Monday, February 15, 2010

Movies: Race Street (1948)/Scene of the Crime (1949)

Noir City Northwest kicks off this coming Friday – if you’re in Seattle, come on out and say hello to yours truly at the Film Noir Foundation table in the lobby – and the time has come to get into shape. I’ve been on a vigorous training regimen, running wind sprints, downing extra cocktails. I’ve also got to keep those blogging muscles limber, so here’s a practice post on a pair of films noir.

You know you’re in trouble when William Bendix is the most charismatic member of your cast. That’s where we find ourselves in Race Street. The stolid George Raft is a bookie aiming to go legit in the nightclub business. But close pal Harry-then-Henry Morgan is bumped off when he refuses to pay protection money, and Raft decides to track down the killers himself. Bendix is his childhood friend turned police detective. The story’s no great shakes, and there are some odd directorial choices. Morgan’s potent death scene – a tumble down a brutally long flight of stairs – is ruined by a slow push-in at the end, and there’s a bizarre musical number featuring Raft’s torch singer sis filmed Spike Jonze style without explanation. I have higher hopes for another Raft noir, Red Light, scheduled for the festival.

Sometimes actors can surprise you. Van Johnson gained fame as MGM’s all-American boy, but in Scene of the Crime he’s surprisingly plausible as big city cop Mike Conovan. When his former partner is gunned down under suspicious circumstances Mike sets out to clear his name, even if it means cozying up to former gangster’s moll Gloria DeHaven. All while long-suffering wife Arlene Dahl lobbies him to quit the force altogether, even conspiring with an old beau to land him a cushy private sector job.

Charles Schnee’s script features pungent dialogue (DeHaven is described thusly: “Figure like champagne, heart like the cork”), still-shocking violence, and a nice mix of authentically shady characters, like Norman Lloyd’s stoolie Sleeper. Plus there’s a richness of detail at the margins. The killers are knocking over Syndicate joints, so the Outfit starts staging its own lineups. Moments like that lift Scene of the Crime a rung or two above the ordinary.