Thursday, January 15, 2009

CSI: Harvard

Just a few days before the death Ricardo Montalban I happened to catch an airing of Mystery Street. This hidden gem of a film noir from 1950 stars the man who would go on to play (and sometimes overplay) Star Trek's Khan as the more grounded Peter Morales, a police lieutenant, who is tasked with solving a murder based solely on skeletal remains found on a Massachusetts beach.

I almost didn't watch it because the title is a bit deceiving and conjured up images of the The Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew. However, I'm glad I was too lazy to reach for the remote. The film stood out for me from others made during that era for a number of reasons:

  • A cast of actors who, without exception, do a great job of delineating their respective, hard-boiled characters.

  • That the lead character, Morales, is a Latin American doesn't enter into the plot and is not a blatant display of tokenism.

  • The murder victim turns out to have been a small time, pregnant hooker who was trying to pressure one of her well-to-do regulars for abortion money. Heady stuff for 1950.

  • The women aren't played as shrinking violets. For instance, one of them calmly shows her landlady the proper technique used to pop a clip out of a .45 automatic (including the often negleted clearing of the round left in the chamber).
For fans of police procedurals such as Law and Order and CSI, Mystery Street may seem a bit dated. Nowadays, detectives who only have a set of bones to work with would employ computers, high tech DNA testing, and a facial reconstruction from the skull in clay.

Instead Morales enlists the help of a Harvard professor, Dr. McAdoo (Bruce Bennett), to get a foothold into the case. Based on the bones in her feet, McAdoo concludes that the victim was a "toe dancer." Later, McAdoo finds a smaller set of bones that indicates the victim was pregnant. All the files for missing women in the area who could be her are collected. Painstakingly Morales and McAdoo use a slide projector to overlay pictures of the various missing persons on top of correctly sized and angled shots of the skull until they find one that fits.

But despite the misleading title, this isn't a "whodunit" as much as it is a "how will they get caught." The murderer is revealed about mid-way through and Morales fights against time to clear a man who may have been wrongly arrested for the crime. Interestingly, Morales is never fully convinced of that man's innocence until the very end.

Montalban, known for his larger than life characters, brings a sense of realism to the part of Morales. There's a great exchange between him and a wealthy snob, James Joshua Harkley (Edmon Ryan). While executing a search warrant at Harkley's residence, a disparaging remark is made about the lieutenant's accent. Montalban doesn't lose his cool and instead flashes a quick angry glance at the man that seems to say "been there done that" as he methodically continues his search.

Still incensed, Harkey points out that he's used to getting respect. Montalban, not missing a beat, replies "So am I Mr. Harkley, and my family hasn't been in this country for even one hundred years!"

I'm also embarrassed to point out a my slight "man crush" for the Montalban after viewing the scene of him playing handball (racquetball wasn't invented yet) with the other cops. The thirty-five year old Ricardo was "buff" before such a term existed.

Elsa Lanchester is another standout as Mrs. Smerrling, the drunken landlady of the apartment where the victim lived. She ends up blackmailing the real murderer after happening upon the very piece of evidence that Morales is looking for.

I did have some problems with Mystery Street. The pacing of a few scenes before the climax is slow. Some of the plot devices are telegraphed a little too early and are a bit contrived. For instance, we know that one of the key witnesses is going to happen to see a crucial newspaper headline that will lead her to call Morales. Likewise, we can predict that a key to a train station locker will be found at the bottom of Mrs. Smerrling's parrot cage at just the right moment.

However, the chase at a train station where Morales and his partner at last corner the real murderer is great. With no avenues of escape left, the killer tries to hold Morales at bay with what everyone except the criminal knows is an empty gun. There's no melodramtic Hollywood fight scene. Montalban calmly approaches the man and smiles as the killer pulls the trigger with a harmless click. Not a word is exchanged. But their respective expressions speak volumes. The murderer knows the chase is over. And Morales is finally convinced that his original suspect is one hundred percent innocent.

Becoming a star based on the "Latin lover" craze was probably a two-edged sword for Montalban. It gave him a leg-up in the business to be sure. But, it also limited the range of roles he'd be allowed to play. Mystery Street along with Battleground are two rare examples of Montalban playing a "real" person. It's worth a look for people who only know him through less substantial characters such as Khan, Mr. Roarke from Fantasy Island, or that guy admiring Chrysler's Corinthian leather.

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