Daily Archives: August 27, 2014

Mystery Street (1950)


*. No, I didn’t recognize Ricardo Montalban at first. But as soon as he opened his mouth . . .
*. And note how it’s a bit odd that we have to wait for him to open his mouth. It’s obvious he’s the center of the scene he first apperas in, but he says nothing until he gets a phone call. I wonder if that was deliberate. We see him initially as the hero (he is handsome and in charge). Then when he speaks, identifying himself right away as “Moralas,” we are perhaps startled that he is not exactly “one of us.”
*. Elsa Lanchester takes over from a pretty decent ensemble cast. She had a way of doing that. Her Mrs. Smerrling is a toxic mix of laziness and guile. I like the touch of having all those beefcake pictures surrounding her mirror. It makes me wonder what happened to Mr. Smerrling.


*. Alain Silver on the DVD commentary calls John Alton “the preeminent cinematographer of the noir cycle.” He was certainly busy enough during the period, and adept at the standard grammar of noir photography: in particular the exaggerated use of high and low angles, and working with odd lighting effects and expressive shadows.
*. Sometimes noir camerawork can try too hard and draws too much attention to itself. That sometimes happens here, but more often I appreciated how nicely the shots were composed. Take the stakeout at Trinity Station and the two juxtaposed shots of Sharkey watching Harkley. What a use of diagonals.



*. The genre is docu-noir, and with the crime procedural plot and location shooting (this may have been the first film Hollywood ever shot in Boston!) a touch of style does help.
*. The forensics are impressive. I was amazed that they showed the death photos. And the bit about the bullet holes in the car having closed up because the car was submerged was news to me. They didn’t have all the toys of the CSI team yet, but the crime lab stuff here is good.
*. When Vivian is shot she falls forward on her car horn. I’m always interested in the first time a particular piece of film business appears. It’s a hobby of mine. Of course the dead person falling on their car horn is probably best known for its appearance at the end of Chinatown, and has since become a cliché. Was this the first movie to do it?
*. The women make things happen. The men tend to be more passive, either reacting to events set in motion by women, or being dragged along or following in their wake. It’s the four lead women who get the plot to work. Like Vivian, they’re in the driver’s seat. Vivian and Mrs. Smerrling pursue Harkley (to their own eventual undoing), Mrs. Shanway tries to clear her husband, and is doing a pretty good job tracking down leads, while Jackie is indirectly responsible for disarming Harkley.


*. Bad hair = bad men. When you have a widow’s peak as pronounced as Harkley’s, is there any chance you’re not guilty of something?
*. It strikes me as a shockingly frank movie, even for noir. Vivian is obviously a prostitute, not just a B-girl. We never see her plying the bar trade, while we find out quite a bit of her long history as an escort. Other subjects brought up include racism, adultery, Mrs. Shanway’s miscarriage, and Vivian’s pregnancy. Then there are those aforementioned death photos in the crime lab.


*. What a ghoulish movie! There’s almost a whiff of necrophilia about it: Harkley holding and kissing the dead Vivian, the superimposition of the slides showing the skulls beneath the beautiful skin, and even the funeral parlour director who was one of Vivian’s clients because she reminded him of his dead wife. Creepy.
*. The Harvard locations are awkwardly introduced, as the detectives get lost and have to wander around the campus asking for directions until someone tells them they’re in the wrong place entirely. You get the feeling they’re included just for local colour. An alternate title was going to be The Harvard Mystery, but this movie has little to do with Harvard and they probably thought that was too big  a stretch. I think they just wanted to use the name of Harvard to stand for “science.”
*. The title they went with isn’t much better though. How generic can you get? What street is being referenced?


*. I usually don’t bother pointing out gotcha!-style continuity errors, but there was one here that I noticed on a first viewing for some reason. The books on the bookshelf behind Mrs. Shanway have fallen over between a pair of shots. I guess I’m just always looking at people’s bookshelves.
*. Why does Mrs. Smerrling testify against Shanway? I don’t see how it serves her interests. Indeed, given how Harkley has just rejected her I’d think just the opposite. She wants the case kept open and Harkney in danger.
*. Isn’t it odd that nobody takes Mrs. Smerrling to the hospital? She’s just left to die in her bed at home while everyone searches her apartment?
*. I love how Harkley loses his patrician cool with Moralas and slams him with a racist gibe (“the way you talk you haven’t been around here long”), just at the exact point in the scene when their roles are reversed and Moralas is sitting down behind Harkley’s desk while Harkley is standing fearfully in front of him. A great bit of staging.
*. There’s one twist too many at the end. They shouldn’t have bothered yanking Shanway back into the story by telling us that he’d escaped, and thus was potentially still the killer. Nothing is gained by this and it seems like they’re trying too hard to keep a false lead in play.