Movie review: Mystery Street
Blonde floozy Vivian Heldon (Jan Sterling) is talking on the wall phone in the shadowy hallway of her Boston boarding house. Her landlady, appropriately named Mrs. Smerrling, (Elsa Lanchester) makes no pretense about listening in while she prods Heldon for back rent.
“Please honey,” Heldon says into the phone’s wall-mounted mouthpiece. “You gotta. I’m in a jam.”
Soon, Heldon gets herself killed but not before she involves a nervous expectant father she meets in a bar. So far, the 1950 film is a predictable B movie with noir overtones and few expected surprises.
But Heldon’s murder is not discovered until six months later when a beachcomber finds her skeleton protruding from the sand on Cape Cod. The lack of fingerprints, or other obvious means of identifying the skeleton, lead the detective lieutenant on the case to enlist the aid of Dr. McAdoo (Bruce Bennett), a professor from the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard Medical School. The film then develops into a CSI story 50 years before the Las Vegas crime lab TV series.
Some of the tools and techniques used by Dr. McAdoo seem a bit rudimentary today, but the scientific angles and the solid acting of Lanchester and the detective on the case—Richardo Montalban—make this relatively unknown film worth watching.
A New York Times review when the movie debuted said, “There is more science than mystery in this cops-versus-killer number, but it is an adventure which, despite a low budget, is not low in taste or its attention to technical detail, backgrounds and plausibility.”
This is not the say it’s perfect. It’s slow moving at times, and in one scene a murder suspect escapes a little too easily from a police chase thus extending the suspense. For the most part, director John Sturges, who would go on to acclaim directing pictures such as The Magnificent Seven and the classic noir Bad Day at Black Rock, elevates the film past its meager budget. The movie was shot on location in Boston and Cape Cod.
From the get-go, Montalban, as Lt. Peter Moralas, suspects the unidentified skeleton is a murder victim. He delivers a box of bones, including the skull, to Dr. McAdoo who provides a surprising amount of information on the victim.
As Moralas looks at the bones arranged on a gurney, Dr. McAdoo tells him the skeleton was a woman.
“I suppose you’d like to know her age,” McAdoo says.
“I’d also like to know her height, weight, occupation and the name and phone number of the person who murdered her.”
“I think I can answer all those questions, except the last,” the confident doctor says.
Armed with that information and McAdoo’s guess at when the woman died–based on plants found with the body–Moralas reviews missing persons’ files for women in their early 20s. Thanks to further lab work at Harvard, Moralas thinks he’s found the victim’s name. That leads him to Mrs. Smerrling’s and the intrigue begins. You can see wheel’s turning in the landlady’s head as she remembers details about the victim’s circumstances.
With the victim identified as Vivian Heldon, Moralas locates some of her possessions, including a little black book. The names and phone numbers of 86 men in the book give Moralas a long list of suspects, but he needs one more bit of scientific evidence to prove the death was murder. Again, Dr. McAdoo provides the necessary information, and Moralas is left to hunt for motives.
Meanwhile, the gin-tippling Mrs. Smerrling, who admits she wasn’t actually married, dreams of ways to cash in on her tenant’s demise.
Although she rates only fourth billing, Lanchester is perfect as the scheming landlady. You know from her expression that she’s only looking out for herself.
Montalban, a star in Mexican films before he was signed by MGM in the late 1940s, was one of a few Hispanic leading men in US films at the time. According to Wikipedia, he was the first Hispanic actor to appear on the cover of Life Magazine. The Times review of Mystery Street said Montalban was “natural and unassuming.” He handled the detective role well and never reminded you of his later, most popular TV role. (You know the one.)
Late in the investigation, Dr. McAdoo has another tidbit for Moralas, but the detective has already discovered it for himself.
“Professors work with their heads,” he tells McAddo. “Cops work with their feet.”