Friday, July 24, 2009

Mystery Street (1950)

Vivian Holden (Jan Sterling) is having some problems. She’s dead broke, owes her landlady two weeks worth of rent and the mysterious Hyannis 3633 man she keeps trying to reach on the phone is giving her the run around. In desperation, Vivian takes advantage of innocent-bystander Henry Shanway (Marshall Thompson), a sad man drinking away his sorrows in attempt to forget his sick wife current hospital stay. Vivian drives Henry’s yellow Ford down to Hyannis from Boston, abandoning Henry along the way. When Vivian finally confronts the Hyannis man that has been eluding her, she finds herself face-to-face with the barrel of his gun.

Six months later, Vivian Holden’s bones are found at a beach, but only we, the audience, know that those bones are hers. It’s up to Lieutenant Peter Moralas (Ricardo Montalban) solve the mystery of both the crime and to identity the victim. What results is an intriguing film noir, directed by John Sturges, that blends murder mystery with forensic science. If anyone tells you forensic science is a new phenomenon in contemporary entertainment, just direct that person to Mystery Street (1950) and they will be in for a pleasant surprise.

Even decades before DNA analysis and other technological advancements in criminal science, the forensis used in this film are still very advanced and relevant. With very little to go one, besides the partial skeleton of Vivian, the doctor is able to determine age, gender, time of death, cause of death and even the victim’s occupation from his vast knowledge of human anatomy and plant pathology. Even a jaded CSI-watching contemporary could still appreciate the intricacies and the methods used in the film’s forensic study.

Montalban plays Lietuenant Moralas, a local officer who has just been put on his first murder case. This is a considerably difficult case because all the detective is left with to go by are bones, hair and leaves. He works together with a Harvard scientist Dr. McAdoo (Bruce Bennett) who specializes in using his science to solve particularly difficult criminal cases. McAdoo brings an unbiased viewpoint to this mystery. To him, the solving of the mystery boils down to scientific study. He doesn’t make assumptions or come to any early conclusions, rather he allows the evidence and the revelation of the clues tell him the story.

Moralas (Montalban) on the otherhand is McAdoo’s polar opposite. He’s the streetsmart to McAdoo’s booksmart and has developed his detective skills from working with people rather than science. Moralas watches people intently and deals with them on an individual basis. He uses neither aggression nor compliance but basically charms his way into people’s confidence by his own charisma. However, his major flaw is that, unlike McAdoo, Moralas jumps to conclusions and this can alienate key witnesses in the investigation that he could have alternately brought into his confidence.

Mystery Street (1950)
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The dynamic between Montalban and Bennett in their differing temperments and the juxtaposition of their characters makes for an interesting film. However, I would be remiss to not point out the wonderful performance of Elsa Lanchester as the landlady Mrs. Smerrling. Smerrling is a live wire; a neurotic who can easily throw the investigation for a loop. Moralas is suspicious of her motives at the very beginning but is also intrigued by what information she can provide. Smerrling is nosy, money-hungry and uses Vivian’s life and death for her own selfish purposes. She leads a drab life and becomes intoxicated by the power her connection with Vivian and her knowledge has over the various men involved in the case. Lanchester does a superb job tapping into the Smerrling’s neuroses bringing us a character who is both apalling and enthralling to watch on screen.

Besides the blend of forensic science and old-fashioned gumshoe work, what is also interesting about this film is that it is shot entirely on location in Boston, Cambridge, Roxbury, Hyannis and Barnstable, Massachusetts. As a Boston local, my heart went pitter patter when I saw the familiar sites of the gate entrance of Harvard University on Massachusetts Avenue and Harvard Yard. In the short documentary “Mystery Street: Murder at Harvard”, we learn that after WWII, more and more films were shot on location and that Mystery Street might be the earliest example of a film shot entirely in the Boston area. What we get is the added element of real locations becoming part of the story which in my opinion enhances the movie watching experience.

Written by Raquelle
Raquelle blogs about classic films at her always-interesting site, Out of the Past.


  1. Great write up as usual. Got this one in my Netflix queue.

  2. There's a startling moment in this when Sterling's body is being dumped. It looks and sounds as if her head is actually for real banged into the car door.

  3. As for even earlier CSI, check out Kid Glove Killer from 1942, with Van Heflin running a police crime lab with Martha Hunt.

  4. Great post! I saw this one a few months ago and really enjoyed it. Ricardo Montalban is fun to watch, and it's always nice to see non-WASPy leading characters in older movies. And of course the Boston area locations! I kept yelling "Ooh, wait, where is that?" and "Oh my gawd, I've totally been there before!!!" So neat to see the Beantown of back in the day on the big (well, computer, but you get the idea) screen.

    The whole forensic angle is also nifty; feels very modern.

  5. Talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Shanway character is perhaps the most unlucky guy in noir history. Even when vindicated by the emerging evidence he has escpaed jail and is on the run. His character is the most noir like aspect of an otherwise straight policier; his bad fortune makes Mystery Street a film noir.

  6. How did this one get past the censors? Amazingly, a fetus that died with its out-of-wedlock mother is openly mentioned. The murder was the means and an abortion the end. Earlier, there is a tattoo of a naked woman with, oh my, breasts showing.

    It's incredible that this stuff was part of a movie plot. Clearly ahead of its time.


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