the invisible queer
by Douglas Messerli
John Paxton (screenplay, based on a novel by Richard Brooks), Edward Dmytryk (director) Crossfire / 1947
In the first half of the 20th century, as I have demonstrated, a substantial number of LGBTQ films were coded in order to subvert and escape the emphatic restrictions on presenting homosexuality and LGBTQ figures by the motion picture Hays Code, internal studio pressures, and social attitudes of the day. But very few of these were so erased that the only way you might describe them is to say that they were hidden and almost completely covered up. No matter how clever you are reading sexual images and events by observing commonly used tropes and visual clues, along with narrative patterns that take the film in sometimes opposing directions, works such as Edward Dmytryk’s powerful 1947 film Crossfire do not at all have anything to do by appearances with homosexuality, instead its subject being quite clearly being anti-Semitism with no secret winks or subtle messages hidden within the text. If anything, it is notable that this film makes no nods even to the existence of a non-heterosexual world. All of its central characters except for the victim are married, and even he appears to have a girlfriend with whom he has invited the soldier, Cpl. Arthur “Mitch” Mitchell (George Cooper) to join them for dinner. The soldiers of the work, as commentator José Arroyo has described them, are:
returning soldiers who have been demobbed but have yet to
find their way home, in a liminal, transitory space, with many
of them not yet adapted to a civilian context and some still
Yet, as Michael Koresky has quite brilliantly argued in his “Queer & Now & Then” column of May 9, 2018, we know from the source material that the subject of the original novel, The Brick Foxhole by later filmmaker Richard Brooks, was gay sexual desire and a violent homophobic response that has been replaced in this film by religious and racial bigotry such that it “exists alongside” the movie entirely “in the imagination.” Moreover, as the critic posits,
“Crossfire’s awkward narrative retrofitting—the sense that something is missing—feels pronounced if one knows the preproduction history of the film, yet traces of queerness linger around the edges, intentionally or not.”
And given that fact, this work is almost as important for what all those involved in its making would not and felt they could not say as it is for its substantial contribution to the study of anti-Semitic attitudes and other bigoted responses to perceived outsiders in US history.
Let us begin by simply talking about what the movie openly has to say, which is a considerable achievement in and of itself.
The work begins in medias res with shadows playing out what we immediately recognize is a murder in progress. And in that sense, we ourselves are witnesses to the crime. The central questions we and the movie must ask accordingly is who is the murderer, who is the victim, and why the murder is being committed.
We almost immediately discover that the victim Joseph Samuels (Sam Levene), the police captain, Finlay (Robert Young) investigating what is quickly established as a beating in his own apartment having killed him. With the testimony of Samuel’s friend Miss Lewis (Marlo Dwyer) we begin a series of Rashomon-like retellings of what happened, including the version told by "Monty" Montgomery (Robert Ryan) who shows up unexpectedly at the apartment—as we later discover in an attempt to further implicate his fellow soldier friend Mitch—whose wallet Finlay finds in the sofa—and through the later questioning of Mitch’s true friend, Sergeant Keeley (Robert Mitchum) in search of Mitch’s whereabouts. He assures the police that his friend could not possibly have committed the crime. As Keeley argues: “If you think killed anybody, you’re crazy.”
KEELEY: He’s not the type.
FINLAY: Everybody’s the type.
KEELEY: He couldn’t kill anybody.
FINLAY: Could you?
KEELEY: I have.
We believe him, in part because of Mitchum’s convincing acting with his always laid-back manner, particularly when compared with Montgomery’s eager and emotionally invested comments, but also because of the clues we receive even in Montgomery’s telling of the story of Mitch’s gentle nature, his private sufferings evidently in connection with his relationship to his wife, Mary (Jacqueline White) who remains back home while he attempts to reacclimate to civilian life in Washington, D.C., and what we hear in Mitchell’s own description of events he shares with Keeley about his somewhat intense conversation with Samuels. In that conversation his new friend (Samuels) argues:
It’s a funny thing isn’t it? Gets worse at night doesn’t it?
I think it’s not having a lot of enemies to hate anymore.
Maybe it’s because for four years now we’ve focusing
on one little peanut. The win the war peanut. That was all.
Get it over. Eat that peanut. All at once no peanut. Now
we start looking at each other again. We don’t know what
we’re supposed to do. We don’t know what’s supposed to
happen. We’re used to fightin’. But we just don’t know
what to fight. You can feel the tension in the air. A whole
lot of fightin’ and hate that doesn’t know where to go. A
guy like you maybe starts hating yourself. One of these
days we may all learn how to shift gears. Maybe we’ll stop
hating and start liking again.
This somewhat preachy, but heartfelt speech, not only establishes the basic goodness of the victim, which makes his murderer all the more despicable to us, but in the fact that it is so meaningful to Mitch that he later requotes parts of it, as if coming to terms with his own fears and personal difficulties, assures us of Keeley’s argument. Although he remains missing for much of the movie, Mitch, we feel surely could not have committed the crime, and the victim’s own caring for him makes them natural allies. Generally you don’t beat someone for saying they don’t want to fight—unless you’re a bigot or a bully, neither of which seems to describe the confused soldier.
Koresky nicely summarizes the situation by this point in the movie, wherein Keeley already perceives that Finlay has no conviction that Mitch has committed the crime:
“The more we learn about sweet-natured, PTSD-afflicted Mitch, the less plausible he seems as a suspect: after drunkenly running out of the apartment to avoid fisticuffs when things get heated between the men, he ends up hiding out at the home of steely but soft-hearted dancehall girl Ginny ([Gloria] Grahame), a tricky alibi for the married man to admit. Getting to know Montgomery, on the other hand, only enhances our misgivings about him: racist, belligerent, though often wearing a broad, false smile, he is an insidious, irredeemable creation, so persuasively played by the six-foot-four Ryan that the actor—a progressive liberal and occasional social activist for civil liberties—came to resent the role, blaming it for getting him typecast as villains throughout his career. We eventually realize that Montgomery killed Samuels for no other reason than that he was a ‘Jew-boy,’ a hate crime pure and simple.”
But how to you prove that a man who Montgomery had never before known and has no motive such as robbery, a familiar or personal grudge, or a long-brooding hostility? As the slow-moving sleuth Findlay puts it to Keeley, such proof takes months, sometimes years of gathering evidence.
In order to trick Montgomery into revealing that he has killed Samuels and, by the end of the movie, involving the only other witness to the crime, the Sergeant’s friend Floyd Bowers (Steve Brodie), as a decoy, Findlay enlists the help of the one man Montgomery thought of as too “dumb” to lie, the Tennessee-born soldier Leroy (William Phipps). Finlay lays a trap for the bigot not so very different from that of Alfred Hitchcock’s police inspector in his 1954 film Dial M for Murder, in this case by luring Montgomery back to Floyd’s rooming house by providing him through Leroy with the wrong address. When Montgomery nonetheless shows up to the right place, Finlay knows he’s got his man, proving his hunch that the murderer committed the act for no other reason than he wanted to “beat up” on a Jew, much as in the original book the same character desires to “beat up a queer.”
At the Academy Awards that year, Kazin’s far more sociological and distanced tackling of the same subject Gentlemen’s Agreement won out over Crossfire (other nominees the The Bishop’s Wife, Miracle on 34th Street, and Great Expectations) for the Best Motion Picture and Best Director awards. Although I love Kazin’s film dearly, I now think the stronger of the two and certainly the more powerful is Crossfire given its psychological study of anti-Semitism and its far more violent representation of its effects. Being denied a room at Flume Inn as was Gregory Peck’s gentile character pretending to be Jewish, simply not compare with beating up and killing a Jewish man out of blind prejudicial hate. And today the increase of just such crimes against Jews, Muslims, and Asians among others for some of the same reasons makes Crossfire a timelier movie than ever.
From the beginning RKO head Dore Schary and producer Adrian Scott, both savvy liberals, knew they could never get away with a work about homosexuality and that they would have to significantly repurpose the book. Certainly they didn’t need the pious reminder of Production Code Administrator Joseph I. Breen, whom Koresky describes as a “moralizing moron,” to convince them. Breen wrote: “The story is thoroughly and completely unacceptable, on a dozen or more counts. It goes without saying that any motion picture following, even remotely, along the lines in the novel, could not be approved.” And as I think we’ve established, they accomplished that rather nicely by bringing in an equally urgent message about racial and cultural hatred that dovetailed with most, if not all elements of the original story.
Yet as Koresky points out there are still tears in the narrative that can’t quite be explained by the anti-Semitic tale imposed over the previous anti-queer structure. He points to several of these, and I will add others.
Perhaps the most obvious wrinkle in the story as it is rewritten is the question of why Mitch is so self-hating and what does it have to do with his wife? Paxton’s rewrite tries to reweave the threads of this together near the end of the film when the character attempts to explain to Mary, who Mitch’s loyal friend Keeley urged to come to Washington, obviously worried about his friend’s state of mind. But what was that state of mind, and how was his wife involved?
Earlier on, Keeley himself admits to being married but doesn’t seem to care if he ever sees his wife again, brushing it off as something to do with his being tough, able to roll with the punches. Yet obviously something is still pulling at Mitch’s sense of values. Although he remains in Washington, this group of soldiers having been back for a couple of weeks already, he seems in no hurry to return home, behaving in a very different manner from the returning soldiers, for example, in The Best Years of Our Lives of the previous year, who are willing to travel long distances out of their way if it eventually gets them back home.
Meeting up the dark of the theater where he is hiding, Mitch, on encountering Mary, refuses to talk about Samuels and his time in the dance bar with Ginny, or to even try to explain why he went on to sleep in her otherwise empty apartment without meeting up with her again. He doesn’t at all appear worried about what his behavior with another woman might mean to her or even attempt to discuss why the police might suspect him of killing the man who invited him to his apartment. Instead, scriptwriter Paxton attempts to have him explain why he’s been afraid to return home and the reasons behind his indeterminacy.
“Whatever you think...whatever Keeley told you, nothing that happened...has anything to do with us or what I feel about you. You’ve got to understand. I’ve been sitting here and I think I’ve got things straightened out. I couldn’t write to you because I was depressed and jittery. The man I was supposed to have killed tonight, he understood it. ...He said a guy like me could start hating himself. Maybe that’s what happened. Maybe I started hating myself because I was afraid to get going again. To try to draw again. Of looking for a job. Of having you waiting all the time. After having waited for years already. It began to be hard for me to think about you. I just couldn’t.... Does that make any sense?”
Mary responds, “yes,” but surely any even semi-curious individual might still be extremely confused. How might his worry about making her wait possibly be resolved by her having to wait even longer for his return? And it still doesn’t quite explain what he might have to hate himself for? For serving in the army and making her wait for his return? And what does he imagine that Keeley might have told her, which is the very first thing he asks her about. Why is he more interested in discussing his confused feelings than in simply reassuring her that he hasn’t killed Samuels and that he didn’t have sex with Ginny, both of which might surely be the very first things a married man might want to share with his wife, particularly if, as he claims, he still loves her? She is certainly still somewhat curious about the girl he’s apparently picked up, and later begs the police chief to let her meet with her private before Findlay interviews her. We know that nothing happened between the two of them but Mary doesn’t yet know, nor Findlay for that matter. Finally, these things have nothing at all to do with the central plot or even the reasons why Mitch is hiding out in the movie theater where Mary meets him. Even if it might help to point up his general confusion about life, we still have absolutely no idea what he might be confused about. What does hate have to do with his own uncertain future? In fact, that question, if honestly answered, might actually expose all the cracks in Paxton’s script.
Koresky brings up another scene in which the narrative retrofitting doesn’t quite match up with the previous structure. Why does a young soldier suddenly agree to go up to a stranger’s apartment for a drink or for that matter to join him for dinner? Let us presume that Mitch simply felt that in Samuels he had made a new friend and was, accordingly, just happy to get rid of Montgomery, Floyd, and the others. But then why do his other two acquaintances suddenly decide that Samuels if offering up a private party into which they weren’t invited and would like to crash?
At the door, Samuels immediately tells Montgomery that there is no “party,” and when Floyd and Montgomery enter the room, Mitch sits forward on a chair, head in hands, Samuels asking about his health, as if suddenly Mitch’s condition, whatever it is, has gotten worse.
Are we simply to suppose that the young man is now even more disturbed by having a good chat with his wise friend than he was before he agreed to join him? And why does Mitch immediately run off?
All of those questions might be easily explained if, after reaching Samuels’ apartment Mitch got second thoughts about what their meeting was all about, a sexual liaison. And that would also quite fully explain the crux of the events that follow, even Montgomery’s highly ironic speech about not being invited into the stranger’s house:
Sammy, let me tell you something, not many civilians will take a
soldier into their house for a quiet talk. Well, let me tell you
something. A guy who’s afraid to take a soldier into his house,
he stinks. I mean he stinks. He ought to have the screws put to him.
Am I right or am I right?”
Koresky reminds us:
“In the book, the Samuels character, named Edwards, is targeted and murdered not because he’s Jewish but because he’s a homosexual, or, in the parlance of the novel, “a fairy,” mocked by Montgomery for being “a simply wonderful interior decorator.” The soldiers meet him while hitchhiking into the city, and en route to his apartment, an almost gleeful Floyd whispers to Montgomery, “We’re set, buddy. Set. I ain’t beaten up a queer in I don’t know how long.” The nature of the killing as set out in the novel is therefore a lure, a textbook method for seducing and victimizing gay men, and which doesn’t as easily track when transposed to a circumstance of Jew-baiting.”
It also clearly explains Mitch’s confusion, his wariness about returning home to his wife and his self-hating feelings, as well as his fear of what his friend, Keeley—obviously aware of Mitch’s homosexuality and perhaps even a sexual partner*—has told Mary about him.
Comprehending that Mitch is experimenting with homosexuality would also explain his relative passivity, his feeling that, even though he has nothing to do with the murder, he somehow deserves whatever punishment is doled out.
The gay original might also help to explain the utterly mysterious character who shows up at Ginny’s apartment before she has returned home, as she promised, after work. The man, claiming at first to be her husband, but later denying it, and still later in the movie, restating it to the police, not only invites Mitch to stay on and wait for Ginny to return from work, but boils a pot of coffee for the two of them, suggesting some sort of strange relationship in the offing. Once again Mitch bolts, sensing danger.
The “cup of coffee” offer is picked up, in another context, by Koresky, when, in the very last scene Leroy has finally “come of age,” so to speak, in helping the police get Montgomery:
“How about a cup of coffee, soldier?” Keeley asks Leroy...as he gently places his hand between the younger man’s shoulder blades as they walk off together, a subtle homoeroticism that can’t help but recall what’s been erased.”
In short, although Crossfire must be read first as a successful cinematic document of American anti-Semitism, it might also be read in tandem for the story it attempted to but couldn’t totally erase about US homophobia, a truth that wasn’t yet possible in that media to be fully told. Just telling the tale that they did marked them as subversives. Both Dmytryk and Scott were later called to the House Committee on Un-American Activities, described as “unfriendly” witnesses, and black-listed for a decade.
* In the novel they are far more tightly connected than in the film and, in the end, it is Keeley, named Pete in the novel, who kills the Montgomery character. Also in the original, the Mitch character suspects his wife of being unfaithful.
Los Angeles, August 9, 2021
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (August 2021).