This week I bring a close to my film noir spotlight. I won’t stop watching or writing about them in the future. But this is the last weekend of Noirvember. The last film noir I’ve chosen is one of the best kept secrets in cinema. It’s Mystery Street from 1950. It stars, among others, Ricardo Montalban. Yes, the same man who played Khan so memorably on Star Trek and Mr. Roarke on Fantasy Island. But he did a few film noirs in his career too. Mystery Street is the best of the bunch.
The plot sounds like a routine crime movie. But it’s much more than a by the numbers police procedural. Here’s the gist of the story to get you started:
A human skeleton is found among the tall grass in the dunes on a Cape Cod beach. Barnstable Police Lieutenant Pete Moralas (Ricardo Montalban) is leading the investigation, with his gut feeling being that the victim met with foul play. He is enlisting the services of Dr. McAdoo (Bruce Bennett) with the Legal Section of the Harvard Medical Department. Pete will use whatever forensic evidence Dr. McAdoo can uncover from the skeleton and the crime site, combined with regular police evidence, such as missing persons cases, to discover the victim’s identity. With that evidence, they are able to determine that the victim is twenty-four year old Vivian Heldon (Jan Sterling), a Boston based nightclub dancer and bar girl. She had been reported missing four months earlier by Jackie Elcott (Betsy Blair), who was a neighbor in a rooming house owned and operated by Mrs. Smerrling (Elsa Lanchester). Jackie knew that Vivian, like herself, was all alone in the world, that being the reason Jackie felt compelled to look out for her. Dr. McAdoo also discovers that single Vivian was in the early stages of pregnancy when she died. Pete is able to track Vivian’s movements on the night she was probably killed, including how she got out to Cape Cod from Boston. With that evidence, Pete is able to charge married Henry Shanway (Marshall Thompson) with the murder. Henry pleads his innocence, admitting that he had met Vivian that evening at the bar where she worked, but that he was drunk, drowning his sorrows as his wife, Grace Shanway, (Sally Forrest) was in the hospital just having miscarried. The evidence against Henry includes several eyewitnesses being able to identify him as being with Vivian that night, those people including the bartender where she worked, one of her casual friends, and an employee at a roadside diner in Cape Cod. Mrs. Smerrling also identified him as snooping around the rooming house immediately following. Pete has no choice but to charge him, even though there still is a nagging feeling that something is missing in the investigation. That something could be helped or hindered by one of the external parties working on his/her own agenda.–IMDB
Mystery Street set the stage for forensic science crime shows like Quincy, M.E. and CSI. One of the things that makes the film so effective is that it has a documentary feel. We’re with Ricardo Montalban’s character through every step of the investigation. Seeing the nitty-gritty of police work may sound boring on the surface. But it’s presented in a way that makes it impossible for you to take your eyes off the screen. The film is like watching the police work in real-time. It should be noted that forensic science was a relatively new thing when the film was made.
The cast is stellar, led by Ricardo Montalban. While I primarily knew him for his television work prior to seeing this, I have since discovered he had a very extensive and diverse film career. He did musicals, dramas, and even worked in a movie with Esther Williams (Neptune’s Daughter). In Mystery Street he’s just as convincing playing a dogged cop as he was playing the menacing Khan on Star Trek. Montalban’s acting chops and charisma cannot be denied. I also want to mention Elsa Lanchester. She’s excellent as the concerned neighbor. Lanchester to me is still an underrated actress. It’s a case where someone has been so consistently good that we take them for granted.
Mystery Street was skillfully directed by John Sturges. His other credits include The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven, just to name a few. In Mystery Street, we see that Sturges is just as capable of making a small, gritty film as a sprawling World War II escape picture or a western. The cinematography by John Alton and Oscar-nominated screenplay by Sydney Boehm and Richard Brooks on top of the great direction, combine to make Mystery Street a riveting little gem of the film noir genre. While it doesn’t show up on many great film noir lists, it deserves a wider audience. Montalban’s performance in particular is worth seeing. The man had quite a range as an actor. Mystery Street gives the viewer a glimpse of it. It’s gritty, groundbreaking, and not to be missed by anyone who loves film noir.
That’s a wrap for Noirvember! See you in December for my next cinema spotlight.