Mystery Street (1950)

Mystery Street (1950) is a classic murderous cat and mouse police procedural and sporadically violent film noir thriller.

It's known as one of the first films to be shot on and around location in the Boston and Cape Code area.

In the story by Leonard Spigelgass, a married, upper-class super-bounder James Joshua Harkley, played by Edmon Ryan, shoots dead his pregnant girlfriend Vivian Heldon (Jan Sterling), discards the naked body in the sea and sinks her stolen car in a muddy pond. 

When the car owner Henry Shanway (Marshall Thompson) is arrested, super-smiley police lieutenant Peter Moralas (Ricardo Montalban) and never-smiling Harvard doctor Dr McAdoo (Bruce Bennett) set out to investigate.

A part of this action is set around a relatively crummy boarding house inhabited also by a friendly young woman (Betsy Blair) who at first seems like a bit of a bookish type but starts to reveal a more racy side that links her to the murdered Vivian. They're both girls who have done quite a fair amount of shakin' in their short lives. 

Jan Sterling in Mystery Street (1950)

The film is well apportioned with interesting side characters, and even a burly tattoo artist (played by Ralph Dumke) who had been admiring Vivian from afar gets some scene-stealing fun. The only remaining characters who don't make much of an impression are the poor young married sap who drinks too much and lies to his wife and who is arrested for Vivian's murder, and this fool's weepy, and quite generic wife, played by Sally Forrest. 

On location in Massachusetts in Mystery Street (1950) 

The cops who patrol Mystery Street are complex insofar as they have a certain dark side, which emerges the closer the action comes to concluding. 

The cop played by Ricardo Montalban does a fine and enjoyable amount of creative detective work, in addition to the scientific detection performed by Harvard professor Bruce Bennett. He is honest and sincere and smiles all day long.

The ole car in the pond ruse
Mystery Street (1950)

However, in one long sequence of the film, he goes tooth and nail against a man whom circumstantial evidence makes look guilty, but whom the audience knows is innocent. This is a reminder that the police are fallible. He is not a Superman of detection, merely an officer doing his best. The audience does not stop respecting Montalban during these sequences, but they sure know he is wrong, and it reminds us that even the best policemen need checks and balances on their work. There is a democratic message to these sequences.

Cape Cod Noir in Mystery Street (1950)

John Sturges was critic of racism in his films. In the wilds of Mystery Street (1950), the lead police officer is played by Ricardo Montalban. His dignified Hispanic officer has a memorable encounter with the film's old WASP family murderer, one that offers some pointed comments on immigrants.

Forensic laboratory of crime in Mystery Street (1950)

Mystery Street is a film noir procedural that takes huge pleasure in reminding us of the science and technology now available to the police and, there may be few films which take this eager a lead on the subject.  Science and technology are very much the raison d'etre of Mystery Street.

We meet medical scientists at Harvard, as well as a regular doctor who is interviewed halfway through, and other medical workers show up at the end with the landlady, played by Elsa Lanchester, as memorable as ever.

Frownin' Bruce Bennett in Mystery Street (1950)

Smilin' Ricardo Montalban in Mystery Street (1950)

The characters of Mystery Street a rare selection: a ship's designer, an ornithologist, a dispatcher at the depot, and mortician and a tattoo artist all appear.

There's waitress who had an MP boyfriend, from whom she learned about guns. As well as the Harvard Medical School and Trinity Station, locales include the county garage where the car is examined.

Phones and phone booths are prominent and like all good solid noir films, Mystery Street is notable for staircase shots. The telephone at the rooming house is on the side of a staircase. And the finale at Trinity Station includes outdoor staircases.

The same must be said of mirrors which are perennially focal to film noir photography and there are several in Mystery Street (1950). There is a mirror in the landlady's apartment where the bird has a mirror in its cage. The Trinity Station rest room has a mirror.

Mystery Street has photography by John Alton. It is not as purely baroque with angled dark noir shots like his work with Anthony Mann or Joseph H. Lewis, but it is always beautiful and creative. Scenes at the police station where each desk is featured in its own circular pool of light from its desk lamp are especially enjoyable. So are his nocturnes on the streets of Boston and the neon signs in the opening sequence. John Alton also includes one of his lovely swinging lights scenes in the basement.

Using the skull of the murdered woman, police forensics create ghoulish horror-like cinematic likenesses in slide form to try and guess who the victim was by reconstructing her face. We wish them luck!

Horrific forensic face profiling technology from 1950 down
Mystery Street (1950)

That leaves only the cops, and in a film where the focus and center are continually shifting as characters and subplots keep cropping up, Montalban's stalwart Lieutenant Morales is the closest thing Mystery Street has to a continuous central figure. 

An interesting and certainly underplayed aspect to John Sturges' Mystery Street is its generally unstated ethnic aspect. The two cops on the case, Morales and his partner Sharkey (Wally Maher), each have thick and distinctive accents.

Elsa Lanchester in Mystery Street (1950)

Morales has a Latin accent and he covers what he calls the "Portuguese sector" of town, something of a hint-hint-hint about the possible ghettoization in cities and also in professions.

Sharkey has a mouth-fulla-marbles Boston brogue and yet these two get o with each other with a matter-of-fact lack of comment about their accents or ethnicities — they're simply there, as part of the city and its multiplicity of ethnic identities blending together. 

There's only one scene in which these aspects come to the fore, and this is when immigrant Morales' immigrant background rubs uncomfortably against the WASPy privilege of the film's villain (Edmon Ryan), an old-money type who can trace his family back several hundred years in America.

The Line-Up — Criminal Noir Classic in
Mystery Street (1950)

Some of the outstanding violence in Mystery Street is so casual as to almost go unnoticed. When the killer anonymously slays his female victim, he is interrupted by a passing car. Because the killer is in the process of moving the body of the woman's body, the killer suddenly supports her corpse in an embrace and holds her in a kiss.

This instantaneously hideous necrophiliac moment has a sure-fire did-I-just-see-what-I-thought-I-saw quality because when looked at coldly, is one of the grossest moments in film noir. 

Blink and you'll miss it however, which is maybe just as well. Did that man just snog a dead woman?

Edmon Ryan in Mystery Street (1950)

On top of this, is the gruesome forensic work, which spends a lot of time playing with human bones in the laboratories of Harvard. 

Ricardo Montalban and Bruce Bennet make an interesting detective duo. Montalban cannot seem to stop smiling, and beams across the screen almost the whole time he occupies it. While Bruce Bennet plays his forensic scientist role with a whole lot of 1950s leaden and earnest attention.

The two take part in a curiously unpleasant skull-to-face photo match, with a selection of dead women, which is horrific and fantastic in its execution. Although Mystery Street does have its chases and moments of suspense, it is yet the tale of a killing solved in a laboratory.

At the county garage in Mystery Street (1950)
Bruce Bennett and Ricardo Montalban

Mystery Street also exemplifies another of film noir's key signifiers, which is the salacious film title. With its constantly dark feed of urban tales, film noir titles often feature the words 'Street', 'Alley' and the like in their titles. 

Some of the more successful of these like Side Street (also 1950) and Scarlet Street (1945), make good use of their titles to indicate something in their stories. Others like Terror Street (1953) are living the lie, and pulling the crowds unwittingly into the cinemas with a slightly misleading compound of words.

Elsa Lanchester in Mystery Street (1950)

The thing about Mystery Street, as with Terror Street, is that the titles are simply not appropriate. Terror Street does not feature a lot of terror, and while set on the streets (albeit of London), this title does not indicate anything specific to the movie. One of the oddities of Mystery Street, is that the mystery as to the identity of the killer is revealed to the audience fairly early on, although the police do struggle to catch up.

Various 'street' characters do make appearance's on Mystery Street such as a tattoo artist; but in general the mystery, and even the street aspects of Mystery Street, are thing on the ground.

Take a trip down Mystery Street (1950) on Wikipedia

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