Night of the Roberts

Watching lots of RKO films for a project which may or may not happen, but the research is fun anyway.

If you’re ever caught up in an argument about which is the true auteur, Val Lewton or Jacques Tourneur, you can always bamboozle both sides by plumping for Nicholas Musuraca, who shot not only CAT PEOPLE but several other Lewton horrors, as well as OUT OF THE PAST, THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE, DEADLINE AT DAWN, THE LOCKET and STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR (the first film noir?) giving them all the same beautiful, shadowy look.

CROSSFIRE is an interesting one. It’s a sort of knock-down fight between studio boss Dore Schary’s social conscience cinema, Dmytryk and Musuraca’s noir dramatism, and Richard Brooks’ source novel. The novel’s victim was killed because he was gay — a startling story element for the time, which would have surprised readers. The movie’s victim, Sam Levene, is killed because he’s Jewish, and the moment Robert Ryan is heard to say “jewboy,” all pretense of mystery disappears and it becomes incredible that Robert Young doesn’t put two and two together.

Robert Mitchum is the third Robert, and has all the best lines, making me wonder if he wrote them, as he occasionally did at this time (HIS KIND OF WOMAN, THE LUSTY MEN).

But a surprising number of Brooks’ homosexual hints remain, flapping loose ends attached to nothing at either end. Ryan takes special note of Levene talking to his “sensitive artist” friend George Cooper, and it’s made to look like a pick-up, viewed in covert POV across the bar top. The whole set-up, with Levene randomly inviting strangers back to his pad, is slightly odd.

The film benefits from a wild, shape-shifting structure that leaps between viewpoints, so that Mitchum, Young, Cooper, his wife Jacqueline White, and even Ryan take turns as our principal, point-of-view character. The film seems to take its form from the drunken binge that initiates the action, veering about through time and space, doubling back on itself picking up false trails and introducing characters who go nowhere.

Best of these is Paul Kelly, with his face of a cork golem and his body shaped like a sandwich in a suit, staring dead-eyed at Cooper as he wantonly freaks him out with lies and non-sequiturs. Who is he and why is he here? We never quite learn, though “pimp” is the most obvious explanation for his presence in Gloria Grahame’s bijou apartment (the kitchen is a wall behind a curtain). He’s just very strange. If he was Dan Duryea, we’d say “pimp” and shrug it off. But Kelly seems to lack the confidence for that. Even he doesn’t seem to know who he is.

The film’s good-hearted ambitions mean Young has to provide protracted expositions on the evils of antisemitism (but with no mention of the recent Holocaust, strangely enough), which are quite well written (adaptation by John Paxton) but the purpose is better served by Ryan’s pathological hate speech. He’s clearly enough positioned as the heavy so that explaining why is redundant. But the most evocative stuff is the unexplained and unexplainable, the lacunae of Brooks’ deleted story and the walking lacuna that is Paul Kelly.

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16 Responses to “Night of the Roberts”

  1. You’re quire right. “Crossfire” doesn’t replicate “The Brick Foxhole” precisely but what used to b called “strange twilight urges” still float about Sam Levine (of all people! I saw him live on stage as Nathan Detroit in the original Broadway production of “Guys and Dolls” back in 1951) This was quite the deal historically. The War was an enormous “Coming Out” for America as men from all over met and quite often “got busy.” They could all die tomorrow so “Who Cared?” There’s a marvelous book about this called “Coming Out Under Fire” but I should also recommend some scholarship in regards to “From here To Eternity.” The original draft James Jones submitted to the publishers was lot gayer than the released book. As for the film the reason why “Fatso”(Ernest Borgnine”) hates “Maggio” (Frank Sinatra) so much is that “Maggio” is quite “out” about his activities within the confines of the army, and “Fatso” suffers from what we call today “Internalized Homophobia” Imagine — All This and Monty Too!

    The title “The Brick Foxhole” is marvelously evocative. The battles the soldiers fought in the war were followed by other battles at home — particularly in the cities which were rife with “strange twilight urges.”

  2. Marvelous. Crossfire is unusually explicit for a noir in citing “post-war disillusion” as a theme — and Sam Levene gets the speech that lays it all out.

    Zinnemann, forced to cut From Here to Eternity down to two hours exactly, had to cut Sinatra’s most moving line, “Careful with his head,” when Monty is being carried off at the end. That could have fitted beautifully with the deleted sub-text.

  3. It’s a shame Jack Larson passed before completing his memoir. He and Monty were “Friends with Benefits” for a great many years and Jack knew him well.

  4. Tony Williams Says:

    I deal with the original ms. of FROM HERE TO ETERNITY in my JAMES JONES: THE LIMITS OF ETERNITY (Rowman and Littlefield, 2016). Though set in the immediate pre-Pearl Harbor era, the novel is also about its historical appearance in 1951 during the blacklist era. The original text mentions a newly appointed Congressman Rankin whose later notoriety in HUAC was well-known. It would set alarm bells ringing among sub-editors. Jones’s original typescript that is in the special collections section of the University of Illinois library as Jones’s written comments on it to editors such as “Please don’t cut this out” more often than not dealing with gay sexuality. A round-up of gays in the book has FBI agents in the background this making the novel more contemporary to its era than historical. It is a shame that this author is currently neglected by the critical establishment. Jones was also very supportive towards Monty and invited him to the Handy Writer’s Colony in Marshall, Illinois, that he financially supported.

  5. Thank you M. Williams!

  6. Fascinating stuff. The deliberate anachronisms maybe also relate to the way Hollywood movies about events earlier in the 20thy century rarely bothered to get anything other than the cars right. A looser approach to history seems to be in operation.

  7. CHarles W. Callahan Says:

    Paul Kelly is one of the best damn American actors ever.
    Google him. Quite a story.

  8. Oh yes. Actual manslaughterer, etc. Such a striking presence.

  9. Sometimes they didn’t even bother with the cars. Period detail didn’t become a real interest until “Bonnie and Clyde” in 1967, and even there Faye’s hair is all wrong.

  10. Tony Williams Says:

    When the BFI Screen Group ran its annual Stirling University Summer School in 1975 Film Noir rather than hard core theory was the focus. Everybody loved Paul Kelly as “The Man” in CROSSFIRE and when the tutors heard that students wanted to start a Gloria Grahame fan club, it was back to hard core Althusser/Lacanian subject matter the following year.

    When student numbers made it possible for me to teach a Summer School on Robert Aldrich I always used to begin it with CROSSFIRE and suggested that Kelley was an alter ego shadow figure for the fugitive soldier. The Man may or may not have been a veteran and, I think, his last line mentioned enlisting. Both he and Ginnie are the noir versions of the married couple torn apart by war. He also symbolizes the instability and uncertainty of the post-war condition in an America now uncertain of its future direction now one little peanut has been consumed Later at the Memphis Film Festival I was fortunate enough to meet and talk with the actress who played Mary Mitchell and she actually gave me a free autograph afterwards. Dmytryk’s widow was also present and I told her how much I liked CROSSFIRE while diplomatically omitting my other feelings concerning her late husband.

  11. Other feelings: I guess I have to watch The Cain Mutiny and Walk on the Wild Side and maybe some others, but my feeling is that Dmytryk lost everything when he snitched. Another victim of the blacklist, in another way: he lost his talent. Of course blockbusters like The Young Lions have a kind of turgidity baked in, usually, but BOY did he become the ideal man to bring out the bloated in any sibject.

    Period detail: hair and makeup were the last to catch on to the idea of verisimilitude (see Doctor Zhivago for a particularly egregious example). Kazan in Splendor in the Grass seems like an early adopter of period accuracy. Maybe Stroheim had given it a bad name.

    And yes, Kelly seems like the exaggerated embodiment of the young hero’s state of mind: total uncertainty about everything. To the hero he appears a tormenting, malevolent figure, whereas to the cops he seems pathetically eager to help, but does nothing but close down promising avenues of inquiry. A human blind alley.

  12. Tony Williams Says:

    Agree with you about Dmytryk’s post-blacklist career. It does seem that Adrian Scott was his better angel. His later films lack inspiration and he even makes the promising WARLOCK turgid. ” “human blind alley” is a superb description of The Man.

  13. Dmytryk made at least one post-blacklist film to which he brought a vitality reminiscent of his work in the forties: Mirage, a thriller with a script by Peter Stone and a cast which includes Gregory Peck, Walter Matthau, Walter Abel, and Kevin McCarthy. I don’t know if you’ve seen it: if you haven’t, it’s worth a look.

  14. Wow, I was aware of Mirage but didn’t realise it was so interesting. What with Peck and all. I’ll check it out. Diane Baker!

    Dmytryk’s books on filmmaking are pretty good.

  15. Yes, his books on filmmaking are but not his autobiography ODD MAN OUT which is, naturally self-serving.

  16. Yes, and as with Kazan, he’s really not prepared to look himself in the eye on the subject of naming names.

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