The Also-Rans Project – Crossfire (Best Picture Also-Ran 1947)

Crossfire213.jpgDirected by Edward Dmytryk

Screenplay by John Paxton, based on the novel “The Brick Foxhole” by Richard Brooks

Starring Robert Mitchum, Robert Young, Robert Ryan and Gloria Grahame

Chances are you’ve never heard of William Phipps.  Until I saw Crossfire, I’d never heard of him either.  Of course, given he had a largely undistinguished screen career it makes sense to not hear of him.  Probably his most-widely seen role was as Prince Charming in Disney’s original Cinderella, but given that was voice work and you never actually saw his face, does that even count?  That said, his IMDB page does list some 229 acting credits, stretching from 1947-2000, none of which were what you’d call memorable roles.[1]  Still, that’s a pretty robust career for a guy whose name you do not know.

It’s sad he’s not more well-known, given he was easily the standout of Crossfire, his feature-film debut.  Cast as the dumb, scared and cowed Leroy, who seems to exist only as a punching bag for Robert Ryan’s Montgomery, he brings a level of reality to the role the others in the film fall short of.  Sure, they do credible work, but Phipps truly has something extra and even if he’s in the film for maybe 10 minutes at most, those 10 minutes make a mark.

Image result for william phipps crossfire

Phipps (Left), with Robert Ryan

That he’s not more well-known almost certainly has little to do with his acting – a man doesn’t get 229 acting credits by accident – but was the result of the studio system.  After all, back in the day most actors didn’t have a lot of say-so over their careers and the type of films they wound up in.  No, they were merely contract players assigned to a part and when a part was assigned, you did it.  And because Phipps didn’t have the cool, easy charm or good looks of a traditional movie-star, like Mitchum, or the unpredictability and raw edge needed to play heavies, like Ryan, he would be relegated to smaller, less-heralded roles.  One suspects if he was really given the chance at something great he might’ve become a much bigger name – after all, guys like Ernest Borgnine proved that you don’t need a pretty face and a toned body to be a movie star.

As it is, he was a fine supporting actor that many people have never heard of.

Nevertheless, Phipps’ part in the film left me contemplating the always-fascinating philosophical question of whether it is better to have been a one-hit wonder, or a no-hit wonder?[2]  While the one-hit wonder does get to have enjoyed some modicum of success, they also have the displeasure of seeing it pulled away and being unachievable again.  Whereas, while the no-hit wonder doesn’t have to deal with the disappointment of never breaking through again, they do have to deal with never breaking through at all.

Having only been on the no-hit side of the equation in my writing life I can’t truly give a balanced take on the question.  However, I am willing to try and see it from the other side and report back on the findings.  So, if you’ve got the juice to make anything happen, don’t be afraid to be in touch.  I’m sure we can work magic.

What’s It About?

It all starts with a murder.  Signs immediately point to a soldier, last seen having had drinks with the dead man just minutes before the poor man’s demise.  But, something about it all seems a little fishy and thanks to the diligence of weary detective and one of the soldier’s buddies, the true killer, and his motive, are revealed.

How Was It?

Crossfire started life as a B-picture, the kind of cheap, profitable genre fair studios used to make by the bucket-loads in the days before TV was a thing.  They were designed to make money, not art.  Crossfire, despite being heavily rooted in the style and milieu of the B-picture somehow transcended its origins to eventually be seen as a classic, racking up 6 Oscar nominations in the marquee categories, including Best Picture and Best Director.  It was an unheard of achievement for that kind of film.

But even if it seemed to transcend it’s origins, and even if it has the reputation of an important film, it still plays, and feels, very much like a B-picture.[3]  Unlike the lavish costumes and sets of A-pictures, there is nothing lavish in Crossfire.  The costumes are simple, the sets are nothing more than plain, unadorned rooms, and because the film takes place over the course of a night, there was no need for crowd scenes or extras.  Moreover, rather than tell the story by ‘showing’ it, much of the action is carried by ‘telling’ it – in fact, there’s hardly any action in the film at all.  And in most ways the film is decidedly obvious and simple – there’s hardly a complexity to the story, or the mystery, at all.  So much so that from the first moment Robert Ryan appears onscreen and opens his mouth, it’s apparent who the killer is and what his motive was.[4]

Image result for robert mitchum crossfireThat said, the film does what it can with what it has and since the budget was no-frills, the film eschews them.  As an economical film it has economical performances.  Mitchum is so laid-back he practically sleeps through his part.  Young[5] is effectively weary as the detective and Ryan is appropriately slimy and guilty.  The direction is uncomplicated and efficient, almost to the point of being uninteresting and even if it never quite crosses the line into being uninteresting, it does flirt with it.[6]  Perhaps the boldest choice the film makes, and one probably motivated less by the art of it and more by the budget of it, is the music in the film is almost wholly diegetic – there is little-to-no score at all.  But by eschewing the score the film forces the action to drive the piece without relying on musical stings, meaning the film has to be ever-more-efficient in telling the story.

In the end that might be the greatest compliment to be paid to the film – it is efficient.

That all said, the film still felt like a bundle of missed opportunities and more than once I couldn’t help but wonder what a director like John Huston, or Billy Wilder, or even later a Roman Polanski, would have done with the material.

Image result for gloria grahame crossfireGloria Grahame

For roughly the 10 years between 1946 and 1956, Gloria Graham was one of the most recognizable actresses in movies, landing roles in several high-profile projects.  Her break was as Violet Bick in Frank Capra’s first post-WWII flick, It’s A Wonderful Life.  After that she’d work with her husband, director Nicholas Ray, on the not-nearly-as-well-known-as-it-should-be, In A Lonely Place,[7] would appear as Angel in the Best Picture winner, The Greatest Show on Earth, would win her own Oscar as the tragic southern housewife in The Bad and The Beautiful, would steal The Big Heat out from under Glenn Ford and Lee Marvin, shine as the perhaps too-agreeable Ado Annie in Oklahoma and play the love-weary American in The Man Who Never Was.  It was quite a run.

Amidst them she’d be Oscar nominated for playing the prostitute Ginny in Crossfire – though she’s not explicitly a prostitute in the film, the implication is there.

As an actress, Grahame never really seemed to have a career as a leading lady and it’s unclear if she could carry a film on her own.  Sure, she’s pretty and charming and could have played romance, but there’s always something too sexy about her, even in her most-innocent roles, that reeks of danger.  It was hardly a quality female stars were allowed to embody at the time – leading men could be dangerous, leading women could not.  That’s because me could be threatening and still be stars, while women could not.  So, despite the acting chops, she never really seemed to get the chance to reach beyond herself.

But, whether she could carry a film on her own or not, she was gold as a supporting player.  Just go back and look at her spots in all those films listed above and you’ll see she’s an actress of real range, who can bring something special to even the smallest roles.  Sure, at heart all her parts revolve around her sex appeal, but she is never one-note with it and proved to be a perfect compliment to any film.  And while Crossfire expects nothing more than competence from her, she still gives her all and leaves as much of a mark on the film as our guy William Phipps did.

Given her talent, it’s too bad that by 1960 her film career was basically over.  Throughout that decade she’d only appear in one film, 1966’s Ride Beyond Vengeance, and thereafter would only ever appear in lower-budget fare, or in one-off parts on TV.

Clearly, there were a number of reasons her film career cooled.  First was the scandal of having had an affair, then marrying and having children with, her stepson, Anthony Ray.  Then there was the fact that her acting seemed a bit out of step with the 1960s.  Seeming built more for playing the female parts in film noirs, the films of the sixties tended to be big and bright and full of color, at least those that weren’t drifting towards complete realism.  She simply ran into an era of contrasting style.  Never mind she was in her late-30s by 1960, an age when women in Hollywood start being pushed aside in favor of something younger.  It’s a shame that an Oscar winner, and a woman of her talent, would fall in this way, but this is the reality of the era she worked in.

Monsieur verdoux57.jpgBetter than Best?

The 1947 Oscars were all about Gentleman’s Agreement, the film that gave the snitch Elia Kazan his first Oscar win.  Though Gentleman’s Agreement was light-years away from Crossfire in terms of budget and intended-prestige – Gentlemen’s Agreement was made to win awards – that two films explicitly about the evils of anti-Semitism competed head-to-head at the 1947 Oscars is surely not an accident.  Indeed, the glory both films received seems more a product of the repudiation of bigotry and anti-Semitism, and an extension of the brand of WWII, than anything else.  It just so happened that these two films were in the right place, at the right time, and it just as easily could have been any film on anti-Semitism as it was these ones in particular.

Still, while the stand against anti-Semitism is a laudable one, it is telling that the theme of the novel upon which Crossfire is based was explicitly excised on its way to the big screen – homosexuality.  Even now, 70 years later, we still deal with how society should treat homosexuals and, though see we’ve made progress, each step forward seems to come with a tiny step back.

Still, in terms of the Oscars, is Crossfire better than the best?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  I wasn’t wild about Gentleman’s Agreement and I’m not wild about Crossfire.  But the question is highly irrelevant considering that two other 1947 films couldn’t even rate a Best Picture nod, and both are easily better and more worthy films than those that did: the Powell/Pressburger adaptation of The Black Narcissus, and Chaplin’s sweetly nasty, Monsieur Verdoux.

Trivia

The novel upon which this film is based, The Brick Foxhole, was written by screenwriter Richard Brooks, who would go on to direct films of his own, eventually winning an Oscar in 1960 for his screenplay adaptation of Elmer Ganrty.

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Please Read/Buy…

See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.

Also, don’t be afraid to have a look at the thing that inspired this, The Best Picture Project.  Or, you could buy the revised, updated version of that project in book form:  E-Book or Paperback.

To be a pal and buy my books, jump over here and here and have a look.  I promise, buying always makes you feel good.

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[1] By comparison, the IMDB page for notably-prolific Samuel L. Jackson lists approximately 176 acting credits as of June 2017.

[2] Or, to bastardize a quote from Alfred Lord Tennyson into a question: Is it better to have loved and lost, or to never have loved at all.

[3] Curiously, for a B-picture it has four pretty big stars in it.

[4] If the film hadn’t been obvious enough before that, it is explicit in the point it’s trying to make near the very end, when the film has one of the characters say something to the effect of: Ignorant men always hate things that are different or that they don’t understand.

[5] Seeing Robert Young play a cop was so strange to me, given I remember him from reruns of Father Knows Best when I was a kid, where he played a much different character.

[6] The irony of the uninspired direction is this film brought Edward Dmytryk his sole Oscar nom for Best Director.

[7] Nicholas Ray would have also worked wonders with Crossfire.

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