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Scene of the Crime

Scene of the Crime(1949)

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Scene of the Crime (1949)

MGM took a walk on the noir side with a series of ultra-realistic thrillers spearheaded by Dore Schary when he took over as head of production in 1948. Scene of the Crime (1949) was one of the best, good enough to win an Edgar nomination for Best Motion Picture from the Mystery Writers of America with its tale of a cop torn between leaving the force to keep his wife happy and bringing down the crooks who killed his partner. It also set its stars on new careers, helping them make the transition from the glitz of the '30s and '40s to the more realistic world of the '50s. But although the film seemed a major departure from the studio's glamorous past, it actually had some pretty solid roots at MGM, drawing on the realistic crime shorts in their award-winning "Crime Does Not Pay" series of the '30s and '40s and such low-budget early '40s films as Kid Glove Killer and Grand Central Murder (both 1942).

Van Johnson had hit stardom during World War II when his 4F status helped him stay in Hollywood and become the idol of millions of teenaged girls. At the time, his vehicles were fluffy comedies, with the occasional musical thrown in for good measure (he had started as a chorus boy on Broadway). But Schary saw something tougher under Johnson's bland exterior. He had tested the waters with a serious role in the realistic World War II drama Command Decision (1948), starring Clark Gable. Scene of the Crime would mark his first starring role as a tough guy. The character's penchant for wise cracks drew on the actor's comedy experience, while also revealing an unsuspected flair for cynicism. Johnson would continue in this vein with Schary's trend-setting World War II story Battleground (1949) and do well enough to be offered the role of Eliot Ness in the crime series The Untouchables (his salary demands would cost him the role, which went to Robert Stack instead).

Gloria DeHaven also was making a break from her typecasting as a vivacious ingnue. After learning her craft in a series of small, light-hearted roles that took full advantage of her beauty and singing talents, she had landed star billing in Summer Holiday (1948), a musical adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness starring Mickey Rooney. Then Schary decided she needed to show her dramatic side in more adult roles, so he cast her as the stripper and gangster's moll who tries to distract Johnson from his quest for vengeance. Of course, she couldn't strip on screen, so the script had her perform a reverse strip, putting it on as she sang Andre Previn's "I'm a Goody Good Girl," an ironic commentary on her screen image. DeHaven, too, would explore dramatics further, most notably as Glenn Ford's bohemian sister in The Doctor and the Girl later that year.

To capture the story's noir shadings, Schary handed the script to recent studio arrival Charles Schnee, whose first original screenwriting credit had come with I Walk Alone, a 1948 thriller that attempted to put the gangster genre in touch with the realities of post-war life. The same year as Scene of the Crime, he would write one of the greatest of all film noirs, They Live by Night, an early rendition of the Bonnie and Clyde story. He would go on to win an Oscar® for his noir-ish dissection of Hollywood life, The Bad and the Beautiful (1952).

Director Roy Rowland had managed to straddle the worlds of realism and glamour at MGM for years. He had started his directing career there with the all-star musical, Hollywood Party (1934), but that film's failure had sent him into the world of movie shorts, where he polished his craft on the realistic "Crime Does Not Pay" dramas as well as comical featurettes by Robert Benchley and Pete Smith.

Rowland returned to features to direct star vehicles for the likes of Frank Morgan and Margaret O'Brien, but somewhere in there managed a solid job on the crime thriller Killer McCoy (1947), an attempt to toughen Mickey Rooney's image. Even after the success of Scene of the Crime, he managed to combine crime thrillers and lighter fare. One of his toughest films ever was MGM's Rogue Cop (1954), a brutal crime story starring Robert Taylor. But he also scored his most notable credit with the children's fantasy The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953), a cult favorite written by Dr. Seuss.

Scene of the Crime turned a profit, thanks to its relatively low budget and the continuing support of Johnson's fans. That was enough to keep Schary in office as he tried to remake MGM to meet changing audience tastes. With television eroding the studios' market, however, little noirs like this would eventually become the province of the small screen.

Producer: Harry Rapf
Director: Roy Rowland
Screenplay: Charles Schnee, based on the short story "Smashing the Bookie Gang Marauders" by John Bartlow Martin
Cinematography: Paul C. Vogel
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Leonid Vasian
Music: Andre Previn
Cast: Van Johnson (Mike Conovan), Gloria DeHaven (Lili), Tom Drake (C.C. Gordon), Arlene Dahl (Gloria Conovan), Leon Ames (Capt. A.C. Forster), John McIntire (Fred Piper), Norman Lloyd (Sleeper), Donald Woods (Herkimer), Jerome Cowan (Arthur Webson), Robert Gist (Pontiac), Minerva Urecal (Woman).
BW-95m. Closed captioning.

by Frank Miller

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