#264: Crossfire (1947)

One of my favourite actors of Hollywood’s Robert Mitchum. A pot-smoking, wisecracking playboy, he embraced the hedonistic heyday of Hollywood’s post-war golden age and still managed to deliver some truly mesmerising performances (Out of the Past, Angel Face and the notorious Night of the Hunter are pretty great starting points).

A new-ish kid on the block, Mitchum turned up in the 1947 crime thriller Crossfire, directed by war-drama pioneer Edward Dmytryk. With a typically noir plot of a murder investigation amongst war vets, headed by the tempetuous Montgomery (Robert Ryan). It’s down to man of morals, Robert Young’s gumshoe detective to track down the murderer at loose amongst the ranks, meanwhile the captivating Gloria Grahame crops up briefly to throw some sexy mystique into the mix as a high-profile lady of the night.

An ensemble cast of excellent players, the maladroit, message-laden script fails to give them any space to perform. That is with the one notably exception of the towering Robert Ryan, who’s natural menace brings some life to the languid plot.

It’s unfortunate that Crossfire’s context of production is far more interesting than the movie itself. Adapted from the Richard Brooks novel (the man behind 1967’s In Cold Blood adaptation), screenplay writer John Paxton and Dmytryk had to shift the subject of prejudice from homophobia to anti-semtism, as the former was still considered as a ‘sexual perversion’ by America’s Motion Picture doctrine. It’s a great shame, as the bubbling subtext of four reckless men at war together, struggling with their loneliness and emotions, would have made for a far more interesting movie.

★★★☆☆☆
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101: The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Screened at the Danish Film Institute for the CPH:PIX film festival’s Banned in Denmark series, 1955’s The Night of the Hunter is a notorious, cruelly forgotten gem of post-war American cinema. Although Scandinavians are considered some of the most liberal people world over, they deemed this gore-free film too fearsome to sit through, presumably because of it’s sacrilegious undertones. Over sixty years on, the dark subject matter and menacing central performance from underrated Hollywood powerhouse Robert Mitchum is still electrifying today.

Based on the pulp novel from Davis Grubb, an unhinged and obsessively pious man marries a grieving widow only to find out where her children are hiding a $10,000 booty left by their imprisoned, criminal father. As his first and only time in the director’s seat, Charles Laughton creates a film that is remarkable even by today’s standards; controversially questioning the ever-important issue of piety and oppressive dominance that the church can obtain over society.

Stylistically, Laughton adopts german expressionism, surreal shadows and emotive score from Walter Schumann, Laughton generates great tension and anxiety which looms throughout the film, and over the head of Harry Powell, played expertly by Mitchum. As one of Hollywood’s nonchalant bad-boys, Mitchum is a formidable, yet enthralling screen presence. Adorning a devilish grin and cool composure, he manages to create one of cinema’s most captivating anti-heroes.

Somewhat expectedly for a hastily completed studio film of the bygone golden era, The Night of the Hunter has its fair share of problems. Although Laughton’s artistic flare is ever-present, his ability to self-edit and push a story along hits several bumps, with the film presenting four different endings and Powell being virtually indestructible. Unsurprisingly an influence on John Carpenter’s paragonic Halloween and Michael Myers character, regardless of what you throw at zombified Powell, he always seems to haunt, taunt, and trick the money-laundering children.

Elsewhere, TNotH has several outdated and overtly melodramatic performances, particularly from audacious Hollywood starlet Shelley Winters as the fragile mother and flamboyant Lillian Gish as her snooping employer. Worst of all is the unsatisfying (final) closing moments, which are trite and gloss over the character complexities Laughton has delicately displayed.

But all these criticisms are essentially footnotes to a film which is often heralded as a eternal classic. Idiosyncratically combining horrific and blackly humorous elements, this is a cult American artefact which should never be forgotten. Pick it up wherever you can, just be on guard, you never know where the ghost of Mitchum’s past could be lurking.

★★★★☆

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