RT Obscura, a new bi-weekly column by renowned critic Kim Newman, sees the writer plumbing the depths of the Rotten Tomatoes archive in search of some forgotten gems. In his fifth column, Kim explores Mystery Street, a film combining noir sensibilities with science-heavy forensics investigations.
It’s surprising that Mystery Street, an MGM ‘docu-noir’ picture from 1950, didn’t spin off a TV series as its notable predecessor The Naked City did. The then-unusual premise could have worked for weekly cases, and the team-up of active and passive investigators — Hispanic Boston cop Pete Morales (Ricardo Montalban) and tweedy ‘legal medicine’ expert Dr McAdoo (Bruce Bennett) — makes for a more colourful partnership than the drab, Dragnet-style partnerships who dominated early TV crime series.
Indeed, it’s one of the first realistic ‘forensic’ detection stories, laying the groundwork for shows like The Expert, Quincy ME, CSI and Silent Witness with microscope analysis of hair (dyed blonde with black roots), a bullet trajectory re-enactment which leads to the discovery of a spent shell in the bodywork of a car fished out of the sea, and an imperative that the cops don’t just find the murderer but the gun he used in the crime.
Maybe the location (Boston, Hyannis Port and the environs of Harvard) would have been a stretch for an industry still clinging to LA and New York — though MGM initially thought that venturing further afield was a big draw. The studio trumpets the use of locations and the cooperation of the educational establishment in the trailer and the script takes cares to include a few regional specifics like the understated friction between blueblood WASPs and an equally well-established though déclassé local Portuguese community.
It opens with a very noir set-up, as desperate bottle blonde B-girl Vivian Heldon (lazy-lidded Jan Sterling, in a vivid cameo) goes from a seedy mock-genteel boarding house to a sleazy dance joint, all the while trying to get through on the phone to her (married) upscale boyfriend to tell him she’s pregnant. She picks up weak-chinned boob Henry Shanway (Marshall Thompson), on a drunken bender because his wife Grace (Sally Forrest) has just had a miscarriage, and drives his car out to the coast — where her unseen lover shoots her dead.
Sometime later, a birdwatcher (weird-looking Walter Burke, in a typically eccentric characterisation) finds foot-bones stuck out of a dune and newly-promoted Pete takes the ‘skeleton girl’ case to the ivied halls, where McAdoo applies forensic deductive techniques to the bones (which include those of the unborn baby — an especially strong touch for 1950). Naturally, Henry gets arrested for murder and seems liable to be convicted on circumstantial evidence — but the various amateur and professional detectives on the case can’t leave it alone, and there are more developments.
Like several late 1940s/early 1950s crime movies (cf: Border Patrol, T-Men, He Walked By Night), Mystery Street is split between a style of lowlife film noir which had already become so well-established that it could be parodied (Elsa Lanchester is wonderful as the dead girl’s overly dressed-up, smarmily mock-respectable landlady Mrs Smerrling, who solves the case before the experts and sets out to blackmail the killer before becoming the next victim) and near-educational lectures about the scientific resources available to crime-fighters (an eerie montage has the faces of missing girls superimposed onto photographs of the skull until a match is found).
Director John Sturges, doing apprentice work with programmers before his big break with Bad Day at Black Rock, has a knack with both modes, working with the ace noir specialist cinematographer John Alton to make shadowed, sinister, quirky night-time worlds of venal characters struggling for survival, but also getting out on the streets for day-lit gumshoe-work and a climactic chase through the rail yards.
The transitional nature of the film leads to some awkwardness: the innocent man doomed to go to the chair and his understandably embittered wife are stock figures (cf: Stranger on the Third Floor, Phantom Lady), and the script seems unsure how to integrate their plotline into the tapestry. It’s reported late in the film that Henry has escaped from custody just in time to be suspected of killing Mrs Smerrling, but this has no plot consequences and is never dramatised. We miss out on, say, scenes of the escapee not knowing he has been exonerated and fleeing the cops, or being shot at while on the run because beat officers don’t yet know he’s an innocent man.
Writers Leonard Spiegelglass and Sydney Bohem unusually undercut the film’s premise in such a subtle way I think they might have been sneaking something subversive past the MGM brass. Without a laboratory or any enormous police support, dotty Mrs Smerrling identifies the killer Harkley (Edmon Ryan) from a clue (a number scrawled by the pay-phone in her hallway) which dogged sleuth Pete looks at several times but never does spot. Montalban is even allowed to linger a moment at a crucial juncture when it seems certain he’ll notice the number, but he walks away from it obliviously.
It was filmed under the title Murder at Harvard, which was presumably changed because the crime doesn’t actually take place on or anywhere near the campus or involve anyone connected with the college; Mystery Street is so bland a moniker it’s no wonder the film isn’t as well-remembered as some of its cheaper contemporary rivals. The use of unusual-to-unbelievable surnames for almost all the characters might have been to avoid lawsuits from actual Boston residents, but is also an expressionist quirk that undercuts any notion of realism.
Mystery Street is available on R1 DVD in a value-for-money Film Noir Classic Collection, with nine other unearthed gems from one of Hollywood’s most creative periods. It might not be The Asphalt Jungle or White Heat, but it’d make a perfect B-picture next time you want to program your own retro-crime double bill.