Lately I’ve been feeling like the movies are a fisherman and I am a fish. And not just any fish – a masochistic one that wants to be hooked. By “hooked”, I mean engaged emotionally and intellectually by a movie that shuts down my defenses, overcoming pessimism and high standards. I am also a fussy, evasive fish. With every movie, there’s a struggle, not unlike fisherman and prey pulling in opposite directions. I’m hard to catch and hard to please. Not many movies have fine enough ‘bait’ to keep me on the line. I’ve recently established a 15 minute rule – it usually takes 15 minutes for me to know if the movie is going to reel me in. T.C.M has been showing Oscar nominees and winners for its ’31 Days of Oscar’ marathon. Many have lost me in the first 15 minutes. These movies that captivated mass audiences could not satisfy this stubborn fish.
“Crossfire” was one of the few that held my attention from start to finish. To describe its effect using my fishing metaphor, I can say I was reeled in fast and easy, cooked, and served for dinner. I was hooked from the first frame, with opening shots of two shadows violently clashing. Many of the movies I’ve rejected turned me off because there were just too many characters and too much story – so much chatter and so much going on. “Crossfire” has more pure and simple storytelling, narrowing a laser-like focus on one thing only. A man is murdered. Suspects are identified. They talk with friends and acquaintances. An investigating police captain does the same. The night of the murder is re-constructed from multiple perspectives. The murderer is revealed to the audience, but unknown to other characters, except an accomplice. I was in rapt suspense waiting to see if and how this person gets caught.
“Crossfire” has a social consciousness that impressed me. In a powerful scene, the police captain speculates about racism motivating the murder, eloquently explaining its profound effect on his life and country. I was disappointed to read cynical opinions online that call the movie outdated and limited in its view of prejudice. I agree with Leonard Maltin’s opinion that the issue is handled with “taste [and] intelligence”. I wanted to watch “Crossfire” mostly because its cast includes Robert Mitchum, but Robert Ryan was the highlight. I’ve seen him play a bad guy so many times that I automatically think, “Don’t trust this guy!” when he appears. It was fun to wonder if the movie would reinforce or contradict my expectation. I consider this typecasting a compliment, not a suggestion that the actor lacks range. It takes formidable presence to embody ‘the heavy’ so often and so effectively. Robert Ryan does it like with the ease of someone performing their calling.