Friday Noir: ‘Mystery Street’ is a bit of good old school CSI

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Mystery Street

Directed by John Sturges

Screenplay by Richard Brooks and Sydney Boehm

USA, 1950

If one comes across a review or snippet of commentary regarding John Sturges’ Mystery Street, one aspect about the film which people argue stands out is how it works as a police procedural which makes it, in a fashion, a precursor to so many of today’s massively popular television dramas, such the various CSI series. Truth be told, the comparisons are not far off. Closer inspection should, however, unearth much more of the film’s character-driven rewards than its mere commonalities  with today’s popular wave of shows.

Reportedly the first ever film to be set in Boston (it is mentioned by a critic in the brief featurette on the DVD), the story opens with very peculiar setup, demonstrating no real need to rush into the thick of things for a good ten minutes. For this initial portion of the picture, the viewer follows one Vivian (Jan Sterling) a young woman who works as a B-girl, for whom money seems to be something of a problem. A hopeful meeting with her beaux during he would have given her some cash fails to materialize and, in an attempt to get back at him, she seduces a drunk chap, Henry Shanway (Marshall Thompson) and steals her car. Along the way to meeting him, she is murdered, by gunfire, by an figure unknown to the audience. Local lieutenant Peter Morales (Ricardo Montalban) is called upon at first to investigate a ‘missing person’ case, although the real nature of the drama quickly reveals itself. Only with the help of Harvard medical expert Dr. McAdoo (Bruce Bennett) will he be able to catch the killer and reassure Mrs. Shanway (Sally Forrest) who frets over the constant accusations surrounding her husband.

John Sturges’ film is sort that slowly creeps up on the viewer, demonstrating what it might truly be about only a great deal of time into the story. The aforementioned opening sequence is one example, so much so in fact that one can be forgiven for believing that Vivian, the B-girl, is one of the piece’s leading figures. She still is, but of course not in the way she would have liked. Then comes the next easily identifiable portion of the film, lasting about  half hour, during which time Lt. Morales, along with Dr.  McAdoo, comes to understand what happened to the missing girl, how it might have happened and who are the primary suspects. This stretch is interesting in how it demonstrates how the police can start a case with virtually no information whatsoever and still manage to hone their investigation to the point where the once cold trail begins to heat up. It might not make for the most thrilling sort of cinema, but for those whose interest is aroused when a cop drama concentrates mostly on the nitty gritty methodology employed by investigators, Mystery Street can be quite amusing, especially when seen as a time capsule for how certain tasks, like identifying victims (superimposing acetate pictures of recently reported missing people with that of the victim’s skull to contrast and compare) were pursued back in  the early 1950s.

The nature of the movie morphs still once more during the latter half of the film and in a clever little way informs the viewer of what the previous section was about as well. As the clues point more and more towards one suspect than any other, Lt. Morales begins to display a certain anxiousness at wanting to solve the case and be proven right in regards to who he identifies as the culprit, even if some doubts regarding the facts remain. Even his new ally Dr. McAdoo is forced to rein Morales in and offer further potential details that might divert Morales’ intent on seeing the primary suspect put behind bars. The film utilizes this character trait of his in very mature fashion, never playing it for cheap drama, but rather helping the viewer understand that Morales is just as flawed as everybody else in the story. What makes this even more intriguing is that earlier in the picture there is a brief exchange of dialogue between the protagonist and a colleague in which the former reveals that his duties were mostly limited to pettier crimes within Boston’s Portuguese neighbourhood. This revelation, when contrasted with how his work on the current case is evolving, speaks to his inexperience. Morales has shown intelligence and a willingness to work with others, but perfect he is not, and his insistence on believing he is in the right nearly puts the wrong man in jail. Even his interrogation methods are cold at times, asking the hard questions despite how awkward it might be for both those being question and his partner, who, in one scene, is clearly seen in the foreground as being uncomfortable as Morales hammers away with his questions. The entire plot therefore, in addition to functioning as a police procedural, is about the professional maturation of Lt. Morales. Ricardo Montalban, not unfamiliar with the film noir genre, gives a splendidly nuanced performance which brings all of Morales’s different facets to the fold.

The major trait which hurts the film is how John Sturges and the screenwriters Richard Brooks and Sydney Boehm treat the villain of the piece. In that opening sequence, Vivian’s killer is hidden in shadow during the murder, which is fair enough. Yet rather than save the big reveal for the end, the filmmakers opt to spoil the viewer midway. Either reveal the killer’s identity at the beginning and allow audiences to see if Morales can find out what they know, or preserve the secret and build suspense. As it stands, the strategy adds nothing to the plot, not to mention that the killer is not particularly well developed as a character.

There are more memorable entries in the film noir genre to discover, but for anyone wanting something with a slower pace and some subtler character development, Mystery Street hits the spot.

-Edgar Chaput


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