MovieChat Forums > Crossfire (1947) Discussion > Disappointing take on anti-semitism

Disappointing take on anti-semitism


SPOILERS AHEAD -- Don't read this unless you've seen the film.

I had heard a great deal about "Crossfire" over the years but had never seen it until recently. I have to admit to being underwhelmed.

"Crossfire," like "Gentleman's Agreement" (also released in 1947, about five months after "Crossfire"), came along at the right time to receive the attention that garnered five Academy Award nominations. Mainstream Hollywood had occasionally done films that touched on anti-semitism in other countries ("Disraeli," "The House of Rothschild," "The Life of Emile Zola," "Mr. Skeffington" -- all from Warner Brothers), but in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust, "Crossfire" was the first major American film to acknowledge that anti-semitism was an American problem too. For that, it was, and is, hailed as a breakthrough "social problem" movie.

It isn't surprising that producer Adrian Scott and director Edward Dmytryk were among those singled out by the House Committee on Un-American Activities for investigation into their Communist affiliations and beliefs. "Crossfire" also belies the myth -- largely created by Hollywood from the 1920s through the early '40s -- that all Americans in uniform are uniformly heroic and upholders of all-American ideals. No wonder some conservatives considered such a viewpoint to be unpatriotic and, of course, Communist-inspired.

But the real problem with "Crossfire" -- especially after 60 years of additional revelations, cinematic and otherwise, about anti-semitism in the United States -- is that the film doesn't explain "why." The most interesting character in "Crossfire" is the bigoted murderer, but we learn hardly anything about the source of his prejudice, or why it drives him to murder. Montgomery's hatred of Jews simply provides a means of solving the crime.

(Interesting that Montgomery is shot trying to escape the police. One wonders if Detective Finley really had adequate evidence to convict him in a trial. A decent lawyer might have gotten him freed, or at least pleaded him down to manslaughter.)

As many posters have noted, the source novel for "Crossfire" -- "The Brick Foxhole," by Richard Brooks -- was about a murder motivated by anti-homosexual bigotry. Prior to the late 1950s, the Production Code prohibited even subtle references to homosexuality (although some filmmakers managed to work gay "subtext" into their movies -- even in "Crossfire"). It certainly was easier, and more acceptable to moviegoers of that period, for the makers of "Crossfire" to equate anti-semitism with anti-Catholicism and other religious/ethnic prejudice, than to try and argue for tolerance of homosexuals.

Perhaps one shouldn't expect too much too soon. At least "Crossfire" broke the Hollywood ice about anti-semitism in the United States. But viewed from a perspective of an additional six decades' worth of films about the subject, "Crossfire" is now more of an historic relic than an enduring social comment. Whatever its strengths as a film noir thriller -- and those should not be discounted -- as a critique of bigotry it's simplistic and shallow.

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I agree. It's good that this film was made, but this isn't a movie people still need to see today.

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but this isn't a movie people still need to see today.
What does THAT mean?

What defines a well-done and dramatic classic film that "needs" to be seen? Is a film only relevant in the degree that it's politically relevant to contemporary society. Do "Hamlet", "Othello", or "King Lear" need to be seen?

"Sometimes you have to take the bull by the tail, and face the truth" - G. Marx

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OP here. I think what 'spijkertje' meant was that "Crossfire" is no longer the novel film that it was in the late 1940s, nor does it really get at the causes of anti-Semitism. Essentially, the movie acknowledges that anti-Semitism exists in American society, but it doesn't really get into "why" nor does it offer any real solutions for combatting it. It's certainly worth seeing today as a piece of Hollywood social history (and it's not bad simply as an entertaining film noir), but it's not a vital film for our own day and age. (And it sure ain't Shakespeare, most of whose plays retain timeless truths as well as lovely language.)

Which raises a question: Have there been any films that try to explore what makes an anti-Semite, or other type of bigot, really tick? Hollywood has made a lot of films about racism and bigotry, usually from the standpoint of the victims or of sympathetic anti-bigots. But how does bigotry get started in a person? What brings it about and what sustains it? How does it become, for some people, the core of their world view?

The film that examines this most closely, that first comes to mind, is AMERICAN HISTORY X (1998), though it winds up going in another direction as it proceeds. I have not seen THE BELIEVER (2001), but it looks interesting. The Costa-Gravas film, BETRAYED (1988), isn't too bad, but it gets bogged down in a love story.

Any others?

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How many of the critical posters to this thread have heard the term "motiveless malignity"? The most chilling villains in drama, opera and cinema are chilling precisely because we can't explain their hatred or antagonism. Think of Iago....

This very fact is alluded to several times by the Detective in CROSSFIRE: the fact that prejudice and bigotry cannot be explained by personal experience is precisely what makes them so terrifying, and so difficult to deal with. You cannot reason with prejudice, you cannot unravel it. It simply sits there, like a black bat on the top of the mind, ready to fly out for no reason.

That's what happens with the murderer here. That is why it is so chilling: there's no motive, and no reason. That, with respect, is the point.

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Agree with you Nashwan. Just saw this one for the first time today. I'd say from what I've heard about any number of minorities on the "Comments" section of any Yahoo news item dealing with Muslims, immigrants,blacks, Jews, or gays there are still a helluva lot of bigots out there. As Detective Finley points out Montgomery didn't set out to kill Samuels. But he had a hatred that was primed to go off like a gun. Who knows why? That's not a part of this movie. The movie was to show that a chance encounter with the wrong person under the wrong circumstances could lead to murder just fueled by fear, rage and hatred.
In the 1840's the Irish and other immigrants had to face the Know Nothing Party members. Not much has changed. Just after 9-11 an AZ man killed a Sikh on Sept 15th. Do we need to know why some folks were so angry they had to kill any dark skinned person who they thought was a Muslim? No rhyme, no reason. Even if the man killed had been a Muslim how in the hell would he have been involved in the NYC terrorist attacks. No, this kind of hatred is by it's very nature irrational in beliefs and in actions.Like Montgomery.

People should not fear their governments.Governments should fear their people.

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Even though this film has probably been overshadowed by Gregory Peck in "Gentleman's Agreement" which I consider at times a little implausible..But those were the times Post WW2 when the Nazi horrors and the Nuremberg Trials were in the news...It undoubtedly forced people to look at themselves just like films of Sidney Poitier did in the 1960's....The Robert Young speech about being different might appear simplisitic at times but the end result is the same and most of us still harbor feelings against some sort of different group....Still an important film today.

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OP again: Thanks for your comment, but "motiveless malignity" is a literary notion (and a rather convenient one at that) that may explain a fictional character like Iago but doesn't bare much relation to the real world. I love the horrifying irrationality of the avian attacks in THE BIRDS (my favorite late Hitchcock film) but we're talking about human beings here, not zombies. However prejudiced a person or group might be, he/they still are sentient homo sapiens. Their bigotry proceeds not so much out of an irrational impulse as it does out of ignorance, i.e., a lack of knowledge.

As I write this, a group of self-styled Christians in Florida is planning to burn copies of the Koran as their protest against Islam, which they regard as a religion of the devil. I doubt that any of them has ever met an actual Muslim, much less discussed with a Muslim what Islam is about and how it differs from their Christian creed. I would like to think that, if they knew more about Islam, these Christians at least would be less inclined to insult Muslims and perhaps even acknowledge that Islam per se (as opposed to "radical Islam" or "Islamofascism" or "Islamoterrorism" or some other perversion of the religion) is not the threat to Christianity and the United States that they had thought. In other words, if they actually knew enough about Islam, their prejudice would diminish and perhaps evaporate.

You think I'm thinking wishfully? Maybe. But I'm old enough to remember an America in which most white people were prejudiced regarding African-Americans. Over the past fifty years or so, many whites have changed their attitudes about black people because, once black people started achieving something like political and economic equality with whites, the whites started to realize that all the classic stereotypes regarding African-American were highly questionable, if not dead wrong, and that as individuals, the average African-American was no more depraved nor more noble than the average white guy. In other words, the whites (not all, but many) got some wisdom, some knowledge, and their ignorance did lessen.

Everyone is ignorant about a lot of things. No one knows it all, or even a substantial part of it, and too often we substitute convenient stereotypes for harder-to-get knowledge of an unknown person, group, or whatever. Some bigots may be especially deep-set and never totally abandon their prejudices, no matter what they learn otherwise; but most people aren't like that. A lack of knowledge makes a bigot; knowledge can undo bigotry (though it may take a lifetime).

CROSSFIRE would have been more instructive and more satisfying if it had explained why Montgomery believed as he did about Jews. It would have been even more interesting had Montgomery had to stand trial and wound up with a court-appointed attorney who was Jewish. I like to think that Montgomery would eventually come to see his attorney as a real human being rather than as an anti-Semitic stereotype. Had he makers of CROSSFIRE pursued the source of Montgomery's bigotry, CROSSFIRE would have been a more instructive and more enduring film. By denying Montgomery an opportunity to change his mind, the filmmakers may have made him into a monstrous, frightening character, but they also deny his humanity and, in a sense, render him a symbol, a stereotype. That's not to defend Montgomery's bigotry, but only to suggest that the rational (to Montgomery) or rationalized source of it would have been far more enlightening to pursue.

BTW, re: check out the conmments on "motiveless malignity" at http://www.shakespeare-navigators.com/othello/motiveless.html

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I do think you are a bit of a bright eyed optimist.

I am old enough to remember the race riots; and the Rodney King affair as an adult. I am absolutely appalled at the vile hatred being spewed right now regarding races and ethnicities; I had hoped we were getting past that. I do realize that the Internet contributes to it: we see or 'hear' things we couldn't in the past because the haters have a much larger argument.

Unfortunately, a Jewish defense lawyer would not have likely changed his general viewpoint. One example does not negate the whole of bigotry. I have seen it first hand. Twenty years ago my husband and I had a friend that married a young lady that was quite bigoted about African Americans. I could hardly stand to be around her because of the hateful things she said. Once while visiting she was working on college homework and was having difficulty with some US History. Without thinking, I offered the help of a friend who had not only been a history major, but was also very current on current events. A couple of days later, she made another racial comment and I called her on it, citing her conversation with my friend. She claimed that he was OBVIOUSLY an exception.... one educated Black man was not representative of the race. Her husband was in the military and I have a feeling at some point before they went overseas sat her down and explained that if her mind wouldn't change, her actions and comments must or it could mean his job. I didn't see them again for about ten years and her attitudes had indeed changed, but the US military is a very diverse group and a member of the community will be very isolated if they let their prejudices prevail.

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I've always seen this movie as a comment on the old stereotype that Jewish men did not make good soldiers and this is the reason that the plot revolved around US soldiers.

I'm an older American who grew up near a military base back in the 50s/60s. I clearly remember being surprised when I found out that one of my teachers was a well known military pilot who was highly decorated for his exploits. The reason I was surprised ?
Hate to say it but it was because I was already aware that he was Jewish.

I had no issues with Jewish people - its just at some point during my developing years I must have heard that Jews did not make good soldiers. I know that it was a common stereotype back in the 40s and before. I'm not sure where the stereotype came from but I do remember checking into it and learning how the Israeli military kicked some serious butt ! Live and learn.

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lol.... only because I have seen the Israeli Army as an argument that women can do any military job a man can... I suspect you are just a bit older than I because you reference the 50s as well as the 60s.

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The Hollywood "golden-age" producers, mostly Jewish, were scared of drawing attention to themselves, and backed off of any themes of anti-Semitism. This is the same reason why, in the 1930s, they held back from making anti-Nazi films, for fear that mainstream (that is, non-Jewish) politicians would accuse them of trying to "drag America into another war", and pass legislation limiting their power.

"Sometimes you have to take the bull by the tail, and face the truth" - G. Marx

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Very true. Meanwhile the US was turning away Jewish German refugees b4 the war and even during the war, FDR let the contemptible Admiral Darlan in US conquered Vichy governed North Africa, the scum who fought against us not the Germans, keep anti-semitic laws on the books.

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Racism is very unreasonable and absurd in the first place. I think the movie conveys a powerful enough message in portraying a man such as Montgomery as one of the greatest dangers of society; it doesn't really have to dig deep into the character's motivations, because none would be acceptable anyway. Also, his motifs are actually addressed when Finlay enumerates some of the economical/social/xenophobic reasons that different types of men respectively have to hate Jewish people and then adds that Montgomery is the kind of person that grows on all of them and feeds on their hatred.

Plus, don't forget that the movie is primarily a noir. It has social content, but its main plot is about spotting and framing the murderer, not about finding the best way to fight racism or hatred.

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Hello, I saw this film and read your post but have to disagree with your premise about there not being a "why he was racist" in the film. Robert Young's character talks about ignorance as being the reason he is racist. He also mentions that Robert Ryan's character is afraid of anyone different from himself. That's a lot of the cause of hate crimes today--ignorance and unjustified fear based on ignorance. As you pointed out, there are other films that go into the why in more detail but this one doesn't try to (or need to in my opinion) go into more detail than is already there as it's in the film noir genre not in the character study genre. One film doesn't have to do everything, that's one of the reasons there are other films.

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It is so obvious in current events that ignorance is a chief cause of racism/bigotry/prejudice. Islamaphobia and the African American/Police issues (and that one goes both ways).

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