Late-forties Hollywood agit-prop against bigotry, anti-Semitism, and America
Gentlemanís Agreement is Elia Kazanís famous 1947 movie about a gentile journalist who poses as a Jew to ferret out genteel anti-Semitism. Among the targets of his increasingly angry quest is his lovely fiance, played by Dorothy McGuire, whom the journalist, played by Gregory Peck, treats with self-righteous brutality after she expresses the most mild and understandable kind of ethnic consciousness. Though false and offensive, Gentlemanís Agreement is still a ďqualityĒ film, and well worth seeing as a quintessential expression of post-war liberalism with its insane equation of ordinary group consciousness with the Nazi destruction of the Jews.
However, Gentlemanís Agreement was not the first Hollywood movie to focus on the subject of anti-Semitism; it was preceded, just barely, by Crossfire, a low-budget, noirish film directed by Edward Dmytryk (later one of the Hollywood Ten), which I saw this week on DVD. A supposed murder mystery, though the identity of the culprit is painfully obvious almost from the start, Crossfire concerns a bigoted GI, played with psychopathic verve by Robert Ryan, who beats to death a nice Jewish man (who has, moreover, just befriended Ryan and his buddies), for no reason other than that heís Jewish. Funny, but Iíve never heard of such an event happening in the whole history of the United States, unless it was the stabbing to death of Yankel Rosenbaum by a black thug during the black-on-Jewish pogrom in Crown Heights, Brooklyn in 1991. Though Crossfire has a couple of good performances, especially that of Robert Young playing against type as a hard-bitten police detective (whose own Irish-immigrant grandfather, we learn, was also gratuitously beaten to death out of sheer ethnic malice), it is the cheapest kind of left-wing agit-prop, suggesting that everywhere under the surface of America there is a lurking murderous hatred just waiting to come out. Yet this dreadful movie, one of the worst Iíve ever seen, got several Oscar nominations, and Leonard Maltin in his movie guide gives it 3 1/2 stars, just below the top ranking. With Maltin, all a movie has to do is press some liberal buttons, and it automatically gets an increase of at least one star over what he would have otherwise given it.