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An off-duty Los Angeles police detective is shot and killed one night with
an unexplained thousand dollars found in his pocket. It falls to his
partner (Van Johnson) to track down his killers and try to exonerate him.
Scene of the Crime, which tells the story, stays a police procedural with
few twists and touches that raise it a notch or two above the
First of all, Johnson's wife (Arlene Dahl) has fallen prey to the dissatisfactions common to her lot. She's tired of their evenings, in and out, being ruined by yet another summons to duty (`Whenever the telephone rings, it cuts me,' she cries); she tired of rolling his dice rigged to come up seven, a ritual that supposedly bids him luck.
On the job, he has his burdens, too. His new partner (John McIntyre) is getting on in years and his sight is failing. And under Johnson's wing is nestled rookie cop Tom Drake, learning the ropes. Outside the office there's an abrasive police reporter (Donald Woods) chasing the corruption angle; there's also the network of low-lifes who serve, if the pressure is right, as stoolies - most vivid of them is the young Norman Lloyd.
Word filters up that the killing was the work of a couple of downstate `lobos' who have been knocking over bookie operations. Going undercover, Johnson starts romancing a stripper one of them used to date (Gloria De Haven, in the movie's sharpest performance). Even though he's working her, he finds his emotions in play - and even though it turns out that she's working him, too, she has no emotions.
Under Roy Rowland's direction, Scene of the Crime keeps its plotting straightforward, though with some uncharacteristic bursts of violence. The movie's studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, was celebrated for its lavish color musicals, not for the unsentimental style of film noir. That probably accounts for the final shot's being a reconciliatory kiss, in hopes that such a sweet image might expunge all the urban squalor that went before it. Luckily, it doesn't.
This is a very entertaining look at big city cops and robbers with shades of film noir showing though. The standout performance in a potentially femme fatale role is Gloria DeHaven. I suspect the writers, John Bartlow Martin and Charles Schnee, along with director Roy Rowland, had experiences with untrustworthy women, for Lili (Gloria DeHaven) could turn any man's heart to putty, then fool him over and over. Van Johnson too turns in a subdued performance which is called for in the character (Mike Conovan) he plays. Conovan's very liberal wife, especially for 1949, is played by Arlene Dahl, who is fed up with the demands of her husband's job but who also trusts her husband to be with a vixen and still stay true to her. This is an effective counterbalance to the untrustworthiness of Lili. Great supporting roles abound filled with standout performances from John McIntire's "too old to cut the mustard" part all the way to the Sleeper, Norman Lloyd. Yuk, Yuk, it's great. There is a lot of realistic blood and guts thrown in complete with car chases that foretell things to come in action movies. Heat up some popcorn, get a cold one, then sit back and enjoy the ride.
Van Johnson plays it a lot rougher than usual when cast as a hardboiled
police detective in Scene Of The Crime. He's got reason to be hard in
this case. A fellow detective has been murdered, shot down in the mean
streets of Los Angeles. The victim had a thousand dollars in his pocket
and may have been doing some off duty guard duty for some bookmakers.
Which would make the cop and incidentally Van's friend a crooked cop.
Which among other things is what Captain Leon Ames wants Van to find out as well as bring in the killer. What Van and his squad uncover is a gang of crooks who are robbing these illegal gambling establishments, be they bookmaking parlors, dice games, poker games, whatever.
This case is the main concern of this film, but Johnson has a whole lot of other things on his plate. A partner, John McIntire, who is slowing up with age, a young detective Tom Drake who is learning the ropes as fast as Van can teach him, and his wife Arlene Dahl who would like very much for her husband to get out of the cop business.
Two other performances really stand out in this film. First Gloria DeHaven as singer/gangster girl friend who's definitely the most hardboiled character in the film. Her reasons for her actions tread into adult areas that the Code frowned on, but are still implied. Secondly Norman Lloyd you will not forget as one of Van's stool pigeons who might just be missing a whole suit in his deck of cards. Lloyd will definitely make your skin crawl.
Scene Of The Crime is a good cop drama, atypical for MGM at that time, but they would soon be doing more of these.
Did, as some people think, "Scene of the Crime" invent the cop drama
clichés that have been a mainstay of television and film for so long?
Or were they already established and just copied by this film? Not
being an expert in the genre, I don't know. I do know that despite
attempts by some people to elevate this movie to film noir status, it's
not that great. Dore Schary put this into production when he took over
MGM. I guess he wanted MGM to be more like Warner Brothers. It stars
Van Johnson, Arlene Dahl, John McIntyre, Leon Ames, and Gloria DeHaven.
When a cop is killed with a roll of dough found on him, his fellow officers set out to investigate the crime and clear the man's name.
"Scene of the Crime" is similar in its way to "Dragnet" - it shows the daily grind of detectives as they put together a case. There are a couple of very good scenes, including one in which Mike (Van Johnson) arrests a suspect, and shooting starts when they get outside of the apartment building. Still handcuffed to Mike, the perp jumps into a building stairwell. There's also a good car chase.
For some reason, Van Johnson did these baby-faced tough guys well - perhaps it was his New York accent, but he pulls off the role of the dedicated Mike. He was set to be Elliot Ness in the TV "Untouchables" when his wife Evie called Desi Arnaz the night before and held him up for more money. Arnaz called Robert Stack and told him to report to the set the next day. A friend of mine who has lived in LA for over 50 years and socialized with many stars said that Arlene Dahl was the most beautiful woman of everyone he had met. Seeing her in this, you can believe it. She is a spectacular beauty if her acting in some spots isn't the best. Gloria De Haven, usually a vibrant ingenue, plays against type as a tramp, which makes it interesting.
"Scene of the Crime" is gritty-looking enough but suffers from being slow in spots and loaded with clichés. There isn't anything to make it truly special. That could be because by now, we've seen it all before. Perhaps in 1949, it was fresh. But I have my doubts that even back then, it broke any new ground.
I guess the lesson here is that you can take the crime drama out of
MGM, but you can't take MGM out of the crime drama. With noirish
location shots, the new Dore Schary regime changed the usual MGM look
somewhat, yet the movie still boasts a string of stars and star power
for which the studio was known. The trouble is that working Van
Johnson, Arlene Dahl, Tom Drake, Gloria DeHaven, Donald Woods, and a
string of "name" supporting players into the screenplay with sufficient
screen time for each overstretches the results. Despite some effective
moments (the hotel room fistfight, the fright screams from the burning
car), the movie suffers from too much flab for overall effect. For
example, the two rather lengthy scenes with Norrie Lorfield (Tom
Helmore), the rival for Conovan's (Johnson) wife, are simply a needless
distraction from the main plot, and work to dilute the overall effect.
In fact, the entire marital subplot should have been dropped or at
least minimized, but it seems that the studio was not satisfied with
the kind of fast, efficient little crime drama that RKO, for one,
routinely turned out.
I'm tempted to say that just as movie spectaculars and historical epics depend on big budgets for optimal effect, crime dramas and noirs depend on the tight disciplining constraints of small ones. That way, production values don't interfere with the story line. Here it appears that MGM's celebrated production values over-produced the number of feature players, which, in turn, multiplied the various subplots, or vice-versa. In either case, it's too bad the script didn't eliminate a few of these in favor of giving Norman Lloyd's truly memorable character, Sleeper, more screen time. He's the kind of unique character that could have transformed this otherwise forgettable exercise into a memorable one.
An LA police detective (Van Johnson) investigates the murder of another detective and gets involved with night club singer and stripper played by Gloria De Haven. The story has a neat double cross. A criminal organization from "down south" sends a couple of "lobos" to LA in order to take over a bookmaking syndicate. Corruption is at the center of the story as the dead detective was carrying a wad of cash. Johnson's out to prove that he (dead detective) wasn't on the take. His street contact Sleepy (Norman Lloyd) provides some of the films more vivid moments, and Jerome Cowan (Sam Spade's partner in Maltese Falcon) has a great part as "fixer" Arthur Webson. Johnson does very well in the part, combining breeziness that he honed in earlier films with sufficient grit to be believable as a tough detective. His wife played by Arlene Dahl looks great and they share some pretty good chemistry in their scenes. The film does a good job of capturing the story's different elements and cohesively combining them. The action doesn't always come, but when it does it is surprisingly sudden and brutal for the times.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Though not as good as the 1968 classic Madigan, which changed the way crime movies or is it cop movies were shot, this is way above average with a laconic performance by Van Johnson. Johnson is a cop on the trail of a killer. He has his way of doing things and he also has a wife who is tired of his being a cop and his missing important events propped up with the chance that one of those visits away will be his last. They always roll a dice that shows three three. Regulatory scenes where the boss chews them out, scenes interrogating the baddies move this police procedural as an earlier reviewer has noted. Also, I don't consider this a spoiler but if not, skip this and the next line, his partner gets killed as expected, and a tough shoot out which is shot and edited like a scene from the late sixties complete with exploding car, realistically done makes this movie a perfect three star applause. This movie is obviously the work of new MGM boss Dore Scary who preferred realistic movies with messages and flawed characters made at a reasonable budget. Louis B. Mayer despised these movies. To make everybody happy, it should be noted the movie was a hit, not a big hit but profitability wise, a big one.
Two veteran Los Angeles police detectives and a well-meaning rookie set out to find the killer of an off-duty fellow officer who may have been on the take. This is an L.A. filled with dangerous broads, bookie joints, ex-bootleggers in on a new racket, and cops in natty suits and broad-billed hats. The pulpy, slangy dialogue is fun at times, as are the performances from Van Johnson and Gloria DeHaven (playing a chanteuse "with a figure like champagne and a heart like the cork"). Other, later crime-dramas would quickly up the ante on such a scenario, but this one is a fine example of the compact policer. M-G-M was downsizing their budgets at the time and trying their hand at different types of films--which provided the perfect opportunity for matinée idols like Johnson to stretch their acting muscles. The results here are not exactly noir, but more from an overtly-ordinary, overtly-jaded mold, with everyday people going about their business and getting the job done. If it isn't exciting, at least it's highly competent. **1/2 from ****
MGM is not a studio known for noir. This procedural is toothless and insincere, with a plot that's barely worth paying attention to (something about a dead cop and bookies, I dunno). Van Johnson in the lead comes up short, he doesn't handle the hard-boiled lingo very well. But some of the accoutrements are pretty hot stuff. This is my third Roy Rowland (fourth if you count his "Crime Does Not Pay" short) and as he proved in ROGUE COP and WITNESS TO MURDER he definitely has a good track record with the genre. The photography is excellent (though some of the sets look pretty cheap), the dialogue crackles, there's some nice touches like the diegetic music during a big fight scene, and the film has some awesome supporting performances. Norman Lloyd (so great), Gloria DeHaven ("A figure like champagne and a heart like the cork"), and Robert Gist really shine, and John McIntyre is always terrific. There's a lot to love in this movie and at first I was thrilled to be watching it. After a while, however, the ho-hum story becomes harder to care about. I really wanted to like this more, but despite its flaws there's definitely some worthwhile elements.
There they Go Again. MGM Trying to Capitalize on the Popular Films from
RKO and WB that came to be Known as Film-Noir. The Descriptive Term was
Only Coined in Retrospect.
This is a Movie that has some Good Stuff and some Pretty Bad Stuff. It Seemed the Studio couldn't get it Quite Right. The Best Example is the Dialog. The Peppering Street and Gangster Slang is so Ripe that it Sounds Like some Really Trashy, Second Rate, Paperback and when it comes out of the Mouth of Van Johnson and Crew it is just Pretentious, Clunky, and Silly.
There may be More Dated and Dumb Exclamatory Euphemisms used in this Crime-Cop-Noir than in any other Movie. But it all Sounds Rattled Off and Page Written and is Anything but Naturalistic. Even when Uttered by a Lamp Post Leaner Called the Sleeper (Norman Lloyd).
That's the Weakest Part of this Slightly Entertaining Excursion into the Shadows. Speaking of Shadows, by the End of the Decade Studios, even those Under the Bright Lights of MGM, had Discovered the Artisticism and Power of those Noir Icons and in this One there are So Many that Even the Shadows have Shadows.
Overall, it is a Curious Film, and One Worth a Watch for there are Some Things of Interest. Like a Couple of Beautiful Dames, Arlene Dahl and Gloria De Haven that Brighten Up the Screen, and a Workmanlike Supporting Cast with John McEntire as a Veteran Cop Delaying His Put Out to Pasture, the Best.
Not Quite Film-Noir, Not Quite Hard-Boiled, Not Quite Suspenseful Police-Procedural, this Film In Fact, is an Example of MGM's Track Record with this Type of Thing, Mostly a Good Try, but Not-Quite.
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