Scene of the Crime (1949): Noir Policier, Starring Van Johnson, Cast Against Type

Functionally directed by craftsman Roy Rowland, Scene of the Crime is a mediocre crime noir, despite the presence of star Van Johnson, who is cast against type.

The whole film is uncharacteristic of the studio that made it, MGM, better known for its sunny musical and optimistic romances.

This routine policier is slightly elevated by Charles Schnee’s screenplay, based on an article by John Bartlow Martin, “Smashing the Bookie Gang Marauders”.

Scene of the Crime was producer Harry Rapf’s last film of his thirty-plus year career; he died of a heart attack a week after principal photography began

Van Johnson lays Lieutenant Mike Conovan, head of a homicide detective squad, who begins an investigation when Ed Monigan, an older member of his squad and former partner, is murdered while off-duty and carrying $1,000 in cash.

Conovan’s current partner and one-time mentor, Fred Piper (John McIntire), who is aging (his eyesight is failing), is training a rookie detective “C.C.” (“Carbon Copy”) Gordon (Tom Drake).  To dispel that Monigan was in cahoots with bookmakers, Conovan tracks down downstate criminals (“lobos”) known as the “Royalty Brothers.”

The trail leads to a stripper, Lili (Gloria deHaven), whose ex-boyfriend Turk Kingby (Richard Benedict) has pulled off robberies with his partner Lafe Douque (William Haade).

Conovan’s informant, Sleeper (Norman Lloyd), is brutally murdered for snitching. Conovan tracks down Lafe and places him under arrest, but leaving Lafe’s apartment killing Lafe. Conovan is convinced by his wife Gloria (Arlene Dahl) that police work is too dangerous and resigns.

Lili calls headquarters with a tip for Conovan, but Piper intercepts the message, investigates it himself and is gunned down. Conovan then realizes that Lili has double-crossed him, secretly helping Turk. Over the objections of his wife, he gets his old job back with the police. Turk and his new partner attempt to flee, but Conovan uses a truck to crash into Turk’s armor-plated car. In the end, Turk confesses to the murders and clears Monigan before he dies.

As noted, MGM as known making glamorous and upbeat films, especially musicals.  The exceptions were their series of “Crime Does Not Pay” shorts, and some occasional tougher films, such as Kid Glove Killer and Grand Central Murder, both in 1942.

When Dore Schary returned to MGM in 1948 from RKO to replace Louis B.Mayer as production head, the studio began to make darker, more realistic films, like Scene of the Crime.

The casting for Scene of the Crime went “against type.” Van Johnson was known for appearing in light fare such as comedies and musicals, making him a teen idol, so a hard-boiled cop was a complete change for him, and his newly revealed versatility garnered him roles in 1949’s Best Picture nominee, Battleground.

Although Scene of the Crime made a small profit, due to its low budget, Van Johnson would never make another film noir.

Gloria deHaven had been known for playing sweet, innocent ingenues, like Johnson in comedies and musicals. It was Shary’s decision to cast her as Lili, a stripper who appears at first to have a heart of gold, but turns out to be a gangster’s moll. Unable to show a stripper actually stripping, the film shows her doing a “reverse strip”: Lili stats in a skimpy outfit, and puts her clothes on while singing Andre Previn and William Katz’ song, “I’m a Goody Good Girl.”

Also stretching her range was the otherwise glamorous Arlene Dahl, who might normally have been cast as the stripper, instead of the nagging housewife.

About the Director

Ray Rowland directed shorts, B-movies, and two more film noirs, Rogue Cop and Witness to Murder, both starring Barbara Stanwyck, both released in 1954. But he is now best known for directing The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T., written by Dr. Seuss, which became a cult movie.