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.

23 Paces to Baker Street

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The films which I’ve been writing about lately have all been fairly heavy on symbolism and meaning, so maybe it’s time to dip into something lighter for a change. As such, I feel that a tight, solid mystery that has no pretensions of being anything other than a piece of entertainment is as good a choice as any under the circumstances. This seems a fair summation of 23 Paces to Baker Street (1956) – a not especially well-known thriller that nevertheless features an intriguing plot and polished, professional work from all the participants. The movie belongs in a small sub-genre of films (e.g. The Spiral Staircase, Rear Window, Wait Until Dark) where the hero/protagonist is suffering from either a temporary or permanent disability. There’s nothing particularly exploitative about these films, the disability in question serving merely as a means of increasing tension or suspense – and often, paradoxically, emphasising the superiority of the hero over the villain.

The story here derives from a book by Philip MacDonald (author of some excellent mysteries like The Rasp and The List of Adrian Messenger)  and concerns a blind playwright who finds himself inadvertently drawn into a shadowy plot. Phillip Hannon (Van Johnson) is an American residing in London, having suffered some unspecified accident which has left him blind. That this misfortune has shaped his somewhat irascible character is established early on when his work is disrupted by the unexpected arrival of an old flame, Jean Lennox (Vera Miles), who evokes understandably painful memories of happier times. It’s as a result of this visit that Hannon, perhaps wanting to prove his independence, sets off alone to a local pub for a drink. And here’s where the mystery begins; while seated in a booth, he overhears snippets of a conversation through the partition with the adjoining lounge bar. Of course his lack of sight rules out the possibility of identifying the man and woman involved, but what he hears is sufficient to arouse his suspicions that something, conceivably an abduction, is being planned. The problem is that with his disability preventing a straightforward pursuit, and the police’s subsequent insistence that the meaning of the fragmented dialogue is open to interpretation, he’s at a loss to know how to proceed. However, bit by bit, through a combination of good fortune and dogged amateur sleuthing by Hannon, Jean and his servant (Cecil Parker), the body of evidence starts to grow. Everything builds relentlessly towards a tense climax that is reminiscent of Rear Window, where the hero finds the means to turn his physical handicap to his own advantage.

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What makes a story like this succeed is the presence of the physical disadvantage which the protagonist has to overcome. Having a hurdle such as Hannon’s blindness to negotiate makes it easier to sustain the viewer’s interest and demands an added touch of creativity in the scripting. I’ve often found that when a tale involves merely exploiting the massive manpower and resources available to law enforcement agencies, it’s much more difficult to feel sympathy for the hunters. Maybe that’s just my natural identification with the underdog coming through, but the (almost) lone and struggling figure always seems more attractive. Henry Hathaway’s direction is smooth and professional in a movie where the action is largely confined to interiors – entirely appropriate since the focus is on a man whose mobility is necessarily limited by his condition. The wide screen of scope is ideal for creating a sense of space in outdoor shots, but Hathaway’s experience meant that he was also aware that careful composition resulted in equally effective visuals in interiors. Generally, there’s a tense atmosphere maintained throughout, but there’s also a nicely judged comedic interlude where Hannon sends his servant/secretary off in pursuit of a suspect; Cecil Parker brings a welcome, lightly comic touch to this stalking sequence and the subsequent reporting of his progress. In the lead, Van Johnson is mostly fine in conveying an alternating mix of frustration and enthusiasm, the shape of the investigation both reflecting and influencing his moods. I also found him convincing as a blind man, the only time he let it slip a little was during the climax where a few reactions didn’t quite ring true. Vera Miles wasn’t given a lot to do as the faithful former lover, much of the time playing a clichéd and stereotypical character. Of course, that no real criticism of the actress, just the part she was handed. The supporting cast is full of fine British character actors: the aforementioned Cecil Parker, Maurice Denham, Estelle Winwood, Patricia Laffan and, in a droll turn as an assassin that reminded me a little of Edmund Gwenn in Foreign Correspondent, Liam Redmond.

23 Paces to Baker Street is a Fox production and remains absent on DVD in both the US and the UK, however, I believe there’s a copy of the film available in Spain but I haven’t seen it. Instead I picked up the Australian release by Bounty Films when it was issued late last year. The disc is completely barebones, but the transfer is pretty good. The movie is presented correctly in anamorphic scope and although it doesn’t appear to have undergone any kind of restoration there’s no especially distracting damage either. The colours are strong, the film has been transferred progressively and the price is acceptable. The only beef I have with the presentation, and it’s a very minor one, is the curious decision to market the title as part of the Bounty Noir Classics line – this is a standard mystery/whodunit and doesn’t even approach noir territory. This is an entertaining, glossy and well-paced thriller that’s capable of holding the viewer’s interest from beginning to end. I found it satisfying and have no problem giving it the thumbs up.