Saturday, November 21, 2020

Stubs - Scene of the Crime

Scene of the Crime (1949) Starring Van Johnson, Arlene Dahl, Gloria De Haven, Tom Drake, Leon Ames, John McIntire, Donald Woods, Norman Lloyd, Jerome Cowan, Tom Powers Directed by Roy Rowland. Screenplay by Charles Schnee. Produced by Harry Rapf Run time: 95 minutes. USA Black and White. Crime, Drama, Film Noir

Under the leadership of Louis B. Mayer, MGM studios was Hollywood's "Tiffany Studio” with a long history of making glamorous films, especially musicals. Unlike Warner Bros., which was now for its gangster films, with a few exceptions, MGM did not deal with those kinds of films. Things began to change in 1948, when Dore Schary returned to the studio, after a stint at RKO, to replace Mayer as the head of production.

One of the films the studio made, post this transition, was Scene of the Crime.

The film’s star, Van Johnson, was back after having been lent out to 20th Century Fox for their film, Mother is a Freshman (1949), opposite Loretta Young. Johnson was a movie star whose stardom rose after a bad car accident during the filming of A Guy Named Joe (1943) left him 4F and unable to serve during World War II. MGM had made him a star and he had also become a heartthrob for some teenage girls. Scene of the Crime would be a departure for him as well, as he had been hyped as the embodiment of the "boy-next-door wholesomeness". This film would mark his first starring role as a tough guy.

The film’s director, Roy Rowland, had been known for his work on MGM shorts, including his work with Robert Benchley, How to Start the Day (1937) and A Night at the Movies (1937). He also directed crime shorts for the studio as part of their Crime Does Not Pay series. He would move up to directing features with A Stranger in Town (1943).

The film would go into production on February 1, 1949 with a $750,000 budget and wrapped sometime in early March of that year. The film would be released on August 26, 1949.

The teaser shot that opens Scene of the Crime.

The film opens with a teaser shot of a dead body on the streets of Los Angeles. There is a gun nearby. However, this relates to but is not part of the film, with a couple making out on the street. Passing them is a plain-clothed detective, Ed Monigan (Mickey Kuhn), who is shadowing a nearby cigar store that fronts for gambling. He confronts a man running for the shop and is shot and killed.

Mike's wife Gloria (Arlene Dahl) is a model.

Meanwhile, Mike Conovan (Van Johnson) and his wife, who is also a model, Gloria (Arlene Dahl), are about to go out and celebrate their fourth wedding anniversary when the phone rings. Mike is summoned to report to the crime scene by Captain A. C. Forster (Leon Ames). Mike is there with his partners, Fred Piper (John McIntire), a veteran detective who was once his superior, and a young rookie who will earn the nickname C.C. (Tom Drake) for dressing and looking like Mike (C.C. stands for carbon copy.)

Captain A. C. Forster (Leon Ames) (r) assigns the investigation to Mike
Conovan (Van Johnson) and
  Fred Piper (John McIntire). 

There was $1000 dollars found on Monigan’s body, which leads Forster to think that he was on the take from the bookies looking for armed protection from a racket holding them up. Mike disputes this theory. He knew Monigan, he used to be part of Mike’s team, and he’s convinced he wouldn’t be on the take. The captain assigns Mike the case.

C.C. (Tom Drake) sits in the back while they are on a case.

The three detectives begin their investigation, with their only clues coming from the eyewitnesses, who described the killer as having a deformed left-handed and a mottled face. In the hope of learning more about the killer, Mike questions a police informant named Sleeper (Norman Lloyd) about Arthur Webson (Jerome Cowan), a known gambling ring operator, and any new associates Webson may have acquired.

Sleeper isn’t of any help, holding out, he says, until he needs a favor. However, while they’re interrogating him, C.C. goes through his things and finds a matchbook in Sleeper's possession, in which the names Turk Kingby (Richard Benedict) and Lafe Douque (William Haade) are inscribed. They are a couple of lobos, out of town gunsels, known as the Royalty Gang.

After adding Kingby and Douque to the list of possible suspects or accomplices, Mike pays a friendly visit to Monigan's son Ed (Mickey Kuhn). Mike tries to be friendly, even bringing Ed a present that they had discussed on one of their camping outings. But Ed is angry because he blames Mike for his father's death. Ed claims that his father would not have placed himself in such a dangerous position if he hadn’t been trying to prove himself to Mike, who had dropped him from his team. Ed then asks Mike to devote himself to clearing his father's good name.

While searching for Kingby, Mike and C. C. witness two men forcing a man into a car. They follow the car to a warehouse, which is guarded by Umpire Menafoe (Tom Powers). Mike explains to C.C. that Umpire is a former distillery operator and now head of the bookie operations in the city. Menafoe, an old friend of Mike, allows Mike to watch a group of bookies line up suspects thought to be involved in a series of holdups. One man is picked from the line-up, but he’s let go when the hat that was left at the scene doesn’t fit him. Umpire offers Mike a $10,000 reward if he lets his people take care of the guilty party when Mike finds him. Mike refuses.

Sleeper (Norman Lloyd) shows up in the back of Mike's car.

When Mike tries to take Gloria out to dinner, they discover Sleeper in their car. He now needs a favor, because he’s committed a crime. He tells Mike more about Kingby and that they all served time in Wallaby Prison, takes him by Hippo’s Coffee Pot where the men hang out and hints that a private detective, named Pontiac, has been seen with Kingby.

Mike and Piper Pontiac (Robert Gist), who is in a fistfight with an angry spouse. He had been hired by Kingby’s wife to follow Kingby and had found he’d been with a "sizzler" named Lili (Gloria DeHaven), who was a burlesque dancer at the Club Fol-de-Rol.

 Lili (Gloria DeHaven) is a burlesque dancer at the Club Fol-de-Rol.

Mike visits Lili at the club and cultivates her trust by taking her to the movies and spending time with her. He even takes her to lunch the next day at a fancy restaurant. She claims to be through with Kingby. Sleeper calls him there and they arrange to meet that night. Mike takes C.C. with him to the rendezvous, but they find that Sleeper has been brutally murdered for being a stool pigeon.

Mike turns to Lili and asks her to help him by letting Douque, who has a crush on her, woo her, but she will get him drunk enough that Mike can search his apartment. Douque is supposed to have gotten rid of the murder weapon but he’s known as a collector.

Later, Mike's wife Gloria arranges for them to have dinner with her former boyfriend, Norrie Lorfield (Tom Helmore), a rich industrialist. Norrie, as prearranged with Gloria, offers Mike a job as head of security at a steel plant. Mike turns down the offer, much to the disappointment of Gloria.

Later that night, he gets a call from Lilli telling him Douque is passed out and where. While Mike is searching the apartment, Douque wakes up and the two fight. However, Mike manages to subdue him and puts him under arrest. However, when they’re back on the street, there is a hit and Douque is killed.

When Hippo tells Mike that Kingby is planning to make a "big hit" against the bookie organization that killed Douque, Captain Forster sets out to snare the killers in a way that Mike disagrees with.

In the meantime, Mike’s wife has convinced him that police work is too dangerous. He agrees and tenders his resignation.

Lili calls headquarters with a tip for Conovan on where Turk can be found. Piper intercepts the message. Knowing that his eyesight is failing and that he’s not long for his job, he goes to investigate it himself. However, he is gunned down and killed.

Mike, who is celebrating his new job, receives word of Piper’s murder. He realizes that Lili must have tipped off the hitmen. Mike goes back to the nightclub and demands an explanation. Lili confesses that she loves Kingby and that she set up all the murders to protect him.

When Kingby is finally captured, Mike discovers that he used a special rubber glove to make himself appear to be left-handed and that he used shoe polish to mottle his face. He also admits that much of the money he and Douque stole was lost on bad bets they made on horse racing; an ironic twist that is lost on Kingby.

With the case solved, Mike is finally able to devote his attentions to Gloria.

Scene of the Crime is more police procedural than film noir, though it is not as dry as say an episode of Dragnet. It definitely has a dark edge to it and has a definite femme fatale in Lili.

In his New York Times review, Bosley Crowther concentrates more on Van Johnson and his sex appeal than much of anything else in the film. “In both of his amorous assignments, Mr. Johnson will no doubt please his fans. As a matter of fact, we imagine, after carefully inspecting this film, that the one purpose of the whole thing is to please Mr. Johnson's fans.”

No doubt, Johnson’s appeal had a lot to do with the success of the film at the time, but those sorts of things fade with time. However, the performance he gives has a longer shelf-life than his temporal appeal. Someone watching the film today would not necessarily be aware of Johnson’s status at the time but would still come away thinking they had seen a strong performance.

Arlene Dahl was a relative newcomer at the time of this film. A former model herself, Dahl had only appeared in three films prior to Scene of the Crime. She is pretty but there is not really very much for her to do in this film. The lead female role really belongs to Gloria DeHaven.

Gloria DeHaven plays Lili in Scene of the Crime.

DeHaven began her career as a child actor with a bit part in Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times (1936) when she was only 11. Signed by MGM, she had featured roles in such films as Best Foot Forward (1943), and The Thin Man Goes Home (1944). DeHaven was voted by exhibitors as the third most likely to be a "star of tomorrow'" in 1944.

As she grew up, DeHaven became typecast as a vivacious ingenue. Her beauty and her singing ability landed her star billing in Summer Holiday (1948), a musical adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness starring Mickey Rooney. Scene of the Crime provided her a way to show her more dramatic skills in more adult roles. Cast as a stripper, with the Production Code in full effect, she couldn’t really strip on screen. Instead, she performs a reverse strip, putting it on as she sang Andre Previn's "I'm a Goody Good Girl," which provides an ironic commentary on her screen image. When she is on screen, it is hard not to look at her and her performance is still very good.

One of the more unforgettable characters is the informant Sleeper, played by Norman Lloyd. Lloyd made his film debut in Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1942) in which he plays a Nazi spy who dies in a fall from the Statue of Liberty. Talk about memorable debuts. Here, Sleeper is a small-time hood with a very quirky mannerism, mixing humor with an edgy personality.

Scene of the Crime is one film I would recommend. It has the usual twists and turns and leads that go nowhere, but it is very entertaining. Both Johnson and DeHaven give strong performances portraying people on opposite sides of the law.

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