Scene of the Crime

It’s arguable that, at its peak, RKO was the studio that appeared most comfortable producing films noir. If, on the other hand, you were to ask which of the majors was the one whose aesthetic felt least suited to that characteristically bleak style of moviemaking, the chances are MGM would come out on top. Everything changes though, and by the tail  end of the 1940s MGM was moving towards a different style, and as Dore Schary the former head of production at the aforementioned RKO took up the reins he brought a flavor of his previous home with him. Scene of the Crime (1949) is an entertaining piece of work from this transitional period for the studio, a superficially soft-boiled noir that boasts some surprising toughness just below the surface.

The 1950s would see film noir focus on organized crime with increasing regularity but nothing happens with a flash and puff of smoke. It was a gradual process and the drift away from the compromised individual as protagonist to wider society and its institutions wasn’t so much dramatic as stealthy. An urban street at night (or a backlot representation of one anyway) is a typical noir motif, as is the crash of gunfire, the lurch and fall of a fatally wounded body, the words of a gunman rapped out as abruptly and tersely as the bark of his revolver, and the snarling motor of the getaway car. And all that’s left is the torn remains of a man clinging to the sidewalk. The man in question was a cop, a detective in the wrong place at the wrong time, but with an unexplained and bulky roll of bills in his pocket. Questions naturally arise, not only with respect the identity of the killer but the source of the cash too. The answers to those questions will be ferreted out by Mike Conovan (Van Johnson), a somewhat stereotypical detective with a somewhat unusual  private life; he’s married to a glamorous ex-model (Arlene Dahl) and gets to hobnob with the smart set when he’s not combing the gutter for suspects. He’s one of those cops who’s wedded to the job as much as he is to his wife and she’s not that happy about the whole deal. So there’s this background tension simmering away, the domestic pressures adding a layer of conflict, but it’s a tension of the MacGuffin variety, of much more concern to the characters than it is to the viewer. Still, there is tension to engage us, the painstaking progress of the investigation, the careful fitting together of the disparate pieces as a picture slowly forms before our eyes, one that’s neatly embroidered by the presence of a quirky snitch (Norman Lloyd) and a seductive stripper (Gloria De Haven).

Earlier this year, I wrote about another Roy Rowland directed film noir Rogue Cop (which ended up being not only the most commented piece of the year but of all time on this site) and noted how the visuals had grown brighter and starker than had been the case earlier in the classic cycle. There’s a touch of that in Scene of the Crime but Rowland and cinematographer Paul Vogel still mix in the more traditional look from time to time, a stakeout with a flickering neon sign outside the window springs to mind, and then there’s that toughness I alluded to at the beginning. While the ultimate fate of Norman Lloyd’s memorable stool pigeon isn’t shown explicitly, it is described and it is grim. There’s a hard edged fist fight with one of the prime suspects, the climactic shoot out that ends up brutally and painfully, and of course there’s also a delightfully sour and cynical double cross which adds some spice to one of the more significant plot strands.I don’t know how much of this is derived from the original source material but I do know that screenwriter Charles Schnee was no slouch and was responsible for turning out some extraordinarily good scripts (They Live by Night, The Furies, Born to Be Bad, Westward the Women, The Bad and the Beautiful, Two Weeks in Another Town) in his relatively short life. In the final analysis though, there will be those who will say Scene of the Crime is essentially film noir lite, pointing to the lack of grit in the lead’s home life and the upbeat ending. I’ll not dispute any of that, but I will say that none of it troubles me much as I’m not especially keen on any extra helping of nihilism at the end of this particular year.

I don’t suppose Van Johnson would be anyone’s first pick for a noir lead, but he was nothing if not versatile and I have to say I’ve always found him very watchable in a range of movies from Brigadoon through to The Caine Mutiny. Given the nature of his role in Scene of the Crime, he’s actually a pretty good piece of casting. He’s very comfortable in the society scenes and equally convincing doing his dogged detective routine or slugging it out with hoodlums. I reckon Arlene Dahl got a bit of raw deal with this one though. Her part is barely developed and she’s not given much opportunity to do anything other than look glamorous or vexed, or both. I was watching her in No Questions Asked the other week and I feel she had something more to get her teeth into in that one. In a year that has seen us lose some big names from the golden age of cinema it’s kind of comforting to watch Ms Dahl share screen time with Norman Lloyd and think they’re both still around at 95 and 106 respectively. There’s very good support from an enigmatic Gloria De Haven, as well as solid and dependable work from John McIntire, Leon Ames, Anthony Caruso and Jerome Cowan among others.

Scene of the Crime can be found as part of the Warner Archive and looks quite good. The movie may not have the diamond heart of the more revered films noir but it is an engaging little picture that won’t disappoint either. Check it out if you can.

This will be the last post of  2020 for me, an odd year for sure. It’s been undeniably tragic for some, challenging for all, and yet it should be remembered that adversity ultimately breeds strength and positivity. From a purely selfish perspective, I have to say that one of the bright spots has come from seeing the site grow in popularity as never before. None of that would be possible without the marvelous contributions of all the knowledgeable and enthusiastic visitors it has been my pleasure to play host to. So let me say thank you to all of you, and may you all enjoy a happy, healthy and fulfilling New Year in 2021.

82 thoughts on “Scene of the Crime

  1. Terrific review of a pretty good picture. I met Van inNew York when he was doing a play by Garson Kanin called Come on, Strong opposite Carroll Baker. I enjoyed it, but this was one of Kanin’s few unsuccessful and less noteworthy enterprises. . In any case, while Johnson does not play tough guys in his best pictures, he was enormous and strong looking; you would not have embraced Van smacking you around, like one of those tough little guys from the Warner studio.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks. Yes, it’s odd in a way how the screen can sometimes make it tricky to work out how physically imposing a performer was in reality.
      Johnson had a very good run from the mid 40s through to the late 50s. I’m very fond of Command Decision and the later 23 Paces to Baker Street. I caught him in an old episode of Murder, She Wrote back in the summer and enjoyed his performance.

      Liked by 2 people

      • A pair of personal favorites, there are several more to add, but State of The Union and Van’s performance as Spike tops my list; no add, Van Johnson as the voice of sanity, albeit of a cynical nature, but the only principal not to embrace death, in Brigadoon.

        Like

        • It’s so long since I saw State of the Union that I remember practically nothing aside from the fact I have seen it.
          I think a lot of people scoff at Brigadoon for various reasons but, and speaking as one who isn’t really a fan of musicals in general, I’m fond of it.

          Liked by 1 person

    • Indeed, and the crew wasn’t exactly short of talent either.
      One of the many things I appreciate about films of this era is the way so many performers were able step out of what we might think of as their comfort zone and convincingly tackle the kind of roles we’d not normally associate them with. It says a lot for the system and those working within it.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. ACT OF VIOLENCE, starring that other Van (Heflin), falls into this Metro phase. It was one of Fred Zinnemann’s first features and has a very strong noir feeling — up to the cop-out ending.

    Like

  3. I just watched this one, one of my fave movie noirs. Another fave Van Johnson performance is Bottom of the Bottle where he plays a drunk convincingly. Also want to recognize Tom Drake in this whose character is called CC (carbon copy) to Van at one point, he’s learning on the job. I also like Tom(well, ok, I like him in just about anything) in the minor Dane Clark noir Never Trust a Gambler where he’s also a cop. One of Tom’s best parts is as the villain in Warlock. Great post!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, Tom Drake’s turn ought to have been mentioned here by me and I neglected to do so – thanks for putting that omission right here. I forgot about his being in Warlock, but that’s perhaps understandable given the sheer star power on show. I wrote it up too years ago.

      Like

      • Thanks for the link-I really should spend
        more time delving through your “back pages”
        I enjoyed the comment from the person who
        knew Frank Gorshin,good to hear Widmark was
        a nice guy.
        I recently got the German Blu Ray 4K restoration
        and it’s beautiful.
        As you say,there’s lots going on in this film,possibly
        too much.
        This time,I really wanted Henry Fonda and Dolores
        Michales to ride off into the sunset together,their key scene
        together is beautifully done.
        The relationship between Widmark and Dorothy Malone is
        more twisted-she more of an “Angel Of Death” and the scene
        where Widmark tells her of the innocent people he has murdered
        is compelling.
        We believe Widmark as an ex renegade far more than Coop
        in MAN OF THE WEST-but then again Widmark’s
        previous roles had much to do with that.
        As I have noted before the parralels to UNFORGIVEN are interesting,
        especially the “Penny Dreadful” publications that depict
        Anthony Quinn’s gunslinging exploits.
        WARLOCK is the sort of Western that offers something new
        with each viewing.

        Like

        • Yes, I bought that German Blu-ray myself and it does look quite splendid.
          As or my “back pages”, there are things I wrote a decade or more ago and I often think I should revisit them – I’m not necessarily referring to that Warlock piece by the way – as I feel my opinions have shifted. Then again, I tell myself that’s how I read it at the time and there’s a truth in such expression that I ought to let stand.

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    • A Tom Drake fan…WOW!
      I watched WARLOCK the other night and had
      forgotten how good Tom was in that one,certainly a return
      to form after THE CYCLOPS which also took down another
      former MGM star James Craig.
      Tom also pops up; and is rather good in MONEY WOMEN AND
      GUNS a diverting little Jock Mahoney Western.

      Like

  4. Pingback: Scene of the Crime | Riding the High Country | Crawfordgold's Blog

  5. Yes, a terrific review of a very entertaining and well-made ‘noir’ to finish off 2020, Colin! You are spot-on in your opening sentence that RKO was responsible for many of the best of the genre too. MGM got on board in fine style too.

    What a horrible year this has been. So true when you say it was tragic for many and challenging for all. Not many will be looking back on it fondly and yet……my younger son finally achieved his doctorate in organic chemistry in early March after a lengthy journey dogged by health issues and then later in March he and his wife welcomed their first baby. So, it has been a very mixed year from my perspective.

    What has alleviated the pandemic for me has been the very rewarding reviews and subsequent discussions with the nice folks your blogsite attracts. Thanks for it all, Colin. Go 2021!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s fantastic to hear your family has been prospering and that they have been adding some positivity to their lives and yours.

      And it’s a very nice thought that this place has been a source of pleasure too.

      Like

  6. Thanks for such a great site. Ijust recently came across it and your reviews are superb.as the movies are my DVD/Blu ray collection. About VanJohnson I liked him especially in Wellmans Battleground just a wonderful movie.

    Like

  7. “Engaging” isn’t something you expect to read in a noir-ish review, but it certainly fits. I’ve only seen Scene of the Crime once and began watching it with a negative expectation but have found that it has stayed with me as a good one. Something to get back to someday. Thanks for the kick in its direction and all the best for the coming year.

    Like

  8. Nice review of a fun little Noir lite. Not quite on the same level as Rowland’s Rogue Cop though, an absolute favorite of mine. (Rowland made a few fantastic Westerns too.)

    I wrote about Scene of the Crime in one of my older reviews and came to the same conclusion. Though MGM certainly jumped on the Noir bandwagon late in the 40s, courtesy of Dore Schary, the studio could rarely ever bring itself to go slumming. MGM’s famous glamour touch kept the movies from reveling in the gutter. The pulpy soul of Noir found its spiritual home more naturally in the Gower Gulch.

    I can’t say I’ve ever been Van Johnson biggest fan, but I always find him pleasant. His clean-cut, boy-next-door image is certainly a long way from the gritty and boozy PIs we’re used to in Noir. He acquits himself quite well though.

    As for this dreadful year of 2020, I hope we won’t see another one of it. Like living in a Twilight Zone episode.

    Liked by 1 person

        • Yes, I should have expressed that better really yours is a positive appraisal of the film with only a more frank acknowledgment of what features might prove disappointing for viewers going in with a different set of expectations. The movie is a solid crime picture with some clear noir trappings and hard edge in places, but much of that is softened by the studio upholstery.

          Like

  9. All
    Best hopes and wishes for all here for 2021

    Colin
    On to the film, I must admit that this one I avoided for years simply because I disliked the title. Silly me again! Not expecting a lot, I was very pleased with the film when I did view it. The work of the entire cast and crew is excellent here, making this all a top flight production. Van Johnson in particular was superb, and as others have mentioned, was capable of a wide range of acting styles.

    Colin has hit the old nail on the head again with this write-up. Well done!

    Gordon

    Like

    • It’s funny how titles can affect us. Now I didn’t have any problem with this one but I do know there have been other pictures where I found myself similarly avoiding them – trifling stuff when you stop and think about it, but there it is.

      Like

  10. Another excellent review to round off 2020, Colin. My only complaint about your reviews is that they’re sending me broke. I am about to order this one, too. RTHC has been one of the bright lights for me in a tough year: my thanks to you and all your contributors for providing so much pleasure.

    Like

  11. Margot
    I have been slowly working my way through your Noir site. Just finished your piece on ACE IN THE HOLE and was highly impressed with it. The film is both, my favorite Wilder and Douglas film.
    Gord.

    Like

  12. I’m pretty ambivalent regarding Mr Johnson,
    ‘though I adore 23 PACES TO BAKER SETEET the closest
    we will ever get to seeing an Hitchcock movie in CinemaScope.
    I got the Warner Archive Blu Ray of ACTION OF THE TIGER
    which has Van in tough guy mode and he did pretty good,I thought
    although leading lady Martine Carol was far more attracted to Sean Connery
    during the shoot,who has an interesting early role as a drunken lout.
    Van was totally wrong for Westerns as SIEGE AT RED RIVER proved
    although he did appear in a Spaghetti THE PRICE OF POWER an odd
    political Western,an allegorical take on the Kennedy assassination.
    I’ve seen SCENE OF THE CRIME but cannot remember a darn thing
    about it;that’s the way it goes sometimes.
    I would say Universal more than gave RKO a run for their money
    in the Noir stakes but sadly (unlike their Westerns) there are a whole
    heap of Universal Noirs that have not even had a DVD release; key films
    from the likes of Joseph Pevney,Hugo Fregonse,George Sherman,
    Ted Tetzlaff,Crane Wilbur,William Castle and Jack Arnold among otheers.
    Regarding Margot’s Twilight Zone comment,for me 2020 has made me feel
    like I’m an extra in a virtual reality Sci Fi epic and the only diversion on TV
    is some Oliver Stone Political Satire, neverending mini series about a TV
    reality star who ends up becomming the most powerful man in the World.
    Anyway,enough of that It’s great to see Colin’s site thriving so well in these
    dire times-it could not happen to a nicer guy.
    Let’s hope 2021 is a better year for all of us who ride the high country.

    Like

    • I wouldn’t mind giving Action of the Tiger a look at some stage, it’s one I’d never even heard of prior to this release.

      Yes, Universal (and all those absent titles we’ve pined for so often) would be a contender. A thought though: would it be fair to say Universal tended towards crime dramas, albeit with a dark shading to them, whereas RKO was more likely to produce full on film noir? This of course rests on the hair splitting notion that while crime dramas and film noir may and frequently do overlap, they are not necessarily the same thing.

      Like

      • You make a very fair point there, Colin, and one I’m inclined to agree with. Crime drama / film noir, I really go for both but RKO surely was the studio that ‘noir’ looked comfortable in.
        Today I watched a late Universal ‘noir’, and by late I mean one of the last films under that banner before they became U.I., from 1946 “SMOOTH AS SILK” with Virginia Grey as an opportunistic femme fatale plus Kent Taylor, Milburn Stone, John Litel, Harry Cheshire. A really solid little number. I bet you lot all know it already!!??

        Like

      • ACTION OF THE TIGER is a diverting romp
        and the Warner Archive Blu Ray is from a export
        strength cut with some very non 50’s nudity scenes
        with Martine Carol.
        I must say that water Martine ermerges from must
        have been darn cold! 🙂
        Regarding Universal Noir I was thinking more about
        the Siodmak contributions although entries from
        Sherman,Fregonse and Wilbur are more than mere
        crime thrillers.
        I’m enjoying ploughing through Indicator’s Columbia
        Noir vol 1 I did not have any of the six films in my
        collection and three of them I’ve never seen before.
        I was very taken by DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD a film
        that until now I’ve never caught up with-a key film in the
        fall guy/femme fatale genre.
        Volume 2 (due in February) again has six films that I
        do not have and I’m really looking forward to FRAMED
        with Glenn Ford and Barry Sullivan.
        I guess it would be true to state that Columbia’s output
        did veer more to the “Crime Thriller” type but then again
        if the movies are good then labels really do not matter.

        Like

        • Quite, labels are mainly of use for marketing purposes. It’s nice when we feel we can categorize a movie comfortably, but it’s not something we need to get hung up on.

          Like

  13. Jerry
    SMOOTH AS SILK is a neat little “number” as you say. Virginia Grey does some top work leading men around by the nose in this one. I caught it in 2015 and did a IMDB bit on it. Thanks for the reminder about the film, as I think a re-watch is now in order.

    Like

  14. To All
    Best wishes for everyone here and their families for a wonderful New Year.

    The weather here in Calgary has warmed up and is hovering around 0 during the day. At night we dip down to minus 8-10 C.

    On the idiot box tonight I’ll be watching, KISS OF DEATH 1947 and PRESUMED INNOCENT 1990.

    Again, all the best!!

    Gordon

    Like

  15. When the term ‘classic movie’ can be rather over-used, it is entirely appropriate when talking of “KISS OF DEATH”, a terrific movie all round.

    I celebrated New Year’s Eve with 3 movies across the day and all were very different from each other. Started with an Eagle Lion film from 1948, “ASSIGNED TO DANGER” starring Gene Raymond and Noreen Nash and an early directing job for Oscar (Budd) Boetticher. Just a ‘B’ movie but most enjoyable.
    Number 2 was an Errol Flynn blockbuster from 1941 “SANTA FE TRAIL” with an interesting if highly inaccurate storyline concerning John Brown and his followers’ actions leading up to the Civil War. The story darkened as the years moved inexorably towards that tragic conflict.
    Number 3 had to be a choice my wife would enjoy too. My choice was an overwhelming success, 1951’s “BRIGHT VICTORY”, a film I had never seen before starring Arthur Kennedy and Peggy Dow for U.I. Kennedy was a first-rate actor and I have never seen him better than his performance here as a soldier blinded in action in N. Africa and how he adapted to his condition and his return to civilian life. Highly recommended.

    Happy New Year to Colin and all fellow readers!

    Like

  16. All
    KISS OF DEATH This is one of those films that gets better every time I watch it. You folks agree?

    Jerry
    I agree that “ASSIGNED TO DANGER” is a decent early entry from Boetticherl. I really like the work of the cinematographer, L. William O’Connell. He always gives these films a real dark look. His work includes DECOY, REPEAT PERFORMANCE, and DANGEROUSLY THEY LIVE. One of his early bits was SCARFACE from 1932.

    Speaking of Mr. Flynn, I just recorded his 1952 Gordon Douglas directed, MARA MARU. Been a long time since I last seen this one.

    Gordon

    Like

  17. SCENE OF THE CRIME is a pretty neat little movie.

    ROGUE COP on the other hand is in my opinion absolutely superb. One of several great film noir roles Robert Taylor did (he’s also fantastic in THE BRIBE).

    Like

  18. Very nice write-up, Colin. I’m glad I watched “Scene of the Crime” which I only discovered thanks to RTHC. What a terrific script! I thought Van Johnson and Gloria De Haven both excelled in their respective roles. Rowland’s direction was taut and assured and he worked well with Paul Vogel to set up some interesting scenes. I always love to see shots of Los Angeles from the late 40s and early 50s (e.g. – “Cry Danger”). And I’m constantly amazed that Norman Lloyd fell from the Statute of Liberty and is still with us at 106!

    Liked by 1 person

    • And I’m constantly amazed that Norman Lloyd fell from the Statute of Liberty and is still with us at 106!

      That’s resilience for you!

      I’m pleased to see this appears to be a broadly popular movie, nobody dislikes it and it has enough going on in various departments to keep most of us satisfied.

      Like

  19. Hi Colin
    I really enjoy reading your posts on westerns and film noirs, two of my favourite movie genres.
    I hope to read more the coming year!
    best wishes
    Bart

    Liked by 1 person

  20. For Talking Pictures TV fans (in the UK) they have an ultra
    rare Republic entry screening very soon.
    A SCREAM IN THE DARK (1943) stars Robert Lowery
    and was dirtected by George Sherman.

    Like

  21. Everyone
    A .film that I have spent 20 plus years looking for is at last showing up on cable here. It is 1953s CRY OF THE HUNTED. It stars Vittorio Gassman, Barry Sullivan, Polly Bergen, Harry Shannon and William Conrad. It is a prison escape film directed by Joseph H Lewis who we all know. So, has any of this fine group here seen this one?

    Another one I have spent years looking for is ACES HIGH from 1976 It is the third version of THE DAWN PATROL. it stars Malcolm McDowell, Christopher Plummer, Simon Ward and Trevor Howard. I caught it in the cinema back in 76 but have never found it since. I liked it back in the day.

    Gordon

    .

    Liked by 1 person

    • Gord,
      Yes, I have a copy of “CRY OF THE HUNTED” and watched it in the past few months. Enjoyed it a lot, largely for its rather unusual locations and Barry Sullivan rarely, if ever, disappoints. Be interested to know your thoughts on the film, once watched.

      Like

      • It’s a movie I’m keen to catch up with at some point too.
        Over the last few days, as well as watching a few CinemaScope titles which will be featured here in due course, I also took in Crossroads (1942), another MGM crime film. A very strong cast (William Powell, Hedy Lamarr, Claire Trevor and Basil Rathbone) keep this watchable and and stylish. It’s a story about amnesia and blackmail, and it flirts with film noir while never fully committing to it.

        Like

  22. Colin
    Crossroads (1942) Saw this one a decade ago and found it an effective time-waster. As you say, the cast alone is worth the look. Last night I took in THE BLUE MAX 1966 and an episode of FABIAN OF THE YARD from 1955.Fun early UK tv.

    Gordon

    Like

    • Oh boy, Gord, “FABIAN OF THE YARD”! That really takes me back. 37 episodes were filmed 1954-56 with Bruce Seton as Det. Insp. Robert Fabian and the whole series was shown on BBC TV during that period and in repeats for several years. I absolutely loved it (I was only 6 when it started) and it was that series that gave me an early start in loving crime thrillers and ‘noirs’. Sadly only 4 or 5 episodes are known to exist today (I have those) though there is speculation that a source in Canada has the series. I would dearly love to see all those again in a restored state.

      Like

  23. Jerry
    The episode was called “The Executioner” and guest starred Elspet Gray and Noel Swanwick.. First time I have seen any of the series.
    Gord

    Like

  24. Jerry

    Go to You-Tube, type in -British tv drama 1950s/60s/70s- and a site should pop right up with 459 various episodes of UK series. Hit view playlist – series include episodes of Z-Cars, The Main Chance, The Sentimental Agent, Overseas Press Club, the complete first two series of The Power Game, Mr. Rose and many, many others. Hope that gives you something to watch LOL

    Gordon

    Liked by 1 person

  25. Thanks for that link, Gord – it’s a cornucopia of great old TV shows. I checked out one called Four Just Men because it starred the great Jack Hawkins. The visual and sound quality was excellent. So many more there I’m going to watch.

    Liked by 1 person

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