Mystery Street (1950) is one of the best film noirs I have watched. Yes, a bold claim I know when you consider such faultless outings as Double Indemnity, The Blue Dahlia and The Big Sleep. But Mystery Street is another animal entirely. It is a noir that combines human drama with the police procedural and forensic investigation, which would have been quite a new concept for audiences of the era.
The story follows Lt. Peter Morales in his search for the killing of B-girl, Vivian (played by Jan Sterling) with the help of Dr McAdoo (played by Bruce Bennett) of the Harvard Medical School. McAdoo helps Morales identify Vivian’s skeletal remains, which were found buried under sand in the Portuguese district of Cape Cod. Things become complicated when a young man who was last seen with Vivian is suspected, but pleads his innocence, which the audience knows to be true. And Vivian’s cunning and scheming landlady (played by Elsa Lanchester) begins to blackmail a man who may be the real killer.
I discovered Mystery Street thanks to the Noirvember hashtag on twitter, which is one of my absolute favourite “events” on twitter, because I am obsessed with film noir. I’m sure my twitter handle of @noir_or_never didn’t give that away.
It was the first time I had ever watched a noir that dealt with forensic science. Usually noirs feature detectives or men thrown into situations where they have to entirely use their intuition and their feet (or fists) to ascertain information about a murder. While Lt. Morales does that, Dr McAdoo examines Vivian’s skeleton to ascertain her age and height, and her hair to ascertain that she was a bottle blonde. Eventually one of her broken ribs is used to ascertain that she was shot. Without this forensic investigation, Vivian is just a nameless skeleton killed in a way that no one, besides she and the killer, knows.
One of my absolute favourite scenes in the film is when after Morales has hunted long and hard for missing girls who match the skeletons description, he and Dr McAdoo watch as one of the latter’s assistants match transparent slides to the skull. At first a girl is shown whose face is too long, and so on and so forth, the pictures do not match the skull. And then finally Vivian’s picture is placed over her skull. As an audience member you know that she is the victim, but it is thrilling to watch Dr McAdoo figure this out, and Morales really has the bit in his teeth now. After all that work, he finally knows the identity of his victim.
The film does not treat forensic science as some magical thing. Under John Sturges’ direction and Sidney Boehm, Richard Brooks and Leonard Spigelgass’ writing, it is treated with a rational approach. Morales may be new to this, and he is often shown as being out of his depth, or having a hunch that is informed by his own work rather than the forensic evidence. This explores the fact that this kind of forensic evidence was still considered an academic or niche tool, which is highlighted by the fact that its home is one of the most prestigious universities in the world, known for its medicine and law. But this also enhances the science’s credibility. Gone are the days of the scientist of Universal monster fame labouring in gothic laboratories. This science is very business like, with a storyboard to break down the sequence of crimes, and the skeleton laid out to be examined, not resurrected on a clean, metal table with one of the law’s representatives present.
But it’s not only the story that’s impressive, but the casts’ performances, too. Aside from the gorgeous Montalban, it features a very talented set of actors. Betsy Blair, best known to classic film fans as the shy love interest in Marnie and Grace Kelly’s real life wife, is very competent as Jackie, one of Vivian’s few genuine friends. Jan Sterling is excellent in her brief appearance as the murder victim, showing that Vivian is largely a product of her circumstances, having used her looks to get ahead, and then miscalculated. Bruce Bennett plays the forensic scientist with subtlety and a very grounded manner that adds credibility to the part and the story. Edmond Ryan gives a suitably sleazy and venomous performance as the suspected murderer.
But the most memorable supporting performance is, unsurprisingly, given by Elsa Lanchester, who showed her versatility throughout her career. Moving from horror, to drama, to film noir with ease. Her performance as Mrs Smerrling, the landlady who has ideas above her means, is deliciously evil. Although she does not kill anyone, she shows as little regard for life as the murderer. She claims not to drink but really likes her spirits, and instead of reporting Vivian missing as Jackie does, she sells off her things and pretends she didn’t. Her eventual plan is very cunning, but like Vivian did, she underestimates the killer.
Now onto our main man, Mr Ricardo Montalban. Before watching this film I knew him only as Khan from the original Star Trek TV series and the film The Wrath of Khan, both of which I highly enjoyed him in. I’d also seen him portray the Kabuki performer, Nakamura in Sayonara, in which he also gave a very good performance.
But in Mystery Street, he shows that he also should have been cast in more serious leading roles. As the The New York Times wrote, he gives a performance that is “natural and unassuming.” He shows that Morales is a very good detective, who while inexperienced in matters of murder investigations, is eager to learn and extremely dedicated to the case. He is not afraid of making Morales look unlikeable at times, especially when he berates the wife of the young man wrongfully suspected of murder. He is also level headed during the investigation, and thankfully neither his performance nor the script play to hot head Latin stereotypes.
His sense of balance between humour and drama is also very good. And he makes emotional observations without appearing saccharine. While, as I’ve stated, the script engenders the film with realism, it is Montalban’s performance that anchors that credibility. You absolutely believe him to be a dedicated cop trying to track down a murderer. He does not simply play the role, but inhabits it. Not for a moment is he affected or overly dramatic. Even in the end, during the tense climax between he and the murderer, there are no theatrics. Montalban makes it clear that Morales is extremely pleased at catching his man, but there is no swelling music or chest beating. When he delivers the good news to those who want to hear it most, he seems quietly satisfied, and you want to cheer him for. It doesn’t hurt that he looks utterly beautiful the entire film, filling out a fedora and trench coat like it was made for (me suspects these ones were).
This film is an ideal place to start in terms of exploring Montalban’s career so that you can see his versatility. While he would endear himself to audiences as the Latin lover and the maniacal villain, here he shows that he could be so much more than either of those things. Personally, I feel that he gives one of the best performances in a film noir, and shows himself to be right up there with the mostly all American weathered detectives of the genre. It’s very refreshing and interesting to see a Mexican American play this kind of role instead of, as I’ve pointed out, the more stereotypical ones that even Montalban was made to play despite his talents.
So take a walk down Mystery Street. Montalban and Morales will see you right.
This is my contribution for The Hispanic Heritage Blogathon being hosted by Once Upon a Screen. Please visit her blog for more information and to read all the articles about this fascinating topic.