Thursday, April 24, 2014

Scene of the Crime (1949)

Scene of the Crime is more police procedural than film noir, although it does certainly have a dark edge to it. It was made by MGM in 1949 and is slightly grittier than you’d expect from that studio.

Mike Conovan (Van Johnson) is a homicide cop investigating the murder of a detective. The circumstances of the murder suggest that the dead cop may not have been squeaky clean. Conovan knew the slain detective and can’t believe he was crooked.

Conovan and his partner Piper (John McIntire) are teaching rookie detective ‘C. C.’ Gordon the ropes. C. C. got his nickname from a reporter who described him as a carbon copy of Mike Conovan. Piper is an old hand who had once taught Conovan the ropes.

The evidence suggests that an out-of-town mob is trying to muscle into the book-making racket in LA. The out-of-town mob is known as the Royalty Gang and their trigger man has a couple of distinctive features that should make him easy to find - he has a twisted left hand and a portwine birthmark on his face. Only he turns out not to be so easy to find.

Conovan’s wife Gloria (Arlene Dahl) has been pressuring him into leaving the Homicide Squad. She wants a live husband not a dead hero. This makes things rather tense and they get eve more tense when Conovan has to romance young and very attractive burlesque queen Lili (Gloria DeHaven) in order to try to find some sort of lead. Lili is the movie’s femme fatale. She’s obviously Mike Conovan’s type of dame and he’s having some trouble remembering this is supposed to be business.

There’s the usual assortment of hoodlums and informers, the most useful of the informers being the cheerful Sleeper (Norman Lloyd).

There are the usual plot twists and turns as leads seem to keep going nowhere. The trail leads to a seedy private detective, to a burlesque joint, to various small-time bookies and the only connecting thread is that most of those involved, both directly and indirectly, had been in prison together. It all leads up to a climax that is exceptionally violent for an MGM production and that must have pushed the boundaries of the Production Code. 

Van Johnson’s performance is reasonably good although he’s not quite hardboiled enough to convince as a cop who supposedly has a reputation as a hot-head. Arlene Dahl is capable in her role as the wife who wishes her husband wasn’t a cop. Gloria DeHaven has the advantage of playing the most colourful of the main characters and does the femme fatale routine with style and with subtlety. Norman Lloyd as Sleeper steals every scene he’s in.

Writer Charles Schnee had a distinguished career before his untimely death at age 46. He was equally at home with melodrama and hardboiled material and while his screenplay contains no surprises it does have enough human drama to keep things interesting. Although he did helm the excellent film noir Rogue Cop director Roy Rowland made few crime films, which is a pity because the couple he did make showed plenty of potential.

Mike Conovan is an interesting enough character and the screenplay doesn’t play down the fact that cops sometimes have to do unsavoury things to get results and they have to face situations that present ethical dilemmas. But Conovan’s methods are simply the methods that any effective detective would have to employ. He is never in any danger of being corrupted, which means his character cannot in any genuine sense be regarded as a film noir protagonist.

Being an MGM movie this movie is somewhat lacking in the shadowy grungy film noir style although it does have its moments. It relies on hardboiled content rather than style, but a little more noir style would not have gone amiss.

As for actual film noir elements, there are very few. There is a femme fatale but content-wise that’s about it.

The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD is barebones but it’s a good print.

Scene of the Crime is nothing startling but it’s a good well-made moderately hardboiled police procedural. Recommended.

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