It is with sadness that I announce that this shall be my last ever Double Bill. I have had the most fun talking about and comparing all of these movies, and I feel this is the right time to end it. There are only so many movies that are similar! Don’t worry though, I’ve got something in mind for the next series of posts! But today, Double Bill #20 will focus on two movies that I feel have transcended the noir genre, and have become something else. Crossfire (1947) and Border Incident (1949) are films noir with a conscience. They are ‘message movies’. And their message still resonates today.
Based on the novel The Brick Foxhole by Richard Brooks, Crossfire (dir. Edward Dmytryk) is probably the closest film noir ever came to a classic murder mystery: late one night, Joseph Samuels (Sam Levene) is brutally murdered in his apartment. Captain Finlay (Robert Young) is called to investigate the case, and through a series of flashbacks, he comes across a long list of suspects among a group of soldiers. When Captain Mitchell (George Cooper) becomes the prime suspect, his friend Sergeant Keeley (Robert Mitchum) tries to clear his name by getting involved in the investigation. As it turns out, he couldn’t have done it, since he was with Ginny (Gloria Grahame in an Oscar-nominated performance). As Finlay eliminates the suspects one by one, Montgomery (Robert Ryan in his only Oscar nomination) becomes the main suspect himself. As we soon find out, Montgomery is a bullying, psychopathic brute, who enjoys making fun of people who are ‘different’. Slowly, as he reveals himself to us through his opinions and attitudes, we realize where the movie will take us and as the truth comes to light, Crossfire goes from being a murder mystery to a ‘social message’ movie. Its condemnation of anti-Semitism and bigotry is beautifully expressed through Captain Finlay’s heart-breaking and poignant monologue about his Irish grandfather and how his tragic end affected his own life. The message is clear and the movie pulls no punches in how it chooses to address it. ‘Ignorant men always laugh at things that are different, things they don’t understand’, Finlay says at one point. I often refer to Crossfire as ‘the noir with a conscience’ and it is all down to Finlay. He is the film’s moral compass. His deadpan delivery and pipe-smoking coolness in the movie’s opening sequence are soon overshadowed by his huge heart and morality and his dignified yet assertive matter with which he tackles the issue. I would go as far as to call him the film’s ‘hero’. An unusal type of noir detective and one whose humanity we could all do with. Then and now.
Border Incident (dir. Anthony Mann, 1949) also has a message, and one that is still a hot topic. In it, agents Pablo Rodriguez (Ricardo Montalban) and Jack Bearnes (George Murphy) go undercover to try and stop the smuggling of Mexican migrant workers across the border into the United States. Unlike Crossfire, the film’s opening voice-over narration lets us know straight-away what we’re getting into (‘It is this problem of human suffering and injustice about which you should know’), and its sheer, stark realism is almost unprecedented. Border Incident treats its subject matter seriously. The migrants are the focus. They’re the story. They’re the main characters. And their extremely sympathetic and humanizing representation is vital. The film treats them as they should be treated: as humans. It highlights their struggle and validates their actions. And it condemns those of the ones who try and make things even more difficult for them – one of whom is Charles McGraw, who has the distinction of being the perpetrator in the film’s most horrifying scene. The film’s extremely tense tone, courtesy of cinematographer John Alton, beautifully contrasts the claustrophobic, urgent feel of its subject matter with the wide-open landscape that holds so many hopes and dreams. The grittiness of Border Incident cannot be underestimated and, while it can be said that it isn’t a noir in the classical sense, it certainly feels and looks like a noir. But the most important aspect of it, is its progressiveness and how it deals with an extremely delicate subject in such a respectful and understanding way.
Were Crossfire and Border Incident ahead of their time? I think so. They probably wouldn’t feel out of place these days, but back then, it was a different story – originally, The Brick Foxhole actually dealt with homophobia, but they Hays Code wouldn’t have it so they changed it to anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, the boldness with which Crossfire and Border Incident address their subjects is admirable and the way they bring them to life is exquisite, not to mention that the humanity, acceptance, tolerance and compassion found in both of these films is something we should all strive to achieve.