Mystery Street (1950)

reviewed by
Dennis Schwartz

MYSTERY STREET (director: John Sturges; screenwriters: Sydney Boehm/Richard Brooks/from a story by Leonard Spigelgass; cinematographer: John Alton; editor: Ferris Webster; cast: Ricardo Montalban (Lt. Peter Morales), Sally Forrest (Grace Shanway), Bruce Bennett (Dr. McAdoo), Elsa Lanchester (Mrs. Smerrling), Marshall Thompson (Henry Shanway), Jan Sterling (Vivian Heldon), Edmon Ryan (Hartley), Betsy Blair (Jackie), Wally Maher (Tim Sharkey), Brad Hatton (Bartender), Ralph Dumke (Tattooist); Runtime: 93; MGM; 1950)

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz 

An engaging film noir directed by John Sturges, set around the Boston area and making good use of Harvard College, the surrounding dark Boston streets, and the Cape Cod area. The film was superbly shot in B & W by John Alton in a semidocumentary style. The film goes into detail of the murder of a tawdry blonde B girl Vivian Heldon (Jan Sterling) from the time she threatens a married man she's having an affair with to give her money for her pregnancy until her murder. The man, Hartley (Ryan), an architect, is descended from one of Boston's oldest families, and lives on Hyannis Port. She phones him from the hallway of her rooming house, where she writes his number on the wall, as her snooping landlady Mrs. Smerrling (Elsa Lanchester), the one she owes overdue rent to, sees her write the number and overhears that she's in a jam and snickers.

In her workplace bar, "The Grass Skirt," Vivian is agitated that she's been stood up by Hartley and decides to take a drunk at the bar, Henry Shanway (Marshall Thompson), on a ride in his yellow Ford to Cape Cod. When he sobers up after they reach a Cape Cod diner and complains that he has to be at the hospital to see his pregnant wife, she steals the car leaving him stranded on a dirt road late at night. When she meets Hartley to get her money, he instead shoots her and jettison's the car in the nearby bog while he throws her nude body in the ocean. It's not until about three months later that her skeleton is found on the beach by a bird watcher.

Lt. Pete Morales (Montalban), of Portuguese extraction, a local cop who never worked a murder investigation before, becomes suspicious of the death and brings her remains to a forensic expert at the Harvard Department of Legal Medicine, Dr. McAdoo (Bennett). Working only with the skull and photos of all the missing women in the area reported on the date the murder took place, they uncover that the skeleton is Vivian Heldon. They later on learn that she's been shot and was three months pregnant.

When Pete does the leg work of the investigation he finds out from the bartender at her workplace that she met the guy in the yellow Ford, and gets the name of the car owner through the insurance files. When he pays Henry and Grace Shanway (Forrest) a visit, Henry lies to him by saying he doesn't know the dead girl and that his car was stolen when parked in front of the hospital. Pete determines that Henry is lying and is probably the killer as he gets reports from witnesses linking him to Vivian. From the bartender and a tattooist outside her workplace, he gets a description of the guy in the yellow Ford he saw her leave with and from the sneaky landlady, he learns that Henry came by the rooming house a day after he reported the car missing. From the one who reported her missing, a tenant in her rooming house, Jackie (Blair), he finds out about the call she made to Cape Cod. This puzzles the detective, who pays Hartley a visit but can't find the gun at his place because the landlady visited Hartley just before him and stole the gun from him. Her plan was to blackmail him.

Warning: spoiler to follow in next paragraph.

With the arrest of Henry on circumstantial evidence, Dr. McAdoo believes he might be innocent and tells Pete that they must find the gun to be absolutely sure. This leads to an exciting climax in search of the gun, as the wrong man gets cleared of the crime by the fervent efforts of Pete Morales. It culminates in a chase through the Boston train yards to apprehend Hartley.

The performance by Ricardo Montalban was subtle and very much a winning one, while Elsa Lanchester stole the film with her portrayal of being a most despicable, uncaring, lying and cheating rat, someone capable of perjury and blackmail all in the name of greed. It's a solid film noir effort, which was also able to get in some comments on social consciousness between the ethnic Montalban and the snobbish bias the elitist Edmon Ryan portrayed.

REVIEWED ON 9/6/2001     GRADE: B + 

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews" 


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