The nation’s capital becomes a battleground between the rule of law and racial intolerance, as the disease of racism threatens our very Democracy with holocaust. Director Edward Dymtryk and his DP J. Roy Hunt elevate this B-film to A+ status by deftly handling the actors, pacing, low-key lighting and compositions and tell this virulent story with brutal style and suspense. Hunt’s photography is reminiscent of the Pre-Code style with long takes and two-shot framing of dialogue. Thankfully even the use of over-the-shoulder compositions is limited allowing the story to unfold unfettered and with a gritty realism. This is a film edited by composition meaning that each shot is meticulously staged and blocked which prohibits easy post-production censorship. This film is fucking great!
The story concerns the death of a civilian and the three soldiers who were the last to be seen with him. The opening shot reveals large shadows painting the wall with violence and two figures fleeing from the crime. Identification is impossible. When Capt. Finlay shows up, the story becomes a whodunit before switching to a psychological “whydunit” as then the final act is a conflict of probable cause. The film offers some valuable subtext regarding Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (though the term wasn’t coined in 1947) as these soldiers are WW2 veterans attempting to adjust to civilian life after years of bloody combat. They have become ghosts shimmering in the haze of alcohol just to remain “normal”, haunting bar after bar afraid of returning to the world they knew before the war because it just doesn’t exist...if it ever existed. The comradery of the soldiers, their bond welded together by the fire of combat, is nearly unbreakable yet Finlay must pull the seams apart to solve the murder. Even the title of the film is suggestive of combat. Though never used as excuse, this post-war disillusionment possesses Mitch and is the red herring during much of the film, offering his sweating and confused psychology as potential intent for the murder. But its Monty’s casual racism dropped like surly adjectives without thought that intrigues Finley. Montgomery is an outlier, a man whose best attributes may be loyalty under fire but an egoistic bully in “real” life disliked by all. His racism isn’t hyperbole, spewing hatred and bigotry like a Sunday sermon, it’s casual like saying good morning to a smiling stranger: this makes it so much more disturbing!
The acting is superb from the three Roberts and the angelic (the fallen kind) Gloria Graham. She inhabits her character with such earnest pathos she steals every frame she’s in. Robert Montgomery as the pipe smoking investigator, relaxed yet discouraged like a man who has seen it all and doesn’t want to see it anymore more, balances his character perfectly. Robert Mitchum and his sleepy-eyed demeanor is dour and pessimistic yet seems well adjusted. And Robert Ryan may have the most difficult role as the pejorative antagonist because if he plays it too heavy it skews the film towards parody, yet his steely gaze is like a riffle barrel and his soft voice wounds like shrapnel: he earned his Academy Award nomination!
This is a great film about racism and its deleterious effects both physically and psychologically not only upon the individual but an entire nation. Here in Washington DC Finlay witnesses another Nuremberg Trial and sentences accordingly.
Final Grade: (A+)