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Mystery Street (Murder at Harvard) Reviews

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Super Reviewer

March 14, 2012
Outstanding film from a Film Noir collection. Ricardo Montaiban plays an detective in trying to solve the murder of a toe dancer outside of Boston. A Man is arrested for her murder but is he the right man, after some time Ricardo Montaiban doesn't think so, he seeks the help of Harvard University to help find real killer. This is an excellent story line for the time period 4 1/2 stars

Super Reviewer

August 10, 2009
Solid noir, Elsa Lanchester is a hoot as the seedy landlady.
Michael G

Super Reviewer

July 29, 2007
A pretty weak example of film noir as it really doesn't have many noir themes to it with the exception of the wrongly accused man. It's more like a 60 year-old episode of CSI with a generally boring cast, minus Elsa Lanchester. More of a forgettable, run of the mill murder mystery than film noir. Although in the plus column it's wonderfully photographed.
April 7, 2014
Interesting early forensic murder investigation; however being one of the first it's the cliche of everything that's copied it since.
March 31, 2010
Way ahead of its time

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Do not miss this picture! Part noir, part docudrama, it features a brilliant, understated performance by the very talented Ricardo Montalban who plays a detective on Cape Cod who must investigate a murder. A good part of the film is shot on location on Cape Cod and in Boston which adds to the film's realism. The cinematography is by John Alton considered to be one of the finest "noir" cinematographers. If you watch the DVD commentary, you'll get an idea of just how many great shots are in this film.

The film is unusual in that the narrative does not follow the typical noir script. The protagonist, Lt. Morales, is not introduced until about 20 minutes into the story. We're first introduced to the circumstances of the crime. This expository sequence introduces us to the victim, a barmaid, Vivian (played by Jan Sterling), pregnant by a well-respected businessman on Cape Cod, Harkley, a married man, who she seeks to meet so that presumably he can pay her some money to support the child. Vivian helps Henry Shamway (an ordinary Joe who has been drinking following his wife's miscarriage)move his illegally-parked car but then ends up driving both of them out to the Cape while Shamway is too drunk to know what's going on. Just as he begins to sober up, she dupes Shamway into getting out of the car for a second as she pretends to let him drive the car and leaves him in the middle of nowhere. Before you know it, in a shocking scene, Harkley murders Vivian by shooting her point blank in the chest as she sits in Shamway's car talking to him. Even more shocking, he embraces and acts like he's kissing the dead barmaid to make it appear everything's normal to two passing motorists. Harkley buries the body near the ocean and the skeleton later turns up in a sand dune.

Montalban's Lt. Morales is not your usual noir detective. Not only is he not American born but he keeps a cool head of objectivity as he investigates the crime. Although Morales is the protagonist he is not the hapless male patsy found in many noirs nor does he fall victim to a femme fatale. Shamway is the poor schmuck who is taken advantage by the conniving female (in this case, Vivian, who is immediately dispatched by the principal villain, Harkley).

Lt. Morales goes to Harvard University where we get to see some great forensic investigation with the help of the head of the pathology department at the Medical school. Using a slide projector, they match up a picture of the skull with a missing person's photo. Great Crime Scene Investigation way ahead of its time! The forensic investigation goes even further when they find the car where the murder occurred, dredge it up from a pond and then trace the trajectory of the bullet. Before Morales realizes the victim has been murdered, Shamway is arrested and implicated in the murder. There's a great scene where Morales questions Shamway's wife at their home about his canceled checks. The wife, expertly played by Sally Forrest, slowly becomes more and more emotional as she reads each canceled check which ostensibly is made out for things related to the birth of their child that was not to be (now a double whammy for the wife?the loss of a child and recent arrest of her husband). Despite the wife's emotional outburst, Morales acts true to character: as a hardened detective, he stubbornly clings to the belief that the suspect is truly guilty.

Meanwhile, Vivian's landlady, Mrs. Smerrling (played very nicely as a nasty eccentric by Else Lancester) discovers Vivian's connection to Harkley so she goes to Cape Cod and attempts to blackmail him. She comes away with the murder weapon which later figures in the climactic scene. After Morales obtains a search warrant, searches Harkley's home and is unable to find the gun, Harkley realizes that Mrs. Smerrling stole the gun earlier and goes to her apartment and promptly strangles her!

This is not a sentimental story in the least! When Shamway's wife comes to talk to Mrs. Smerrling, she's knocked down by Harkley just as Morales arrives. Now Morales finally realizes that Shamway is an innocent victim and doggedly searches Smerrling's apartment for the murder weapon. In a great scene, after spending the entire night and finding nothing, Morales is about to leave when he by chance notices the key to a train station locker lying on the bottom of Mrs. Smerrling's parrot's cage! Harkley is one step ahead of Morales when he's able to get Mrs. Smerrling's bag out of the locker only to find himself trapped inside a railway car after being chased by Morales. When he pulls out the gun there's no bullets in it since Vivian's roommate, Jackie, took the clip out earlier.

If you watch the DVD commentary, you'll find out that Jackie is played by Betsy Blair who was blacklisted by the film industry in the early 50s. She finally got back into films after her husband, Gene Kelly, threatened to leave MGM. Mystery Street also deals with the subject of racial prejudice?look for Harkley talking to Morales in his office. In that scene, Harkley shows his class prejudice and disdain for Morales who "wasn't born here". Mystery is a great oldie but goodie! Its emphasis on forensic science is way ahead of its time. Ricardo Montalban steals the show as the true-to-life investigating detective. Mystery Street's only flaw is that it places Harvard University a bit too much on a pedestal but for sheer entertainment it really hits the mark!
January 17, 2010
Compelling film noir, good cast and an interesting choice of actors. Nicely photographed. The writing is excellent and makes the great pac of the film. It?s an interesting story and very engrossing.
March 8, 2009
Classically beautiful, entertaining, and a smooth Ricardo Montalbon make this a very cool watch and a look into CSI of the 50's
October 17, 2012
Wonderful movie. Great light, sharp, out of focus, dark and bright glinting dresses and the classic hula lamp... Don't miss.
March 3, 2011
Basically CSI:Noir circa 1950. An interesting early look at forensic science and a good potboiler.
January 23, 2011
Lacks any real energy or vitality, which is a shame, because Ricardo Montalban makes for a natural and engaging lead. The focus on forensic science is interesting - not quite sure why the film had to be a love letter to Harvard, though. Elsa Lanchester is the film's other highlight, in a typically eccentric turn.
October 28, 2010
They Call Me Mister Montalban

Rare enough, in 1950, to have an antihero who was also a cop. Vaguely acceptable provided Good Triumphed in the End, but rare. I mean, Good had to Triumph in the End no matter what, of course, but there was a much larger requirement that Our Protagonist be redeemed by the end of the picture if he were an authority figure. (No, really. It's in the Code. No mocking authority figures.) However, it was known to happen. It was also rare to have an Ethnic hero. Sometimes, you got guys playing Ethnic People who were actually born in New Jersey or whatever--Marlon Brando was actually, honest-to-Gods born in Omaha. A guy born in Mexico City? Don't be ridiculous! And so I must bring you to the most interesting thing about this movie. Our Protagonist is an antihero played by Ricardo Montalban. Really.

However, we start with Vivian Heldon (Jan Sterling). She works in a seedy dive called the Grass Skirt. One night, she hooks up with Henry Shanway (Marshall Thompson). He walks her out of the bar and past A Tattooist (Ralph Dumke, and yes, that's the character name), and she is never seen again. Well, until An Ornithologist (Walter Burke) finds her skeleton instead of the, you know, shore birds he's actually there to find. Peter Moralas, who formerly worked in the Portuguese community, is now brought on to solve the case of "skeleton girl," as the paper calls her. Of course, your first step there is proving that the skeleton was female; that's easy. I can do that. Dr. McAdoo (Bruce Bennett), however, is actually able to find out a whole lot more, and Montalban starts his pursuit of the killer, whom he assumes to be Shanway.

There's some serious Code-dodging going on around here. Vivian had lived in a boardinghouse run by Mrs. Smerrling (Elsa Lanchester), a grasping, petty woman. Who admits to Montalban (who cares what his character name was?) that she was never in so many words married. It's also possible that Vivian was a prostitute, given that Montalban has an address book of hers with the names of eighty-odd men in it. When Shanway is in the Grass Skirt at the beginning of the film, he has left his wife's side; Grace (Sally Forrest) has just lost their baby. Shanway is drunk and in despair, and it's pretty clear that adultery is a distinct possibility. The Tattooist pretty much assumes that's why they're going home together. Grace seems as worried about his possible adultery as that he might have killed a woman.

There's also some pretty interesting forensics work involved. Dr. McAdoo is a major character, his work in many ways as valuable as Montalban's in identifying Vivian and learning what they can about her. I'm pretty sure their technique of superimposing slides of missing women of about the right age onto a picture of her skull is . . . not the most useful method of identification, but it's not hugely removed from the techniques used to identify skeletal remains today. It's also true that the information given about how bones grow and stop growing, the information which helps determine Vivian's age, is actually medically valid. There are several details in the movie which aren't as ridiculously improbable as, let's be honest, certain things you'd see on [i]CSI[/i].

I also have to say, though Montalban's character acts with single-minded obsession through the third act, he is still treated with general dignity. He is interviewing a suspect who is rather snobbish about the fact that his family have been in the United States since before there was a country to be from. He says that he's used to people showing him respect. Montalban replies that he is, too, and his family has been here less than a century. He is able to hold his own intellectually, following the esoterica of "legal medicine," I believe they call it, better than I suspect a lot of the audience could. Yes, he's obsessive at the end, and yes, he's a little less than sensitive. He really is an antihero. On the other hand, he isn't entirely a bad person. He's just leaning a little heavily on some shaky evidence, determined to find the information which will convict Shanway, not necessarily the information which would solve the case.
January 17, 2010
Compelling film noir, good cast and an interesting choice of actors. Nicely photographed. The writing is excellent and makes the great pac of the film. It?s an interesting story and very engrossing.
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