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Mystery Street

Mystery Street(1950)

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Mystery Street (1950)

Boston was always been underutilized as a location in films but in Mystery Street (1950) it plays a major role. Shooting in the city streets and on the Harvard campus, director John Sturges creates a fascinating portrait of the Boston area as it might be seen by a criminal investigator, following leads all over the town. The story, which focuses on the investigation of an unidentified corpse, also addresses class prejudice as blue collar detective Peter Morales (Ricardo Montalban) clashes with an old, respected Boston family, one of whom is a murderer.

One of several film noir thrillers produced by MGM between the years of 1948 and 1956, Mystery Street was a direct result of Dore Schary's reign at the studio. Unlike former studio boss Louis B. Mayer, Schary favored realistic dramas and serious "message" pictures over the colorful musicals and sentimental family pictures that characterized MGM's early years. Mystery Street was dark, moody, atmospheric and its attention to police procedure and investigative techniques bordered on the lurid. This was not the sort of film Mayer would ever have allowed during his tenure at the studio but Schary took the B movie thriller in a new direction with Mystery Street and, in the process, provided an ideal environment for some of the finest contributors to the film noir genre - screenwriters Sydney Boehm (The Undercover Man, 1949) and Richard Brooks (Brute Force, 1947) and cinematographer John Alton (He Walked by Night, 1949).

Mystery Street is based on an unpublished story by Leonard Spigelgass (he received an Oscar nomination for Best Story) and was adapted for the screen by Boehm and Brooks. Boehm, a former newspaper reporter, would go on to write the screenplay for Fritz Lang's landmark film noir thriller, The Big Heat (1953), while Brooks would make his directorial debut with Crisis the same year. For Mystery Street, the screenwriting team took a more scientific approach to the usual murder investigation scenario, providing fascinating details about how the evidence from a crime scene is collected, analyzed, and determined. In one sequence filmed at the Harvard Department of Legal Medicine, the murder suspect is narrowed down from 86 possibilities by a thorough study of the victim's skeleton. While this might not sound like riveting cinema, the science of forensics was rarely addressed in movies of this period and audiences were curious about these procedures. Thanks to the shadow and light cinematography of John Alton, Mystery Street succeeds brilliantly in holding one's attention with often ghoulish detail such as the scene where a swamp is dredged for a missing car or investigators sift beach sand to find the skeleton of a fetus.

While Mystery Street stands as a superior B movie, Sturges would surpass it with subsequent thrillers like his remake of Kind Lady (1951), Jeopardy (1953), and Bad Day at Black Rock (1955). Yet, mysteries and melodramas would soon give way to Westerns and war films and by the mid-sixties, Sturges was best known for his action pictures like The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963).

Director: John Sturges
Producer: Frank E. Taylor
Screenplay: Sydney Boehm, Richard Brooks from story by Leonard Spigelgass
Cinematography: John Alton
Editor: Ferris Webster
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Gabriel Scognamillo
Music: Rudolph G. Kopp
Cast: Ricardo Montalban (Lt. Peter Morales), Sally Forrest (Grace Shanway), Bruce Bennett (Dr. McAdoo), Elsa Lanchester (Mrs. Smerrling), Marshall Thompson (Henry Shanway).
BW-93m. Closed captioning.

by Jeff Stafford

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