Mystery Street, 1950. 10/10

Very gripping film noir. Ricardo Montalban stands out in an unusually serious role as Lt. Morales. Meanwhile, Elsa Lanchester, as the murder victim’s landlady Mrs. Smerrling, is a thick stew of smarmy, nosy, domineering, mendacious, and mercenary traits. The victim, Vivian (Jan Sterling), plays a convincing floozy, reduced to blackmailing her rich boyfriend Harkley (Edmond Ryan ). In fact, Mystery Street is full of good performances, from the birdwatcher to the undertaker.

An otherwise innocent couple, Henry and Grace (Marshall Thompson and Sally Forrest) are caught up in the crime; Henry sort of frames himself by hanging out with Vivian. He tries to cover up his carousing because he’s abandoned his hospitalized wife. So, the tension comes not from a murder mystery, but rather from how Henry will get exonerated, and when Harkley will get found out. To guide us through all of these characters we get quick pacing and multiple points of view. Even though Harkley has actually killed someone, Mrs. Smerrling seems almost worse for exploiting Vivien’s murder for personal gain. She revels her opportunity so much that it’s hard to empathize when Harkley kills her.

Among the atmospheric noir devices we’ve got sleazy clubs, shadowy stairways and rooms, plenty of night (including a night-time car chase), and a denouement inside a vacant rail car, in a maze-like trainyard. Morales seems reckless as he nonchalantly approaches the cornered Harkley. Both we and Harkley are surprised to discover Morales’ secret: presumably Vivien’s friend has given Morales the gun’s clip–so he can safely taunt Harkley with it. The drama in Mystery Street is governed, to a great extent, by Montalban’s adroit shifts among several personas: inquisitive, frustrated, brooding, easy-going, suave, and snappy, hard-boiled.

‘Skeleton Girl’ would’ve been a much better title; not only does the movie deserve something catchier, but that phrase is used as an effective tag-line throughout. Other than that tid-bit, there’s really nothing to fault here. Highly recommended for film noir fans. 10/10.

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