An A- “B” Film

Mystery Street

John Sturges’ Mystery Street (1950) is often shuffled into the noir deck but it isn’t really film noir at all… it isn’t even a mystery. While the face of the killer of jilted B-girl Jan Sterling is left in shadows when the deed is done on a lonely stretch of Cape Cod beach, the audience at least knows who the killer isn’t and that puts viewers one step ahead of investigating cop Ricardo Montalban.

Ricardo Montalban

Ricardo Montalban came to Mystery Street from his star turn in Anthony Mann’s gritty Border Incident (1949), in which he went undercover to investigate illegal immigration and the exploitation of undocumented workers. This time around he plays Barnstable, Massachusetts police detective Pete Morales.  Working the Cape’s Portuguese section, Morales draws the case of “the Skeleton Girl” (as Sterling’s deceased doxy is known when her remains are unearthed three months after the fact). Lacking an ID for the victim or even a means of death, Morales turns to forensic pathologist McAdoo (Bruce Bennett) to help him put flesh on these cold bones. Meanwhile, the dead girl’s nosy landlady (Elsa Lanchester) traces the killer from a phone number written by the victim on the wall of her boarding house and attempts to turn a tidy little profit with the information.

Marshall Thompson and Jan Sterling

Shot by noir specialist John Alton (He Walked by Night, The Big Heat), Mystery Street provides an ocean of inky black shadow through which characters come and go. While the film isn’t as deterministic and cynical as a proper noir, the script by Sidney Boehm and Richard Brooks (who made the transition from studio writer to film director that same year) does have its own thoughts about lucklessness, as personified by murder victim Sterling and the poor schnook (Marshall Thompson) who has the misfortune to make her acquaintance on the last night of her life and wind up the prime suspect in her murder. Ringing these hapless, desperate souls are lonely old exotics embodied by Lanchester’s landlady, diner waitress Betsy Blair (who gets a swell bit of business with a .45 automatic) and burly Ralph Dumke as a street corner tattoo artist who knew the murdered woman and who bursts into police headquarters to deliver a surprisingly tender imperative for the cops to bring her killer to justice. The only seemingly happy couple in the film are the young marrieds played by Thompson and Sally Forrest (the unwed mother of Not Wanted), whose life has been turned upside down by the recent loss of their unborn child. While Mystery Street never hits you over the head with the mercilessness of fate, it does undercut its cold procedural style with an undercurrent of human sadness. It comes as little surprise, then, to learn that Joseph Losey worked on the script with Richard Brooks back when the project was still called Murder at Harvard. Losey was set to direct the film until the slowness of its genesis urged him toward more productive pastures.

Bruce Bennett and Ricardo Montalban

Impressive as it is, Mystery Street doesn’t quite merit the status of “lost classic.” With Marshall Thompson clearly innocent from the beginning, Ricardo Montalban becomes one of those tiresome protagonists who is always a step behind the audience and his third act stridency, which requires him to bear down on guiltless parties, is alienating – too bad, as we’re primed to be on his side. Bruce Bennett is an interesting (and ahead-of-his-time) amateur co-sleuth but his best scenes come early on and he becomes a mere onlooker throughout the rest of the picture. Where the movie does pay off (apart from its gorgeous cinematography and art design) is in the early depiction of a minority cop butting heads (à la In the Heat of the Night) with privileged whites who believe themselves above the law.

Jan SterlingThe movie also stands out from the pack by dint of its frank ghoulishness: caught in the headlights of a passing car after having put a bullet through the pregnant Jan Sterling’s breadbasket, killer Edmon Ryan pulls her corpse  close, hiding his face in a necrophilic emulation of a lover’s embrace; when he disposes of Sterling’s car in a nearby bog, the shot of the sinking vehicle anticipates the dumping of Janet Leigh’s wheels in Psycho. Strangest of all is the bit where Bruce Bennett slides a legal-sized envelope under Morales’ nose containing the bird-like bones of Sterling’s three-month old fetus… an exceedingly grim finding that draws from Montalban a wide smile as it puts him closer to solving the case.  These charnel elements were representative of the grittiness MGM head of production Dory Schary was bringing to the imperiled mega-studio, much to the chagrin of studio chief Louis B. Mayer, who rued the day family-style entertainment fell out vogue. Mayer would no doubt be spinning in his grave to know that the very kind of entertainment he found so appalling would fifty years down the pike be broadcast into American living rooms via such highly-rated prime time TV crime shows as Cold Case, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and all three CSI series.

Elsa Lanchester

Final verdict: The gritty little B non-noir Mystery Street makes for A- entertainment. Typical for a John Sturges production, the supporting cast is rich in familiar faces: Ned Glass (as Bruce Bennett’s smiling lab assistant), Robert Foulk (as a brother cop) and John Crawford and King Donovan (as reporters). Also typical for a John Sturges production (albeit his later, 60s movies), the thing sags a bit in the middle.  Ultimately, however, Mystery Street is worthwhile entertainment on the combined strengths of its cast, its sterling production values, for a charismatic lead performance by Ricardo Montalban (as a rare minority hero in a movie not specifically about race relations) and for subject matter that was at the time fresh, invigorating and exceedingly controversial.

8 Responses An A- “B” Film
Posted By Louis Burnette : December 18, 2007 11:51 pm

Oh, man. The bones! The scenes with the bones of the fetus. That is so cold, even now. So in your face ugly for the fifties and such a bringdown at any tequila party now! Wow. You nailed it. Not great but so worth seeing.

Posted By Louis Burnette : December 18, 2007 11:51 pm

Oh, man. The bones! The scenes with the bones of the fetus. That is so cold, even now. So in your face ugly for the fifties and such a bringdown at any tequila party now! Wow. You nailed it. Not great but so worth seeing.

Posted By Joe aka Momgo : December 19, 2007 3:27 pm

RHS. very good summation on one of my favorite A-B films. I would imagine it is considered a noir since it is filmed in black and white and loaded with darkness and shadows.Jan Sterling is ideal as the unfortunate victim while Elsa Lanchester is a hoot as the money hungry landlady.

Posted By Joe aka Momgo : December 19, 2007 3:27 pm

RHS. very good summation on one of my favorite A-B films. I would imagine it is considered a noir since it is filmed in black and white and loaded with darkness and shadows.Jan Sterling is ideal as the unfortunate victim while Elsa Lanchester is a hoot as the money hungry landlady.

Posted By Bryan : December 29, 2007 11:38 pm

I have seen Mystery Street 3 times and I loved this movie. The first time I watched it Robert O. described it as better than 90% of anything out today. How true. I also liked the sets , the old apt. house run by Elsa Lanchester and the bar where the victim of the murder seduces a married man into his car and then runs off and leaves him stranded. ****Four stars from me.

Posted By Bryan : December 29, 2007 11:38 pm

I have seen Mystery Street 3 times and I loved this movie. The first time I watched it Robert O. described it as better than 90% of anything out today. How true. I also liked the sets , the old apt. house run by Elsa Lanchester and the bar where the victim of the murder seduces a married man into his car and then runs off and leaves him stranded. ****Four stars from me.

Posted By cso : January 2, 2008 7:31 pm

 gotta say I love this movie – must have been shocking for it's time, with the extra baby bones. It stands up well, I really like the element of the second generation imigrant Pete, taking to the yuppie jerk! As If – But what would a sweet young thing like Betsy Blair be shacking up in grass widow Mrs Smerrling's boarding house.  BTW -Ricardo, you were such a dream boat! 

Posted By cso : January 2, 2008 7:31 pm

 gotta say I love this movie – must have been shocking for it's time, with the extra baby bones. It stands up well, I really like the element of the second generation imigrant Pete, taking to the yuppie jerk! As If – But what would a sweet young thing like Betsy Blair be shacking up in grass widow Mrs Smerrling's boarding house.  BTW -Ricardo, you were such a dream boat! 

Leave a Reply

Current ye@r *

As of November 1, 2017 FilmStruck’s blog, StreamLine, has moved to Tumblr.

Please visit us there!

http://filmstruck.tumblr.com/tagged/streamline-blog

 Streamline is the official blog of FilmStruck, a new subscription service that offers film aficionados a comprehensive library of films including an eclectic mix of contemporary and classic art house, indie, foreign and cult films.