Friday, October 11, 2013

Mystery Street

Lobby card for Mystery Street (1950)

Nowadays, when people think of Ricardo Montalbán, they probably think of one of two things: the TV show Fantasy Island, or Montalbán's portrayal of Khan first on an episode of Star Trek back in the 1960s, and then in the second of the Star Trek movies. It's a shame that Montalbán became almost a parody later in life, since he was actually a fairly capable actor. A good example of Montalbán's dramatic chops can be seen in the movie Mystery Street, which TCM is showing tomorrow morning at 8:30 AM.

Montalbán plays Peter Morales, the Portuguese-American police chief of Hyannis, one of the small towns that dot the Cape Cod coast. (His accent had to be explained somehow, I suppose.) Morales gets involved in our story when a bird-watcher stumbles across some bones -- bones that are obviously human! The body has obviously been decomposing for some months if there are only bones left, and there aren't any obvious identifying features to tell us who this body is. So it's off to Harvard's forensics lab up in Cambridge, to summon the help of Dr. McAdoo (Bruce Bennett, whom you'll recall as Joan Crawford's first husband in Mildred Pierce). It's fairly quickly established that the deceased was a woman, and when McAdoo extrapolates the shape of the woman's face from her skull. This, combined with a list of the missing persons cases dating to the time this corpse started to decompose, eventually leads the two to figure that the deceased is one Vivian Heldon (Jan Sterling). Of course, we already knew who the deceased was, since the movie starts off with her story.

Heldon was a nightclub girl who was down on her luck, as an affair with a sugar daddy, one Mr. Harkley (Edmon Ryan) was going south. But, she's gotten knocked up by him, so she goes to see him down on the Cape, even carjacking (not that the word was used back in 1950) the car of one Henry Shamway (Marshall Thompson) along the way. His car is discovered not far from the dead body, and so he's the first obvious suspect. The police obviously don't know baout Harkley yet.

However, there's one person who does figure out about Harkley: Vivian's landlady, Mrs. Smerrling (Elsa Lanchester). Vivian's of course was found in Hyannis, and when Smerrling notices a Hyannis phone number written on the wall next to the pay phone on the ground floor of her building, she immediately puts two and two together. In fact, she's willing to blackmail Harkley: pay me or I'll tell on you to the police. Smerrling even steals Harkley's gun.

Mystery Street is more of a police procedural than a mystery, as it should be fairly easy to figure out which of the two main candidates did the deed. You know that in a movie like this they're going to catch the bad guy, since the Production Code wouldn't all anything else. Even though there's not much mystery, that doesn't mean Mystery Street isn't a good movie. Indeed, it's quite underrated. Montalbán does a good job, even though his character ultimately doesn't have any more depth than the cops from TV shows back in the days when shows didn't have story arcs longer than a single episode. Jan Sterling looks lovely while she's still alive, but it's really Elsa Lanchester who walks off with the honors. But really, it's more of an ensemble cast, and they all work together to make an entertaining film. Despite the Production Code constraints, the ending is still just as tense as, say, The Naked City. It's too bad Ricardo Montalbán couldn't make more serious movies like this.

Mystery Street has received a DVD release, and is in print.

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