A Movie A Day: Quint on MYSTERY STREET (1950) Professors work with their heads. Cops work with their feet.
Published at: Nov. 24, 2008, 2:51 a.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with today’s installment of A Movie A Day.
[For those now joining us, A Movie A Day is my attempt at filling in gaps in my film knowledge. My DVD collection is thousands strong, many of them films I haven’t seen yet, but picked up as I scoured used DVD stores. Each day I’ll pull a previously unseen film from my collection or from my DVR and discuss it here. Each movie will have some sort of connection to the one before it, be it cast or crew member.]
Today I am well-rested and ready to tackle today’s flick, MYSTERY STREET, directed by John Sturges, director of yesterday’s GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL.
Now, I liked yesterday’s movie, but didn’t love it. When today’s movie started I got the feeling I’d be in the same boat with it. In the first ten minutes we get to know Vivian (played by Jan Sterling). She’s living in a crowded apartment building with an eavesdropping and snippy landlady (played by the Bride herself, Elsa Lanchester). There’s a shared phone in the hallway, an old-timey one where you hold the separate handpiece to your hear like a Dixie cup and speak into the receiver mounted on the wall, and we hear her arrange to meet with someone. It sounds like trouble.
But I really didn’t care much because Vivian comes off as totally unlikable. She has a chip on her shoulder and she’s not even an entertaining bitch, just a mean one. If she was going to be this movie’s femme fatale I wasn’t all that excited, but luckily for me this lady ends up dead at about the 15 minute mark, but not before she picks up a drunk at the bar where she works, takes him and his car for a spin before ditching him.
She takes a bullet when she meets the man she’s upset with. He stays in the shadows so we don’t know who he is as covers up his crime as best he can.
This is when Ricardo Montalban comes in to take this movie from okay to fucking outstanding. Montalban plays Lieutenant Morales, a young, eager cop, who is called in when a bird-watcher stumbles upon a skeleton in the sand. He has a radical idea, to involve some Harvard doctors to help determine the identity of this person.
Yeah, this movie really does act like a precursor to CSI type shows, but with one radical difference… ‘40s and ‘50s technology is a billion times more interesting than computers and digital analyzers.
It takes the combined efforts of Bruce Bennett (playing Harvard professor Dr. McAdoo) and Montalban to discover the girl’s identity, using science to determine specifics that Montalban follows-up on through good old fashioned policework.
Turns out this girl was… well, a little bit of a slut-whore (which was my impression from the get-go) and there is a little black book filled with over 80 potential suspects.
But the main suspect seems to be the poor drunk bastard who decided against telling his wife that he let himself get picked up and lied to the insurance officers, claiming his car was stolen outside the hospital where his wife was recovering from a miscarriage. Now you know why he was getting drunk. So, his lying to try to cover up his insurance scam makes him look super guilty.
And here’s a twist I didn’t see coming. Montalban, who up to this point has been a solid good guy through and through, seems to want this guy to be guilty so bad, that he starts ignoring evidence to the contrary, even when it’s presented by Dr. McAdoo, who he’s trusted implicitly from the beginning.
It’s not a huge dark downturn for the character, but a moment of weakness, those shades of gray I keep going on and on about loving in these noirs.
Speaking of shades of gray, MVP of this movie is Elsa Lanchester as the old Scrooge who runs the apartments where the murdered girl lived. She conceils evidence and we don’t know exactly why… until she tries to blackmail the murderer. Lanchester gives a great character performance here.
Sally Forrest is the heart of the film, though. She is the drunk’s wife, still coping with losing their child and the diagnosis from her doctor that she’ll never be able to bear children, and then forced to watch her husand arrested for murder.
Montalban is pretty cold towards her, which is a bit of a shock since he’s so charming and full of smiles and confidence the rest of the movie. I think she represents her husband’s innocence to him and he doesn’t like that. He wants to be the hero so badly, to solve this case and close that file, that he instantly dislikes her because he does see her husband’s innocence in her.
Montalban himself deserves a lot of credit. I always knew he had charisma from his Khan days (and his turn in THE NAKED GUN, which I always loved), but I was surprised just how effortlessly laid back and confident he came off as in this movie. I loved his work so much that my anticipation of tomorrow’s BORDER INCIDENT has doubled. In fact, his work in this movie makes me want to seek out every single film he’s ever starred in.
Final Thoughts: The murder mystery aspect to this film is great, the film is overloaded with great performances all culminating with a great final foot-chase through stationary (and non-stationary) trains. The Academy Award nominated writing by Leonard Spigelgass, Sydney Boehm and Richard Brooks deserves the nom, Sturges’ direction is a great match for the material, again effortlessly confident. The whole thing is one big ball of awesome.
Here’s what we have lined up for the next week:
Monday, November 24th: BORDER INCIDENT (1949)
Tuesday, November 25th: THE TIN STAR (1957)
Wednesday, November 26th: ON THE BEACH (1959)
Thursday, November 27th: TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH (1949)
Friday, November 28th: GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT (1947)
Saturday, November 29th: PANIC IN THE STREETS (1950)
Sunday, November 30th: THE HOT ROCK (1972)
Some great stuff this week. Tomorrow is more Ricardo Montalban with BORDER INCIDENT! See you for that!
Also, I'm really diving into the Holiday Gift Guide this week. It's shaping up to be a great one. Look for it to hit Thanksgiving, but if you have any thoughts on what should be included in the guide this year, I'm still taking suggestions.