The post below contains my thoughts on Edward Dmytryk's Crossfire. This was one of the films I considered posting about for the Film Noir blog-a-thon, but didn't have enough original thoughts to bring it to a full post.
However, Ed Howard did end up writing a wonderful post about Crossfire. And, luckily for me, one of his thoughts, regarding the fact we know the culprit for the inciting murder relatively early on, plays into some of my thoughts on the performances in the film.
As I argue below, the tension for the film comes not from the mystery of who the killer is, but whether our heroes will let him get away with his crime.
Thoughts below the break...
... IMDB claims that Mitchum hated his role as Keely since he thought anyone could have played it, but I think he doesn't give himself enough credit. When Mitchum's character talks about struggling with coming back to civilian life and how he recognizes someone else's demons because they're friends of his, it doesn't come off as hyperbole, just quiet recognition. The coiled intensity below a serene demeanor characteristic of Mitchum adds unspoken depths to the character.
Mitchum, as he plays Keely, also adds an element of unpredictability to the film. While Keely is undoubtedly one of our heroes, his short temper and mouthiness create the threat that the investigation will get sidetracked or let Montgomery escape. On the one hand, his insolence towards the cops makes Finlay ignore or discount the evidence/arguments he presents. On the other hand, his determination to investigate on his own gives Montgomery his chance to kill Floyd and cover his tracks.
Mitchum complicates the film by portraying the way that decent and sensible men can work at cross-purposes with each other. There's less of a sense of being preached to, that we are being given only one way to behave. Should we respond to hatred with Mitchum's fiery belligerence or Young's reasonable and empathetic engagment? Which is the moral response? Which is the effective one? Both, in the end, prove crucial to cracking the case, but the larger issue is not resolved.
Ryan also apparently felt some regret about this being his breakout role. Certainly I can see why Ryan got typecast after this as the angry, often psychotically violent brute in films like Act of Violence and Bad Day at Black Rock. However, there is a subtlety in his portrayal in Crossfire. He certainly doesn't come across as a hate-filled anti-Semite when we first meet him. This definitely helps the film's message, as it keeps us from congratulating ourselves on being better than him, and makes moments like Finlay's attempts to persuade a fellow soldier to run a sting on Montgomery. We realize that the soldier could fail to recognize the danger Montgomery poses, or could turn out to be just like Montgomery. There's no easy way to figure out if a person is good or bad, which feeds back into the movie's nuanced handling of tolerance.
Unlike a lot of crime films, the tension is not over whodunnit or was it so perfectly planned that the criminal will get away with it. It's whether a base, vicious killer will get away with murder because of the blind spots of decent people.