Saturday 7 August 2021

Movie Review: Scene Of The Crime (1949)

A cluttered police procedural, Scene Of The Crime offers a decent-enough cast and some noir elements, but fails to build meaningful momentum.

When aging detective Monigan of the Los Angeles police department is shot dead outside an illegal betting joint, his ex-partner Mike Conovan (Van Johnson) investigates, assisted by detectives Gordon (Tom Drake), a rookie, and Piper (John McIntire), a veteran. Although $1,000 in cash was found on Monigan, Mike refuses to believe he was on the take.

Mike leans on informer Sleeper (Norman Lloyd) and uncovers a simmering war for control of the illegal gambling business, with established bookies being killed or intimidated by newcomers. The investigation leads to nightclub chanteuse Lili (Gloria DeHaven), and Mike pretends to romance her to extract information. Mike's obsession with the case and frequent unscheduled absences from home strain his relationship with his wife Gloria (Arlene Dahl).

One of MGM's first forays into the rough and tumble world of detectives and gangsters, Scene Of The Crime is neither boiled enough nor polished enough, and remains stranded in bland territory.  As soon as the murder investigation launches, Charles Schnee's script introduces an avalanche of hoodlums and off-screen characters: Webson, Sleeper, Turk, Blade, Rutzo, Pontiac, Hippo and Lafe have clever names and may or may not be important, but other than Sleeper, they are undefined and interchangeable, rotating in and out of scenes to little effect. Scene Of The Crime quickly sinks under the weight of abstract villainy.

Sub-plots abound, further diminishing the value of the central mystery. Veteran detective Piper is suffering from failing eyesight. Rookie detective Gordon (nicknamed C.C. for carbon copy), is studiously learning the trade. Crime reporter Herkimer (Donald Woods) is Mike's dubious friend and angling for a story.

The marital troubles between Mike and his wife Gloria should have been another simple distraction, and often repeat the same notes. But with the investigation strangled by faceless goons, the couple's personal life injects an interesting dynamic. A tired sophistication hangs in the air as Gloria slowly runs out of patience with her husband's non-presence, hovering ex-lover Norrie (Tom Helmore) offering an alternative and Mike's dalliance with Lili not helping.

Lili should have been the film's most interesting character, but director Roy Rowland appears oblivious to her potential as a mysterious enigma. She simply switches modes at the behest of the script, robbing the plot of what could have been a captivating undercurrent.

Van Johnson is half-convincing as a no-nonsense detective, often struggling to balance his cultured presence with the gritty environment. Like the rest of Scene Of The Crime, he tries hard but never quite clicks.

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