Mystery Street: The CSI of Its Day!
By Dorian Tenore-Bartilucci
The next time we see Vivian, she’s a skeleton washed up on a Hyannis beach. Lt. Pete Moralas (Ricardo Montalban) enlists the help of Harvard forensic criminologist Dr. McAdoo (an avuncular yet no-nonsense Bruce Bennett, a favorite of mine since The Treasure of the Sierra Madre; Dark Passage; Mildred Pierce). The results are as riveting as a good episode of one of the "CSI" TV series. I liked the way the investigation and forensic evidence rang true, while the story by Sydney Bohem, Richard Brooks, and Leonard Spigelgrass (the latter got an Oscar nomination for Best Writing Motion Picture Story) kept me on the edge of my seat with twists and turns, including a monkey wrench thrown into the works by the late Vivian's blackmail-minded landlady, Mrs. Smerrling, well-played by sly, crafty scene-stealer Elsa Lanchester.
When Henry is wrongly accused of Vivian’s murder and is thrown in prison, the ripple effect on him and his wife Grace (Sally Forrest of The Strip; Hard, Fast, and Beautiful; Vengeance Valley) is enough to put any family in a deep depression. With Henry in jail, housewife Sally is broke; the crumbling of the Shanways’ finances were movingly and believably rendered. I found myself both empathizing with the Shanways and frustrated with Henry at the same time, thinking, “You dope, what good was it getting drunk and despondent? Why the hell didn't you stay with Grace in the hospital when your baby died, instead of going off in your misery to get drunk at ‘The Grass Skirt’? Sheesh, you think you're the only one mourning?!”
The performances are uniformly excellent, although I was particularly impressed with Montalban. Having grown up watching Montalban in relatively lighthearted fare like TV's Fantasy Island, I was impressed at how good he was as tough, cynical Pete, the kind of cop who thinks a suspect is guilty until proved innocent. Even when I was angry at Pete for refusing to believe Grace when she swears Henry's innocent, I could feel his frustration when he realizes that, after all his hard investigative work, his airtight case against the accused man has crucial cracks in it after all. There's also a great moment when the smug Harkley notices Pete's accent (smoothly explained away as Pete being from the Portuguese district) and starts trying to pull rank on Pete, class-wise. There are even some witty moments, like when Pete and his partner end up walking all over Harvard Square trying to find out where the heck the department of legal forensics is. In the past, this all-but-neglected post-war film noir gem occasionally turned up on TCM, but now it’s included in the Film Noir Classic Collection, Volume Four. If you’re interested, it’s available from Amazon.com!
Dorian Tenore-Bartilucci, who writes fiction as “Dorian Tenore” to give the world’s typesetters a break, is Communications Director for the sales/leadership coaching firm Performance Based Results. She was a researcher for David Hajdu’s books Positively 4th Street and The Ten-Cent Plague (2008). She writes about suspense movies and fiction on her blog site Tales of the Easily Distracted (http://doriantb.blogspot.com/