Director: John Sturges
Starring: Ricardo Montalban, Bruce Bennett, Sally Forrest, Elsa Lanchester, Marshall Thompson, Edmon Ryan, Jan Sterling, Wally Maher, Jackie Elcott
Screenplay: Richard Brooks and Sydney Boehm, based upon a story by Leonard Spigelgass
While never, perhaps, quite making the A-list, John Sturges was a talented director whose career was highlighted by a number of solid critical and popular successes – along with the occasional flash of brilliance – including The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, Gunfight At The O.K. Corral, the wonderful Bad Day At Black Rock, and one of my all-time favourite westerns, Escape From Fort Bravo. After several years spent paying his dues at Columbia, Sturges moved to MGM, where he was given the chance to direct Mystery Street, a taut little film that is part noir, and part police procedural.
Set in and around Boston and Cape Cod, Mystery Street is a film of two sections. As it opens, we follow B-girl Vivian Heldon (played by the eternally put-upon Jan Sterling) who is, as the saying goes, “in trouble”. Desperate to contact her married lover, Vivian finds herself stonewalled. In a fury, she picks up Henry Shanway (Marshall Thompson), a young man trying to drink his troubles away at the seedy dive where she works, and hijacks both him and his car. When Shanway comes sufficiently to his senses to realise what’s happening, Vivian tricks him out of the car and leaves him stranded. Meeting her lover in an isolated location, Vivian makes clear her determination that he will “pay up” – only to find herself staring down the barrel of a gun… The killer dumps both Vivian’s body and her stolen car.
The story then jumps forward several months, to the discovery of skeletal remains amongst the dunes of Cape Cod. By chance, the case falls to Lieutenant Peter Morales (Ricardo Montalban), a Portuguese-American detective who swiftly realises that this is his chance to break out of a dead-end career spent handling “small stuff”, and to make it into the big league. Under orders from the District Attorney, Morales visits the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard University, to enlist the assistance of forensic scientist Dr McAdoo (Bruce Bennett). With McAdoo’s expert help, Morales succeeds in identifying the remains as those of Vivian Heldon. Further investigation turns up the stolen car, with suspicion falling inevitably upon Henry Shanway. Anxious for a career-boosting conviction, Morales then finds himself in conflict with McAdoo, who insists that Morales has got the wrong man. Meanwhile, Vivian’s former landlady, Mrs Smerrling (a completely over-the-top Elsa Lanchester), has stumbled across the true identity of the killer, and is indulging in a spot of blackmail…
Like Kid Glove Killer, Mystery Street works to raise the public profile of forensic medicine, which at the time of the film’s production was barely considered a “real” science at all. The contemporary lost-in-limbo nature of this strange new discipline is neatly conveyed in a sequence where Morales and his new partner, Detective Sharkey (Wally Maher), are sent running from the Law School to the Medical School and back again, with no-one, not even long-term Harvardites, quite certain just where that odd little entity, the Department of Legal Medicine, might be found.
The professional relationship that develops between Morales and Dr McAdoo is one of Mystery Street’s most interesting aspects. Morales is, initially, intensely sceptical of the concept of forensic medicine in general, and of Dr McAdoo in particular (“I don’t mean to be disrespectful,” he objects, when ordered to see McAdoo, “but what can Harvard University possibly—”). This scepticism is, we sense, part genuine – the instinctive contempt of the street-smart cop for the egghead in his ivory tower – and part defensive: “This isn’t my part of Boston,” Morales remarks drily to Sharkey, as the two wander helplessly around Harvard.
However, after a session with McAdoo, in which he is shown, “Murders that turned out to be suicide, suicides that were really accidents, and accidents that paid off in murder”, Morales undergoes conversion, turning from a sceptic into a dedicated fanboy, convinced that there is little if anything that the scientist can’t do; a belief further bolstered by McAdoo’s success in helping him identify the victim as Vivian Heldon, and the accuracy of what the scientist deduces from the skeletal remains.
The actual forensic content of Mystery Street runs the gamut from the laughably coy to the unexpectedly gruesome. After an initial examination of the skeleton, McAdoo pronounces it that of a woman, pointing out the size of the skull, the lighter density of the bones, the less pronounced areas of muscular attachment— Everything, in fact, but what he certainly would have looked at first: the shape of the pelvis. Recognising that the skeleton is incomplete, McAdoo sends the police back out to sift the sand where the remains were found. This produces the missing bones – and a few extra ones. “I’d say about three months,” observes McAdoo, showing Morales the contents of a small envelope.
This evidence of Vivian’s pregnancy, eye-witness accounts of her movements, and the discovery of the missing car put Morales on the trail of the unfortunate Henry Shanway who, too embarrassed to tell anyone the truth, merely reported his car stolen. Despite the young man’s protestations of innocence, Morales is convinced of his guilt – except that, to the police officer’s consternation, McAdoo isn’t. Desperate for a conviction, still more to prove himself as a homicide cop (not to mention taking a little too much pleasure in his new role of media darling, for having captured the “Skeleton Murderer”), Morales tries vainly to convince himself that McAdoo is wrong: something not at all facilitated by the regularity with which he stumbles across further evidence of the scientist’s acumen. In one neat touch, an early, almost throwaway remark from McAdoo that the victim may have been a “toe-dancer” pays off when Morales tracks down Vivian’s final lodging. As he goes through the girl’s few, pathetic possessions, he finds a pair of ballet shoes tucked into the corner of a suitcase.
Unable to fight both McAdoo and his own conscience, and with Henry Shanway on the verge of going to trial, Morales goes back on the hunt – an investigation that leads him into the heart of Cape Cod society.
While Mystery Street is a well-written and suspenseful little film, its main interest lies in the social and, above all, racial implications of much of what we see. In Peter Morales we have an intelligent, talented, dedicated police officer – yet one confined to duty in “the Portuguese district”, his time wasted dealing with “small stuff”, because he is an immigrant, and not a white, native-born American. Morales is quite aware of the reason for the stagnation of his career; small wonder he seizes so avidly upon the opportunity that presents itself, determined to prove that he can work Homicide, despite his accent, and the colour of his skin. Small wonder, too, that he is almost lured against his better feelings into railroading poor Henry Shanway, rather than see his one and only chance slip through his fingers.
Morales’ place in the scheme of things is made quite clear from the moment he is temporarily assigned to a local Homicide squad. One of his new colleagues gives him a swift up-and-down and says pointedly, “Ever been involved in a murder case before?” Fortunately, as Morales proves his competence, professional respect quells the other detectives’ more unsavoury instincts. The same cannot be said, however, of the more exalted members of American society – one in particular. Again like Kid Glove Killer, Mystery Street makes no attempt to conceal the identity of its murderer; this is not a whodunit, but rather a how-will-they-prove-he-dunit.
We learn that Vivian’s lover – her killer – is James Joshua Harkley (Edmon Ryan), one of the leading lights of Hyannis Port society. The combination of Harkley’s name in Vivian’s little black book and his ownership of a gun of the correct calibre leads Morales to the yacht-builder’s office. Harkley greets the police officer with a thoroughly tone-setting line: “Are my hunkies in trouble again?” When it is made clear to him that this policeman – this parvenu – this migrant – is there to see him, Harkley’s immediate response is to take refuge in racial invective and snobbery. “There was a Harkley around here long before there was a U.S.A.!” he announces angrily. “By the way you talk, you haven’t been around here long!”
When Morales shrugs this off and continues about his business, Harkley follows his opening volley with several other shots, bragging about his family, his history, his wealth, his position – even his Bryn Mawr-bound daughter! Outraged at learning that Morales has already dared to search his house (and we recall that it was a threat from Vivian to come to his house that finally drove Harkley to meet her – and kill her), Harkley spits, “I’m used to respect!”
“So am I,” responds Morales coolly, “and my family hasn’t been in this country even one hundred years!”
Ironically, Peter Morales’ calm way of dealing with this rubbish is a far cry from Ricardo Montalban’s own. Montalban nursed a healthy grudge against Hollywood for using him as an all-purpose “ethnic”, while simultaneously denying his actual background; for calling him, “Latin, Hispanic, Cuban, Venezuelan— Everything but what I am: a Mexican!”** In light of this, it is fascinating to reflect upon the respective roles played by Lt Morales and Dr McAdoo in Mystery Street: in effect, what we have here is an ethnic detective with a white sidekick! One wonders if the MGM hierarchy realised the full significance of what screenwriters Richard Brooks and Sydney Boehm had concocted.
While not fully film noir, Mystery Street has a lot in common with that dark and cynical genre, not least, its examination of innocence lost in a world of evil. Since it is not purely a whodunit, Mystery Street is able to devote time to a number of side issues, most interestingly the effect of a mistaken arrest upon Henry Shanway and his wife, Grace. Another noir-ish aspect of the film is the spinelessness of many of its male characters. We discover, for instance, that while Henry Shanway was in “The Grass Skirt”, getting blotto and falling prey to Vivian Heldon, his young wife was lying in a nearby hospital, having not only just lost her baby, but having learned that she will never be able to have another. “I had to get out of there. I couldn’t take it any more,” Henry confesses to Morales during interrogation.
Ashamed of himself, and terrified of upsetting his convalescent wife, Henry conceals the truth about the loss of his car, then compounds his error by tracking down Vivian’s home address and trying to see her there – a juicy piece of information for Mrs Smerrling to pass on to the police.
But despite her husband’s behaviour, his fraudulent insurance claim, and his apparent involvement with Vivian, Grace stands firmly by her man – once, that is, she has been reassured on one point. “Henry, did you?” she asks him fearfully. He, silly boy, thinks she’s asking whether he killed Vivian…
Convinced of her husband’s innocence, Grace clashes repeatedly with Morales, who tries to be hard-nosed, but is increasingly disturbed by both his growing doubts over Henry’s guilt, and the knowledge of what her husband’s arrest is doing to Grace. Grace suffers not only emotionally, but on a very basic, practical level: with the breadwinner in jail, she can’t pay the rent, let alone her hospital expenses; nor can she and Henry afford a good attorney. In one brief but pointed scene, we see Morales smiling and waving for a group of photographers. Moments later, those same photographers are hounding Grace unmercifully as she goes to visit Henry.
However, with the best will in the world to prove Henry innocent – and the obnoxious Harkley guilty – Morales finds his task dauntingly difficult, the waters of the case having been thoroughly muddied by the scheming Mrs Smerrling, who has lucked onto the truth about James Harkley – and acquired the murder weapon – and intends to make full use of her advantage. (One of the best moments in the film comes when Morales is searching Harkley’s office, and pulls open the drawer where he keeps his gun – only it isn’t there. Harkley’s expression at this point is worth bottling.) The final section of the film intercuts Morales’ hunt for the truth with Harkley and Mrs Smerrling’s extended game of cat-and-mouse, and generates a good deal of tension in the process.
Mystery Street is another fine example of a quality B-film. The actors, none of them “stars”, contribute effective, low-key performances (the decidedly eccentric offering from Elsa Lanchester excepted). Ricardo Montalban is very good as Morales, giving the detective all sorts of interesting shadings and complexities. Montalban is well-supported by Bruce Bennett as the unflappable Dr McAdoo, Sally Forrest as the determined Grace Shanway, and in particular by Jan Sterling, who demonstrates yet again her remarkable talent for taking dubiously motivated characters, and making them pathetic rather than despicable. The role of Henry Shanway was an important early-career appearance for future science-fiction stalwart Marshall Thompson.
Mystery Street is also graced by the exquisite black and white cinematography of John Alton; while the screenplay is a taut and efficient piece of writing, peppered with snappy, pungent dialogue, particularly in the opening stretch of the film, with Jan Sterling in full cry. (At one point, Vivian says of her place of employment, “Fresh air couldn’t get in here with a permit.”) As a “science” film, Mystery Street again demands recognition for those working behind the scenes of the law, but avoids didacticism by making Morales the film’s mouthpiece rather than McAdoo himself. Both Morales and McAdoo are changed by their professional collaboration, with McAdoo catching the detective’s fervour and finally stepping outside the confines of his laboratory, conceding that “guilt and innocence” are indeed his concern after all, and not just “facts”. Morales, meanwhile, learns a still more valuable lesson about the many important and practical things going on at any given time behind the walls of an ivory tower.
**Quoted by Eddie Muller, author of Dark City: The Lost World Of Film Noir, Dark City Dames, The Art Of Noir, and Grindhouse: The Forbidden World Of ‘Adults Only’ Cinema.
Ricardo gets blinded with science.