Saturday, February 8, 2014

Mystery Street

Mystery Street 1950 U.S. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (93 minutes) directed by John Sturges; screenplay by Sydney Boehm and Richard Brooks; story by Leonard Spielgass; Ferris Webster, editor; John Alton, cinematographer.

This is a beautifully shot, ensemble B picture: a scientific police procedural shot in Boston with a ‘minority’ star, a diverse and interesting group of women actors, a dark sense of ribald humor, and lots of kitschy visual details.
The story gets off to a pulp splash: a voluptuous blonde with great legs appears in a black negligee at the top of a dark Victorian stair and descends pulling on a light-colored silk robe to answer a communal hall telephone ringing on the first floor.

The blonde is Vivian Heldon (Jan Sterling). She is a hostess in a Boston nightclub. We hear Heldon say she is ‘in a jam.’ The ‘jam’ turns out to be that she is pregnant. The father is James Joshua Harkley (Edmon Ryan), a ‘respectable’ married Hyannis yacht builder with teenage daughters. Heldon arranges on the telephone to meet Harkley later that evening at the club where she works, a kitsch little boite called ‘The Grass Skirt.’

Heldon lives in a rooming house on Beacon Hill owned by the prurient and parsimonious Miss Smerrling (Elsa Lanchester). The other boarder, Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ Elcott (Betsy Blair), is a waitress. Jackie is a ‘good girl’ but by no means a goody-goody. In a later scene, she pops a clip out of an Army .45 caliber pistol like a pro. ‘I used to go with an MP,’ she said brightly. ‘What I learned about guns… and the Marines.’
Later in the evening, Heldon sits bored and impatient at a table in The Grass Skirt, stood up by her man and filling an ashtray. A lamp on the table has a ceramic figure of a bare breasted ‘native’ dancer. This kitsch figure has a cheesy ‘grass skirt’ made to undulate suggestively around its waist; it does its herky-jerky rumba to the beat of Cole Porter’s ‘You’d Be So Easy to Love’ playing in the background.

And then opportunity bursts in. A newcomer at the bar who has had too much to drink parked his ‘yellow Ford’ illegally on the curb outside the club. This is Henry Shanway (Marshall Thompson), drowning his sorrows because his wife is in the hospital after having lost their first child.
‘That’s the story of my life,’ the young man admits to the barkeep. ‘I’m always where I shouldn't be. I’m also not where I ought to be. Ever since Adam, man’s been crying, “Where am I?”’

Heldon ‘picks up’ Shanway in short order, commandeers him to his car, and drives to the cape to have it out face to face with Harkley.

Shanway is passed out while Heldon tracks down and finally arranges to meet Harkley. She literally ‘turns heads’—three in campy unison—when she goes into a diner to call Harkley. When Shanway wakes up and realizes that she has driven to the cape, Heldon leaves him standing in the road and rushes off to what will be her fatal last meeting.
The saturnine Harkley has panicked. When they finally meet, the worried 24-year-old who shows the world her edge and attitude looks up unguardedly at her experienced older lover. The muzzle of a handgun springs into view. Harkley shoots Heldon, then ‘makes out’ with her limp body to hide his act when a young couple happens by; he buries her, and then gets rid of the yellow Ford in a sinkhole. The stranded Shanway gets back to Boston and reports his car stolen from the hospital parking lot where it should have been.

The police procedural begins six months later when an ornithologist (Walter Burke) comes across the shapely ankle and foot of a skeleton sticking out of a dune. Now it is the authorities’ turn to work out the backstory the audience has just seen.
Lieutenant Peter Moralas [sic] (Ricardo Montalban), a detective in Barnstable, a town near Hyannis in the southern cape where skeleton turned up, gets the case. Moralas’ regular beat evidently is in a ‘Portuguese section.’ This ‘cold case’ is his first murder investigation. Moralas and his partner, Detective Tim Sharkey (Walter Maher), turn for help to Professor McAdoo (Bruce Bennett), a forensic pathologist at Harvard Medical School’s Department of Legal Medicine.

Moralas does the shoe-leather police work as McAdoo provides clues from the forensic evidence. Modern science conquers the macabre when Moralas and McAdoo succeed in identifying the newspaper headlines’ ‘skeleton girl’ by matching a photo image of the victim’s skull superimposed on a series of photographs of missing women.
Heldon’s last known address takes Moralas back to where we first saw her. Moralas meets Miss Smerrling and Jackie and he finds ‘a little black book’ filled with names among Heldon’s personal effects.

Smerrling self-consciously hides ‘personal things’ from Moralas’ view as she moves around her apartment, but she is framed in a mirror ringed with pictures of flexing male body builders’ oiled torsos clipped from magazines. 
The trail also leads Moralas to the clueless Henry Shanway and his upright wife Grace (Sally Forrest, Montalban’s co-star). Grace, probably aware of her husband’s weakness but convinced of his innocence, keeps the tough, distrustful police lieutenant pounding pavement.

Smerrling steers the narrative into a diverting subplot after she beats Moralas to Harkley and tries to put the squeeze on him—a classic film noir gambit. This subplot also puts the handgun that killed Heldon back into play as a wildcard.

The film’s exterior scenes were shot on Beacon Hill in Boston, in Hyannis, at Harvard Yard and the Square, and at the university medical school in Roxbury. The melodramatic film noir denouement unfolds at Boston’s Trinity Station and across the adjacent rail yard. Incidentally, the director John Sturges is not related to Preston Sturges. 

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