Friday, April 20, 2018

Mystery Street (1950)

As a movie genre the police procedural reached prominence in the years following World War II. It was a period that saw the release of such films as Quai des Orfèvres (1947), The Naked City (1948), and He Walked By Night (1948).  Among the very best of the police procedurals was Mystery Street, in 1950. Indeed, in some respects Mystery Street could be considered revolutionary in that it incorporated a good deal of forensic science into its plot. It could quite rightfully be considered the forerunner of such TV shows as Quincy M.E. and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

In Mystery Street a B-girl's skeleton (she was played by Jan Sterling) is found long after she was murdered. State Police Lt. Peter Morales (played by Ricardo Montalban) is assigned to the case. To make any progress on the case at all, he must enlist the help of Dr. McAdoo (played by Bruce Bennett) of the Harvard Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard University. Through a combination of Lt. Morales's detective work and the forensic science of Dr. McAdoo, the murderer is eventually revealed.

Mystery Street was based on a story by Leonard Spigelgass (for which he received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Writing, Motion Picture Story), who had previously wrote the screenplays for The Big Street (1942) and I Was a Male War Bride (1949). Mr. Spigelgass's story was adapted by Sydney Boehm (who had previously wrote the screenplay for the film noir The High Wall) and Richard Brooks (who would later write the screenplay for The Blackboard Jungle). It was directed by John Sturges, who would go onto direct such films as Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), The Magnificent Seven (1960), and The Great Escape (1963).

Mystery Street is significant as the first commercial film to be shot primarily on location in the Boston area, with scenes shot not only in Boston itself, but at Cape Cod and Harvard University as well. In fact, the film was initially going to be titled Murder at Harvard. MGM acknowledged the university in the credits, "Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer wishes to thank the president and fellows of Harvard College for their generous cooperation in the making of this motion picture." The on-location shooting makes Mystery Street much more realistic than if it had simply been shot on a Hollywood backlot.

Of course, Mystery Street is also significant as perhaps the first feature film to incorporate a good deal of forensic science into its plot. At one point in the plot Lt. Morales and Dr. McAdoo compare the photographs of 86 different women to the photograph of the victim's skull in an effort to identify her. In another sequence they examine the car in which she was murdered. This might not seem particularly exciting, but on screen it proves to be more riveting than the similar investigations seen on such TV shows as those in the CSI franchise. Earlier police procedurals painstakingly examined police procedure. Mystery Street may have been the first to examine forensic science.

This is not to say that Mystery Street's sole focus was on forensic science. Lt. Morales's family had only recently migrated to the United States, so there is also a bit of class conflict present in the film. This is particularly true in his dealings with James Joshua Harkley (played by Edmond Ryan), whose family arrived in North America in the 17th Century, before the United States was even founded. 

While Mystery Street was made on a relatively low budget (particularly for an MGM film), it still did not make a profit at the box office. In fact, it lost $284,000. That having been said, it did receive good notices from critics, with many applauding its attention to detail. It also received a nomination for Best Writing, Motion Picture Story for Leonard Spigelgass.

In many respects the poor showing of Mystery Street at the box office is regrettable. In many ways it is an incredible film, particularly in its use of forensic science and some very well done set pieces. As Lt. Morales and Dr. McAdoo, Ricardo Montalban and Bruce Bennett make a great team. Mystery Street could have easily provided the basis for a series of films or even, later in the Fifties, a TV show. Aside from Messrs. Montalban and Bennett, the film benefits from some great performances, from Jan Sterling to Elsa Lancaster. As might be expected of a film shot by John Alton, the cinematography is amazing. John Alton was the cinematographer on several films noirs, including He Walked by Night (1948) and Raw Deal (1948). His first film immediately following Mystery Street was Father of the Bride (1950) and he would later shoot Elmer Gantry (1960).

Mystery Street is overall a remarkable film, to the point that it is hard to believe that it was considered a B movie upon its initial release. In fact, I would say that it is one of the best films that John Sturges ever made. It is a must-see for any fan of film noir, police procedurals, or films featuring a good deal of forensic science.

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