockholm (Sweden), Havana (Cuba) and elsewhere.

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