History, Writing

How I Got Caught in the Crossfire

My book Caught in the Crossfire grew out of my lifelong passion for novels and movies (especially crime fiction and film noir), a commitment to progressive politics past and present, and a critical moment of archival serendipity. As I was beginning my dissertation research, I took a trip to the State Historical Society in Madison, Wisconsin. At that point, I had a rather vague notion that I would write on the process of adapting novels to film. Though I had decided already, as a way of narrowing the field, to focus on crime fiction that became film noir, my list of prospects was still impossibly long, and I hoped that archival research might help me narrow the topic further. So I went to Madison on a fishing expedition, and in the papers of filmmaker Dore Schary, I reeled in a whopper.

The Oscar-nominated trio behind Crossfire pose for Daily Variety, 1947 (left to right: John Paxton, Adrian Scott, Edward Dmytryk)
The Oscar-nominated trio behind Crossfire pose for Daily Variety, 1947 (left to right: John Paxton, Adrian Scott, Edward Dmytryk)

Schary was a liberal Jew with a history of progressive activism and a reputation for making “message pictures.” Upon taking over as RKO’s vice president in charge of production in early 1947, one of the first movies Schary greenlighted was Crossfire—a film noir about the murder of a Jew by a bigoted ex-GI. It was adapted from one of the more obscure novels on my list: The Brick Foxhole by Richard Brooks, in which the murder victim was a gay man. That seemed promising for a study of the adaptation process, and I was intrigued by the cultural politics. I began to madly photocopy material from the Dore Schary archive: correspondence between Schary and the film’s producer, Adrian Scott; budgets and minutes from production meetings; a copy of the shooting script by screenwriter John Paxton; results of sneak previews for theater audiences as well as special screenings for Jewish defense organizations; critical reviews and fan letters from friends in the industry as well as the general public; a blistering exchange of letters and articles between Schary and Elliot Cohen, editor of Commentary; a mountain of press clips, correspondence, and legal documents concerning the 1947 House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings on subversion in Hollywood, which resulted in contempt citations for the now infamous Hollywood Ten—a group that included producer Adrian Scott as well as Edward Dmytryk, Crossfire‘s director; Schary’s deposition in Scott’s lawsuit against RKO for wrongful termination; and more. As literally hundreds of pages rolled out of the copier, I realized I could throw away my list. I had found my story.

Originally published on October 20, 2016 at creative-egghead.com

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