Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Scene of the Crime (1949)

Directed by Roy Rowland for MGM, Scene of the Crime is a Dragnet style police procedural/crime drama with occasional noirish touches. Rowland’s direction is solid and workman-like, he would later go on to direct Rogue Cop and Spillane’s The Girl Hunters.

The picture was the studio’s slightly belated attempt to jump on the Noir bandwagon, likely under the influence of MGM’s new head of production Dore Schary who wanted to bring a different, more realistic sensibility to the studio’s wholesome universe. The result was Scene of the Crime, Noir-lite, its hard-boiled edges considerably softened by star casting and the studio’s famous glamour touch. MGM simply couldn’t bring itself to go slumming and left the urban squalor to other studios, the likes of Warner Bros. or RKO.

MGM tried to plonk the crime drama into the gutter, but forgot to leave the glamour touch behind. The picture is too glossy to be called true gritty Noir. Broken dreams, shattered illusions, dingy run-down joints, crooked cops, alcoholic shantoozies, unfaithful spouses, shifty fences and private eyes who work for 20 bucks a day don’t mix well with glitz. 

The cinematography is very good though not very noirish, only a few scenes display the shadow of Venetian blinds and chiaroscuro lighting. The dialogue is snappy and suitably hard-boiled, but sometimes feels a bit off, as if MGM had watched a few Poverty Row productions and tried to copy them without quite understanding the pulpy heart that beat underneath them. On the plus side, the picture has a great opening credits sequence showing a bullet from a crime scene being processed. 

Van Johnson plays homicide detective Mike Conovan who investigates the shooting of fellow officer Monigan who may or may not have been on the take from the mob. He was gunned down in front of a bookie joint and nobody knows what he was doing there. Conovan is out for revenge and has to deal with many red herrings, blind alleys, crosses and double crosses before he gets to the bottom of things. 
To complicate matters even more, his wife Gloria (Arlene Dahl) has grown more and more resentful of his profession which seems to interrupt their home life at any turn. She doesn’t want a bullet-riddled stiff as a husband. Throw in sexy stripper and gangster moll Lili (Gloria DeHaven) who Conovan gets a little bit too cozy with, and we should have all the ingredients for a good Noir. 

It’s just that MGM’s high production values are detrimental to the gritty universe that Noir should inhabit, the studio’s gloss treatment tended to have a sterilizing effect on a movie that begged for a more daring approach. A Poverty Row production wouldn’t have shied away from a more ugly representation of police corruption and organized crime without a happy ending. As this was MGM, social commentary and content were left out of it. 

In many ways the movie could be called average, it relies a bit too much on domestic drama. But it’s saved from being by-the-numbers and routine by a very good cast with lots of star appeal. This was MGM after all. 

In a bit of stunt casting the producers hired Van Johnson to play the hard-boiled detective. This was Johnson’s only foray into Noir. His wholesome, well-mannered, all-American boy-next-door image made him the perfect choice for romantic comedies and musicals which were his bread and butter. 
In Scene of the Crime he can afford to go to a ritzy nightclub in a tuxedo and fit right in, with the type of wife that would be way above Philip Marlowe’s pay grade. Bogart wouldn’t be caught dead in a joint like that. But Conovan is no lone wolf who lives on cheap booze, in a dingy office that doubles as bedroom. 

If this all makes Van Johnson sound miscast, astonishingly enough he is not. He acquits himself amazingly well, though he is not quite hard-boiled enough, but he can throw a punch. Occasionally he does what he has to do to get results, but he is never in any danger to get corrupted. He cannot in all honesty be considered a real Noir protagonist. He’s a bit light weight, too youthful and not grizzled and ambiguous enough.

It's funny that when the cops talk about PIs, Bogarts name is mentioned once or twice. Even in 1949 his name was already inextricably linked to private eye characters and it is as if the producers wanted to get the audience in on the joke. 

Van Johnson was in the running to play Eliot Ness in The Untouchables 10 years later, a casting I always considered off. However, having watched Scene of the Crime it may have worked out, though personally I am relieved that Robert Stack was cast instead. 

Arlene Dahl, usually playing the temptress, is cast against type as the long-suffering wife who is miraculously enough not too fazed when she notices lipstick on her husband’s collar. Her husband is working stripper Lili, strictly professionally of course, and “romances” her to milk her for information on her ex. Nonetheless, his emotions come into play and had this been a different studio I believe there would have been more oomph to the scenes between Lili and Conovan. As it was, MGM's sanitation crew was working overtime.
I guess it also helps to have Dahl wait at home to resists DeHaven’s advances. 

Gloria DeHaven, often the ingenue, is the film’s femme fatale. She turns in a sharp performance as “specialty dancer” Lili and is quite the competition for Dahl. A different studio though wouldn’t have shied away from making her musical numbers a lot more risqué and less squeaky-clean. But she’s revealed to be the most hard-boiled character in the end who played Conovan like a fiddle.

All in all, a good crime movie, just without a heart of darkness.

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