Vivian, a B-girl working at "The Grass Skirt," is being brushed off by her rich, married boyfriend. To confront him, she hijacks drunken customer Henry Shanway and his car from Boston to Cape Cod, where she strands Henry...and is never seen again. Months later, a skeleton is found (sans clothes or clues) on a lonely Cape Cod beach. Using the macabre expertise of Harvard forensic specialist Dr. McAdoo, Lt. Pete Morales must work back from bones to the victim's identity, history, and killer. Will he succeed in time to save an innocent suspect? Written by
Rod Crawford <firstname.lastname@example.org>
John Sturges' taut, tense thriller combines a documentary style (including location shooting in Boston) with intense performances, striking photography, and a fresh-for-its-time approach to its murder mystery plot. When floozy Vivian Heldon (Jan Sterling as the anti-Judy Holliday :-) hijacks grieving father Henry Shanway's (Marshall Thompson) car to go shake down James Harkley (Edmon Ryan), the rich father of her baby-in-progress, she's next seen as a skeleton washed up on a Hyannis beach. Lt. Pete Moralas (Ricardo Montalban) enlists the help of Harvard forensic criminologist Dr. McAdoo (an avuncular yet no-nonsense Bruce Bennett), and the results are as riveting as a good episode of one of the "CSI" series. I liked the way the investigation and forensic evidence rang true while the story (Leonard Spigelgrass got an Oscar nomination) kept me on the edge of my seat with twists and turns, including a monkey wrench thrown into the works by the late Vivian's blackmail-minded landlady, Mrs. Smerrling (a delightfully sly Elsa Lanchester). The details about the effect that the wrongly-accused Henry Shanway's incarceration has on his wife Grace and their finances were movingly and believably rendered. I found myself empathizing and thinking, "Man, why didn't you stay with Grace in the hospital when your baby died, instead of going off in your misery to get drunk at 'The Grass Skirt'? Sheesh, you think you're the only one mourning?!" The performances are uniformly excellent, although I was particularly pleasantly surprised by Montalban. Having grown up watching Montalban in relatively lighthearted fare like TV's FANTASY ISLAND, I was impressed at how good he was as tough, cynical Pete, the kind of cop who thinks a suspect is guilty until proved innocent. Even when I was annoyed with Pete for refusing to believe Grace when she insists that Henry's innocent, I could feel his frustration when he realizes that, after all his hard investigative work, his airtight case against the accused man isn't so airtight after all. There's also a great moment when the smug Harkley notices Pete's accent (smoothly explained away as Pete being from the Portuguese district) and starts trying to pull rank on Pete, class-wise. There are even some witty moments, like when Pete and his partner end up walking all over Harvard Square trying to find out where the heck the department of legal forensics is. This all-but-neglected post-war film noir gem turns up on Turner Classic Movies from time to time, and it's well worth watching for in the TV listings!
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