Today’s movie is Mystery Street (1950). While Edgar Allen Poe invented the detective novel, this movie may be the grandfather of all television crime dramas. This movie highlight, at the time, little known forensic techniques, as they attempt to solve the murder of a B-girl.
Mystery Street (1950) is rated at 7.1 on iMDB.com and has a 65 percent audience approval on rottentomatoes.com. It was nominated for an Oscar in the best writing category but did not win. The film is rate around 207 of 953 Film Noirs listed. It’s is better than the above would indicate. Ricardo Montalban is strong in his first non-Latin lover role in American. Jan Sterling is about as jaded by life as any female character I have seen in a Film Noir. But the real surprise in this movie is Elsa Lanchester as the oddball landlady. She adds a lot of the humor and much of the suspense.
Ricardo Montalban played Det. Peter Morales, a man, temporarily assigned to the Boston police department. Montalban was first covered in Episode 120 – Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971).
Bruce Bennett played the Harvard forensic scientist Dr. McAdoo. Bennett was first covered in Episode 25 – Sahara (1943).
Like I said, Elsa Lanchester, a rooming house owner, Mrs. Smerrling, was the hit of this film. She was strange, eccentric, and sneaky. Lanchester was first covered in Episode 7 – Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
Marshall Thompson played Henry Shanway, a man thrown into the middle of a murder investigation because he tried to keep a secret. Thompson was first covered in Episode 50 – Battleground (1949).
Jan Sterling played Vivian Heldon, a B-girl that was murdered to keep another man’s secret. Sterling was originally covered in Episode 89 – Ace in the Hole (1951).
Sally Forrest played Grace Shanway. She was born in 1928 in California. The child of two ballroom dancers, Forrest began dancing in the first grade. When she graduated from high school, she was signed to an MGM contract. Sally moved to Hollywood to work on dance films, but she was soon unemployed. She continued to work in small roles until her big break came, meeting Ida Lupino. Forrest earned the lead in Not Wanted (1949). Other movies included Never Fear (1950), The Strange Door (1951), The Strip (1951), and While the City Sleeps (1956). She continued to work in television until 1967. Sally died in 2015.
Edmon Ryan played James Joshua Harkley. Three names. Is that a clue? Ryan was born in 1905 in Kentucky. Ryan was a history teacher and a football coach before becoming an actor. He attended Yale School of Drama. He was in a lot of Film Noir. His movies include Battleground (1949), The Breaking Point (1950), Mystery Street (1950), The Americanization of Emily (1964), Topaz (1969), and Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970). He was also very active in television. He died in 1984.
Betsy Blair played Jackie Elcott and was a fellow boarder and friend of Vivian Heldon. Blair was born in 1923 in New Jersey. She was a model as a child and later worked in choral lines. In 1940, she had her first small role on Broadway. During this time, she met and married super dancer and all-around cool guy, Gene Kelly. She was not a good enough dancer to work with Kelly in a film.
Blair first appeared in films in 1947 and began making some pretty fair films. These include The Guilt of Janet Ames (1947), A Double Life (1947), The Snake Pit (1948), and Another Part of the Forest (1948). Suddenly, she came under investigation by the Un-American House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and she was blacklisted. She was only able to play what would be her crowning role, in Marty (1955) because Kelly used his clout with the studio. She was nominated for an Oscar and several other awards but remained on the blacklist.
Her marriage to Kelly ended in 1957, and she moved to Europe. While there she was married two more times and died in 2009 at the age of 85.
Wally Maher played police detective Tim Sharkey. Maher was born in Ohio in 1908. Maher was in a lot of movies, and a lot of the roles were uncredited. He is known primarily as a voice talent. His most well-known films include Hollywood Hotel (1937), Strange Holiday (1945), Mystery Street (1950), and The Reformer and the Redhead (1950). Maher died in 1951.
Like all good Film Noirs this story doesn’t run strictly chronologically. It begins six months in the past with a phone ringing in a modest rooming house. The phone is answered by Vivian Heldon (Jan Sterling). Jackie Elcott (Betsy Blair) comes in to pay her rent to the rooming house owner Mrs. Smerrling (Elsa Lanchester). Vivian is upset that the voice on the other end of the phone can’t make their planned rendezvous. Mrs. Smerrling watches Vivian write a number on the wall before going downstairs to ease drop on the call. Vivian says she is sorry for calling the man’s home and that she is in a jam. Of course, this is code for being pregnant. She demands the unnamed man meet her at her workplace at 10:30pm.
Vivian is a B-girl at the Grass Skirt bar. They have the greatest lamps, with hula girls that move on the bottom. The man has not shown, and Vivian has been phoning all evening. The bartender starts looking for someone that has a yellow Ford illegally parked outside. Henry Shanway (Marshall Thompson) is half drunk, and in his own world, he doesn’t hear the question until the bartender is in front of him. Vivian zeros in on the drunk Henry and selects him as her mark.
Vivian moves in and says she is with him and he needs fresh air. She offers to help him move the car and orders a bottle for them on the way out. Outside, a tattoo artist is showing his wears by letting the customer look at tats on his own body. The tattooist talks to Vivian on the way to the car. She drives, and Henry is in a haze. He lets out that his wife is in the hospital having just had a miscarriage. He keeps drinking until he passes out again.
Vivian drives out to the cape and stops at the place called The Dunes. The all-male clientele can’t believe what they are seeing. Vivian uses the phone and says she is coming to the man’s house, but he agrees to meet her someplace else. Henry comes too and comes into the diner. Vivian ushers him back into the car. He can’t believe they are on the cape. She keeps driving.
When Henry realizes she is still going away from Boston, Vivian tricks him into getting out of the car. She drives away, leaving Henry on the roadside. Vivian pulls in to a secluded beach spot, and the man shows up. She starts by giving the man the business. Without speaking, he shoots the seated woman. The man pulls her out of the car and is almost caught by another couple driving through. The man strips the body and leaves it on the beach. He takes Vivian’s clothes and Henry’s car and sinks them in a lake. The car completely submerges. What a sickening f eeling it would be if the car rested on the bottom and stuck out of the water.
Three months into the past or future, depending, Henry gets a check for his stolen car. Henry says he left the keys in the car when he went into the hospital.
Three months after that an ornithologist (Walter Burke) is stalking birds, and he sees the bones of a foot, all still attached to the leg and tarsals sticking out of the sand. Nope. Wouldn’t happen.
The local constable calls in Boston police detective Peter Morales (Ricardo Montalban) to take the case. Morales boxes the bones and is told on the phone by the DA to take the bones to a Harvard laboratory at the legal medical department. Eventually, Morales and his partner Tim Sharkey (Wally Maher) find the office of Harvard medical professor Dr. McAdoo (Bruce Bennett).
Dr. McAdoo takes possession of the box of bones. McAdoo shows some of the cases that were solved by forensic science.
A few days later Morales goes to see McAdoo. The first thing he is shown is dark hair that has been bleached blonde. The dead leaves under the body give them a rough date that the body was dumped. McAdoo says that not all of the bones are present and they will have to sift the sand at the murder site, and the body is that of a female. McAdoo uses bone fusing to say that she is 24 years old. The feet bones show she was a toe dancer. She is estimated to be 5 foot 5 inches.
Morales gets files on all of the missing females from the local area. Morales and McAdoo use copies of the photographs and Vivian’s skull to find the match. Finally, it matches a photograph of the missing Vivian. The notes say she was a 5-5 and 24 years old. Morales is off in a flash to investigate.
Before long Morales and his partner end up at Mrs. Smerrling’s rooming house. Mrs. Smerrling says Jackie Elcott is asleep. Morales starts questioning Mrs. Smerrling. She has to hide her bottle. All rooming house owners drink, right. Jackie says she reported Vivian missing and she was last seen leaving the Grass Skirt. Jackie has Vivian’s suitcase, but Mrs. Smerrling has sold her other goods. Morales finds toe shoes in the suitcase. Morales tells the two ladies that Vivian is dead.
Mrs. Smerrling goes and gets the number Vivian wrote on the wall the night she went missing. She is next shown at the docks talking to James Joshua Harkley (Edmon Ryan). She is wearing a dead animal around her neck and is dolled up. She says she and Vivian were very close. Harkley is called out of the room and Mrs. Smerrling rifles through his desk. She finds a locked drawer with a .45 pistol inside. When Harkley comes back, she shoves the gun in her purse after relocking the drawer.
Mrs. Smerrling says she wants to give Vivian a decent burial. Harkley says he never knew Vivian. Mrs. Smerrling wants money, but he throws her out with no money. Mrs. Smerrling says Vivian has no grave of her own as she leaves.
Morales goes to the Grass Skirt and interviews the bartender. The bartender remembers the yellow Ford and confesses to bootlegging. Morales runs down other men that have known Vivian. One is a mortician (Willard Waterman) who was friendly with Vivian for a time. He is cleared because he was at a mortician’s conference. He then makes a pitch to get paid for the funeral. Then Morales finds out from a doctor that Vivian was pregnant.
Morales goes to work on the yellow Ford. Word leaks to the press that Vivian was a B-girl. Morales quickly finds the report of Henry’s stolen yellow Ford. Henry sees in the newspaper that Vivian is dead. About that time, Morales shows up and ruins his domestic bliss. In front of his wife, Grace Shanway (Sally Forrest), Morales asks Henry if he knows Vivian and that she left her work with a man in a yellow Ford. Morales leaves after doing his little Columbo act. Henry assures his wife that he did not know the woman.
Morales is back in the office checking on when Henry’s wife was in the hospital. Dr. McAdoo comes in and tells Morales that one of the rib bones they found during the sifting was broken. He also has some bones from the unborn child. The tattooist comes in and wants to make sure the killer is found. He said he could id the man if he saw him again. The newspaper picture gets them a call from the man at the Dunes café. Morales and McAdoo drive out to the cape. Morales’ partner Tim Sharkey is already out there dragging freshwater ponds for the car. The café man remembers the girl and the fight but not the man. Sharkey comes flying in and says they have found something metal and are grappling to hook it up. As soon as the car is pulled out, Morales matches the tag to Henry.
They bring Henry in for a lineup. They get a lot of positive ids on Henry. Mrs. Smerrling says he came by the house two time after Vivian was missing. For some reason, Grace Shanway is there watching the id process. Morales grills Henry until he confesses that Vivian took the car. Henry said he went to the house to look for his car. Henry comes clean to the whole story and emphatically says he did not kill her and she left him stranded.
Morales tells McAdoo that he has gotten Henry indicted. McAdoo says the broken rib was the result of a gunshot wound because of lead traces on the bones. Morales is pretty upset, and McAdoo tells him that they need to go see the yellow Ford. They have Morales sit in the car and McAdoo lines up the rib shot. They tear into the car and find the hole. It’s a magic bullet just lying on the undercarriage. They decide it is 0.45 automatic and maybe a Colt. McAdoo goes to check the bullet metal against the rib metal.
Morales goes to the Shanway home. Grace is moving out, and she is very angry. Morales searches the house for a gun that Henry said he did not own. He then asks for the month of May’s canceled check. She read checks until she collapses. Morales begins to unpack.
Morales meets the DA and tells that he is having second thoughts about the case. Grace comes in, and the press mobs her. Morales has to save her. Morales tries to convince her that her husband did do the crime. She doesn’t go for it. She gets to meet with her jailed husband. Grace finally asks her husband if he had been with Vivian.
Later, Morales’ partner reminds him that they are looking for a gun. He begins checking on everybody that has a 0.45. Easier in 1950, I would say. When he gets to Harkley, he also knows that a call was made from the boarding house. Morales searches for the pistol, but it is not there. After Morales leaves, Harkley realizes that Mrs. Smerrling stole his gun.
Once it is reported in the paper the Vivian was killed by a 0.45, Mrs. Smerrling checks the gun she took from Harkley. Mrs. Smerrling asks Jackie about the gun. Jackie knows all about guns and unloads the clip. She places it in her pocket. That night at work, Jane Shanway comes to see her. Jackie recommends that Jane go see Mrs. Smerrling. Jackie sees the paper and calls Morales about the gun Mrs. Smerrling has.
Mrs. Smerrling has a key to a luggage check box. When her bell rings, she hides the key in the birdcage. Harkley comes in, and they have a few drinks. Harkley tries to pay her off with $500, but now that she has the gun, she wants a trip to Europe. She wants at least $20,000. Harkley starts choking her, and she tells him that the gun is checked at Trinity Station. Jane Shanway rings the bells and Harkley clubs Mrs. Smerrling to keep her from getting help.
Harkley opens the door and throws Jane on the floor near Mrs. Smerrling. He runs to the basement and escapes through the window as Morales runs in the front door. Tim and Morales follow the fleeing Harkley. They lose Harkley and go back to Mrs. Smerrling apartment. Jackie and Jane are both there. Morales calls Dr. McAdoo to help with the crime scene. Morales looks around and tries to blame Jane. Morales gets a phone call saying Henry Shanway has escaped. Mrs. Smerrling dies. Morales cracks hard on Jane. On the way out, Morales sees the key and claim check. The two detectives head to Trinity Station.
Harkley bluffs the baggage claim guy into giving him the bag containing the gun without having the key. Morales and Tim get to the station just after Harkley gets the bag. They chase him out into the railyard. Harkley jumps tracks and runs through parked train cars. Harkley pulls the gun out of the bag thinking it is still loaded. Morales knows its not and arrests Harkley.
Morales tells Tim to radio the department not to shoot Henry Shanway on sight. He calls the boarding house and tells Jane that her husband will be with her soon.
World-Famous Short Summary – Don’t let other people drive your car.
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Beware the moors