While it seems easy to claim that most people enjoy good yarns about people falling in love or contests between good and evil, there is undeniably a section of the pop culture consuming public that enjoys procedurals. The procedure is a slightly different beast. While it sports similar traits to the traditional narrative, the key distinction is its dedication to the minutia of the profession or mission the protagonist are engaged in. As far as police procedurals are concerned, the CSI television series and its countless offshoots is one of the more popular representations of the genre. Character traits are developed primarily, although not exclusively, through their behaviour in relation to the environment where the story has them operate tasks. The procedural is a much older sub genre than most might believe, going as far back as the classical noir period. Mystery Street, from 1950, is one such example.
Similar to many episodes of the CSI franchise, John Sturges’ picture opens with a sequence the eventual protagonist plays no part in nor is seen. It is but the set-up to the crime the hero will eventually have to investigate. Vivian Heldon (Jan Sterling) is a poor bargirl in dire need of the some money, albeit for reasons that go unexplained initially. Seeking a meeting with a mysterious, potential benefactor, she executes a complicated procedural to steal a car from a hapless, drunken man, Henry Shanway (Marshall Thompson), to reach Cape Cod, where the man she expected to reward her with a hefty sum murders her instead. Thus enters Lieutenant Pete Morales (Ricardo Montalban) of the Boston police force to unravel the clues and find the perpetrator. The order proves much taller given that Vivian’s skeleton is discovered several months after the crime, leaving Morales with little to work on. With the help of Harvard medical facility researcher Dr. MacAdoo (Bruce Bennett), Morales works through a head scratching case, learning a few lessons in the process.
Mystery Street is an interesting candidate as a film that excels at certain things while miscalculating certain other manoeuvres. Despite its flaws, the movie ultimately proves a sufficiently compelling look at back at an early example of the procedural. Director Sturges and screenwriters Sydney Boehm and Richard Brooks evidently relish in the opportunity to espouse various factoids about how forensic science aids detectives in their work to identify the means of murder, as well as the identity of victims, even when nothing but their skeletal remains are found long after the crime was committed. Among the most engaging scenes in the entire movie are the handful that feature Morales and Dr. MacAdoo discuss the nature of Vivian’s remains, whom they cannot initially identify as the victim viewers meet at the start, although it’s no secret they are one and the same person.
While there is little doubt that the research the doctors and detectives put into their work has evolved, especially with respect to the technological tools at their disposal, it is nevertheless surprisingly enthralling to listen to a back the back and forth between Morales and Dr. MacAdoo in the latter’s research laboratory as they arrive at spot on conclusion about who the bones belonged to, how old she was and even what line of duty she might have enrolled in. In addition to being a police story, Mystery Street ends up being something of a biology crash course. Equally arresting are later scenes when the bone structure of the victim’s skull is contrasted against blown up photographs of recently declared missing women, or when Morales and Dr. MacAdoo inspect the car Vivian stole that fateful night and discover a bullet lodged at on the passenger side. Such scenes essentially consist of two professionals passionately doing what they love, earning a sense of satisfaction once the shroud of mystery is lifted with each new detail pertaining to the case.
The movie ends up being slightly more sophisticated than just a procedural however. Lieutenant Morales is obviously a bit younger than Dr. MacAdoo, who himself has had a history of assisting the Boston police in solving crimes. Mystery Street takes those two important qualities about the central figures and crafts an arc for Morales. The lieutenant, while extremely energetic and dedicated to his job, is too quick to jump to certain conclusions. Some prove correct, others not so. Dr. MacAdoo comes across as more level headed, speaking from experience and regularly guiding Morales through the case. The mentor-mentee relationship is primarily the film’s platform to delve into their personalities. Morales isn’t dumb, but certainly in need of the occasional sober second thought. It isn’t a particularly deep or thought provoking arc for the lieutenant, yet its presence ads a minimal amount of depth to the proceedings. Arguably the where the film feels less sure-footed in that regard is how Morales draws a few too many sweeping conclusions via questioning of suspects that mostly confirms where they were not and did not do as opposed to what where they were and they did.
There is one element for which Mystery Street opts to gamble with debatable results is in revealing quite plainly the killer’s identity early on. In fairness, modern films and television shows will simulate the experiment too, yet it feels as though it was a more common practice back during the 1940s and 1950s. Fans of classic noir and classic thrillers in general who have watched a hefty number of said movies from the era will likely agree. It’s a double-edged sword, to be sure. If a director willfully heads down such a road, then the film had best pack a mean punch with the thrills and character drama. Mystery Street takes a few trips down alleyways that don’t always reinforce the pertinence of Morales’ investigating and reasoning. When they do, it’s usually to throw him off the scent, with one subplot involving the location of the gun that was used to kill Vivian a prime example of how even good detective work can be severely disrupted by dumb bad luck. Some of the individuals, be they directly or peripherally involved in Vivian’s demise, are shone to be corrupt and almost as scheming as the villain himself, yet said scenes are rarely as enthralling as the procedural aspects.
If there is one aspect that never falters, it’s John Alton’s lush cinematography. Alton is a name synonymous with the film noir style. Mystery Street features the purest blacks, the most piercing whites and the sexiest grays. Even though there are several stretches, primary daytime scenes, when the film strives for a more natural look, the visuals are kicked into high gear when night falls. The opening 10 minutes are gorgeous and represent in a tight package what so many people conjure in their minds when prompted to describe what film noir looks like. There are moments when it’s actually difficult to discern what exactly the light source is, but its employment is so evocative of tension and drool-worthy that one barely cares about the cinematography’s lack of realism.
Mystery Street is a worthy entry in the long, long line of procedural detective yarns. It doesn’t play things any differently than most and could have done away with the major revelation early in the plot, but its engaging cast (Ricardo Montalban is extremely hard to dislike) and the investigation’s delightful minutia are enough to earn it a recommendation. There exist readily available films noir out there that probably should be higher on a newcomer’s list of ‘must sees’, although most will end up pleased by having spent about 90 minutes with a brimming Montalban.