Cast & Crew
Vivian Heldon, a "B-girl" at the Grass Skirt café in Boston, lives in a boardinghouse operated by Mrs. Smerrling. Desperate for rent money, Vivian telephones James Joshua Harkley, a married man with whom she had an affair, and demands that he meet her at the Grass Skirt. While waiting for Harkley, Vivian meets Henry Shanway, a drunk and despondent young man whose wife has just lost their baby in childbirth. When Harkley fails to show up, Vivian offers to drive Henry home and steals his car. She then arranges a meeting with Harkley at Lakeman's Hollow, on Cape Cod. When Vivian demands money from Harkley, he shoots her and tries to cover up the murder by sending her car into a pond. Three months later, the skeletal remains of Vivian's body are found on a Cape Cod beach. Police Lieutenant Peter Moralas and his associate, Detective Tim Sharkey, begin an investigation into the murder by visiting the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard University. There they meet forensics expert Dr. McAdoo, who determines that the victim was a female in her mid-twenties who died sometime in late May.
While searching through photographs of all the missing persons in the area, Peter and Tim discover Vivian's photograph, and realize that her facial features match the contours of the victim's skull. To learn more about Vivian's disappearance, Peter visits Mrs. Smerrling's boardinghouse, where they find items in Vivian's suitcase that clearly establish her as the murder victim. When Mrs. Smerrling learns that Vivian was murdered near Hyannis, she tracks down Harkley through a Hyannis telephone number scrawled on the wall near the hallway telephone. Mrs. Smerrling then visits Harkley and makes an unsuccessful attempt to extort money from him in exchange for her silence. Before leaving, however, Mrs. Smerrling manages to secretly steal Harkley's gun. Meanwhile, Peter visits a number of Vivian's former associates, including a bartender, a mortician and a physician. Peter later visits Henry when it is determined that he owned the car in which Vivian was last seen. Henry denies any association with Vivian, but a tattoo artist friend of Vivian's later identifies Henry as the man who escorted Vivian home from the Grass Skirt on the night she was killed.
Peter charges Henry with the strangulation murder of Vivian, but complications arise in the case when McAdoo determines that Vivian died of a gunshot wound. Realizing that his case against Henry can only proceed if the pistol used to kill Vivian is found, Peter begins questioning other people who may have associated with Vivian. A check of the boardinghouse telephone bill leads Peter to Harkley, who denies having known Vivian and watches nervously as Peter searches his office. Later, Harkley visits Mrs. Smerrling, accuses her of stealing his pistol and offers her $500 in exchange for the gun. When Mrs. Smerrling demands $20,000, Harkley forces her to tell him where it is hidden and then knocks her unconscious with a candlestick. Moments later, Peter arrives at the boardinghouse and sees a man fleeing, but he is unable to catch him. A breakthrough in the case comes when Peter finds a train station baggage check receipt hidden in Mrs. Smerrling's bird cage. Peter and Tim race to the train station and arrive in time to catch Harkley trying to flee with Mrs. Smerrling's suitcase. Harkley is then arrested and charged with Vivian's murder, and Henry is cleared of any wrongdoing.
Arthur Loew Jr.
Fred E. Sherman
Melvin H. Moore
Mary Jane Smith
Mike Pat Donovan
Ralph S. Hurst
Rudolph G. Kopp
Frank E. Taylor
Edwin B. Willis
Best Writing, Screenplay
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
What you need is fresh air.- Vivian Heldon
Yeah. Yeah, open the window, huh?- Henry Shanway
No, not here. Fresh air I couldn't get in here with a permit.- Vivian Heldon
The working title of this film was Murder at Harvard. The following written acknowledgment appears in the onscreen 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 film marked the initial production effort of Frank Taylor, a former literary editor at Random House. An August 1949 Hollywood Reporter news item announced that Joseph Losey was originally set to direct the film. A October 4, 1949 Daily Variety news item notes that Harold Kress was to direct the picture. Some filming took place in Boston, MA, and at the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, MA. Although an October 1949 Daily Variety news item notes that Johnny Indrisano was to appear, his participation in the released film has not been confirmed. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Motion Picture Story.