Mystery Street (1950)


(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; producer: Frank E Taylor; 1950)

“An engaging film noir.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An engaging film noir directed by John Sturges. It is set around the Boston area and makes good use of the Harvard campus, the dark Boston back streets, and the isolated Cape Cod area. The film was superbly shot in B & W by John Alton in a semidocumentary style. “Mystery Street” goes into detail of the murder of a tawdry blonde bar B girl, Vivian Heldon (Jan Sterling), after she threatens the married man she’s having an affair with and tells him to give her hush money for making her pregnant. The Hyannis Port man, Hartley (Ryan), is a respected architect and is descended from one of Boston’s oldest blue blood families. Vivian phones him from the hallway of her rooming house, where she writes his number on the wall. Her snooping landlady Mrs. Smerrling (Elsa Lanchester), the one Vivian owes overdue rent, sees her write the number and overhears that she’s in a jam which causes her to snicker with churlish delight.

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 jettisons 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 further learn that she’s been shot and was three months pregnant.

Pete does the legwork of the investigation by finding out from the bartender at Vivian’s workplace that she met the guy in the yellow Ford. Pete then gets the name of the car owner through the insurance files. When he pays Henry and Grace Shanway (Forrest) a visit, Henry lies 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 tenant in her rooming house who reported her missing, Jackie (Blair), he finds out about the call she made to Cape Cod. This puzzles the detective, so he 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. Her plan was to blackmail the killer.

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, which culminates in a chase through the Boston train yards to apprehend Hartley.

The performance by Ricardo Montalban was subtle; while Elsa Lanchester as a figure of greed, stole the show. Her despicable, uncaring, and lying portrayal, was deliciously creepy. “Mystery Street” was also able to get in some pertinent comments on social consciousness between the recent immigrant Montalban and the snobbish bias of the elitist Edmon Ryan portrayed.