A nicely-woven plot and relentless pacing give Scene of the Crime an underlying noir flavor. But Van Johnson, as the detective Mike Conovan, turns in a nonchalant performance in the lead role, undercutting the gritty theme. Gloria DeHaven, as his sort-of girlfriend Lili, adds plenty of nuance and drama, but it’s not quite enough to sustain the noir tone.
As many others have said, the annoying quips, one-liners, and slang just get in the way. So much of the dialogue backfires. Instead of being 40s hip, smooth, or cool, it seems forced, artificial. Once in a while it works; the black humor in Mike’s comment after he’s been roughed-up: “look at my eye!…Belongs on a bun with relish” is clever and genuine. But who would ever come up with “I ever zig you before?” as his wife tries to convince Mike that she’s not kidding him. And there’s lines like that in nearly every scene. It’s almost as though all of the characters went to the same high school and were in rival cliques (cops v. criminals). All of the ‘bad guys’ have dumb nicknames, another juvenile touch.
Thankfully, the Mike/Lili relationship makes things interesting. They click immediately, but ultimately use each other. I was disappointed when Lili sold Mike out to Turk; both because she double-crossed him, and, sadly, because she still felt loyal to a sociopath. She seemed much better suited to Mike than Arlene Dahl’s Gloria, who also undercuts him.
Lili is at most a lover to Mike, and has no history with him, but Gloria is his wife. Yet Gloria won’t shake loose from her rich admirer, intriguing with him to wreck Mike’s career. She feels she has the right to meddle in her husband’s life because he doesn’t do what she wants. By contrast, Lili automatically accepts him just as he is, knowing that they’re on opposite sides of the law.
Lili’s at the center of the plot, connecting Mike with Turk, the criminal who turns out to be the sought-after murderer. Turk’s fake disfigurement is a great device that fools the viewer as well as the cops. The action scenes are quick and violent. Finding the informer stuck onto a lightpole is especially macabre, as it caps off what started as a routine incident. Mike’s ramming the crime boss’s car with the truck is a fitting climax, and very realistic. Another great bit happens in Mike’s office. He repeatedly jabs his knife into pictures of the dead informant, raging against the at-large murderer while trying to break down a suspect.
Too many of the office scenes are hijacked by the loudmouth reporter with his obsessively snappy dialogue. His role makes sense as a ‘wannabe’ outsider; he’s plainly excited by the mayhem surrounding the murders. Since he never has to deal with the messy reality of violence, he can maintain his pathetic staring-at-the-accident sense of detachment. But this irony would have a much greater impact if so many of the other characters didn’t dip into the same verbal ‘gee-whiz’ mentality.
Zingers and puns can add a lot. Leads like Mitchum, Bogart, and Robert Ryan ‘crack wise’ very effectively in their better noir roles. But only kids use slang and jokes as much as the characters in Scene of the Crime.
DeHaven makes the most out of her character partly because her dialogue isn’t laced with buzzwords. One goofy thing is the bizarre hat she puts on for the fancy restaurant date. But It’s a good spoof of the era’s styles, and the scene works because the humor’s indirect. Except for a few scenes like this, Van Johnson never really makes enough out of his role to earn our sympathy.
A very watchable film down somewhat by an uneven tone. 6/10.