We all know The Departed. But fewer of us know the other movie mentioned in Big Screen Boston's subtitle, Mystery Street. So here is an excerpt of the book's entry on this 1950 film noir, the first movie to predominantly feature location shooting in the Hub.
1950. Directed by John Sturges. Written by Sydney Boehm and Richard Brooks. Based on Leonard Spigelgass’ story. With Ricardo Montalban, Sally Forrest, Bruce Bennett, Elsa Lanchester, Marshall Thompson, Edmon Ryan, Betsy Blair and Jan Sterling. Cinematography by John Alton.
HOLLYWOOD FINALLY CAME TO Boston for this 1950 thriller, the first commercial feature to be predominantly shot in the area. Like the later (and lesser) Walk East on Beacon!, Mystery Street (also known as Murder at Harvard) rides the post-war wave of realistic crime dramas, pioneered by low-budget films like Anthony Mann’s T-Men, many of which were shot on location. Director John Sturges’ movie doesn’t quite use the semi-documentary approach that Walk East and other similar movies did. In this case, that’s all for the better. T-Men director of photography John Alton, one of the essential film noir cinematographers, is behind the camera here, bringing a sense of shadowy dread to the Boston locations in this pre-CSI police procedural in which a human skeleton is the only evidence with which an investigation starts.
Alton’s work is most evident in the set-up for the detective work that will follow. The movie opens in a Beacon Hill rooming house where darkness dominates, except for the light that shines on desperate Vivian Helding (Jan Sterling, right in photo above; click on it for larger view), the house phone she’s using and the ajar door of eavesdropping landlady Mrs. Smerrling (Elsa Lanchester). It turns out Vivian, a B-girl at a Scollay Square dive called The Grass Skirt, is pregnant, and the married Hyannis man who fathered the child is giving her the brush-off.
At The Grass Skirt, where Vivian’s boyfriend has stood her up, she gloms onto drunk Henry (Marshall Thompson), “helps” him move his car and keeps driving it to the Cape, where she eventually ditches Henry and meets with the boyfriend, whose face isn’t shown. He shoots her, dumps her body in the ocean and pushes the stolen car into a lake.
It’s only months later, when a birdwatcher finds Vivian’s skeleton sticking out of a sandy beach, that the investigation begins. Barnstable County investigator Pete Moralas (Ricardo Montalban) is on the case, which eventually leads him to Beacon Hill, Cambridge and Harvard Medical School’s Department of Legal Medicine in Roxbury. That’s where Dr. McAdoo (Bruce Bennett) helps Moralas identify the body and build a case against unwitting Henry, who initially denies he met Vivian because he’s married and wasn’t supposed to be in The Grass Skirt (he was supposed to be at the Boston Lying-In Hospital with his pregnant wife). But that changes when McAdoo discovers the cause of death was a gunshot, putting Moralas on a collision course with the well-to-do Hyannis boyfriend (Edmon Ryan). He is finally shown to the audience halfway through the movie, when snooping Mrs. Smerrling tries to blackmail him.
As crime thrillers circa 1950 are wont to do, Mystery Street climaxes in a public place, Trinity Station. This long-gone train station adjacent to Back Bay Station is a suitably bustling, urban backdrop for the end chase (its train yard is apparently now part of the Mass. Pike). Although the rooming house is on fictional “Bunker Street,” the building used appears to be on Pinckney Street near Anderson Street (you can see the old New England College of Pharmacy there at one point). Suspect Henry lives in Charlestown (in a forward-looking movie connection, just a half-block from Monument Avenue), while The Grass Skirt exterior is on a studio backlot. Aside from the dunes footage (presumably) it’s unclear if any of the Cape Cod action was done there; the gas station with the greasy spoon attached looks to be in California (its signs for Caloco Oil sure sound West Coast). There’s also a Harvard Yard sequence that turns out to be rather inconsequential (since the cop finds out he has to go over to the Med School), but it adds to the movie’s local color. Amusingly, co-star Thompson (later of TV’s Daktari) appears on the movie’s trailer to offer special thanks to Harvard for its cooperation, something the school generally doesn’t offer anymore.
Like Alton’s artful Hollywood cinematography, non-local flavor comes from the cast, with Lanchester, the bride of Frankenstein herself, practically stealing the show with her proper yet hypocritically opportunistic landlady. Years before he became kitsch, Montalban is a sturdy presence in this brisk B-thriller.
►Locations: Beacon Hill, Roxbury, Back Bay, Charlestown, Boston; Cambridge; Cape Cod.
►Accents: Back in a time when there probably were a greater percentage of area residents with Boston accents than there are now, Mystery Street generally refrains from including them. But there are generic New England accents from Cape Cod characters talking about the found skeleton. And we do get what might be Hollywood’s first overdone Boston accent from Wally Maher, who plays the Boston detective Moralas teams with in the city. Maher, who also voiced the title character in Tex Avery’s Screwy Squirrel cartoons, couldn’t quite get the Boston accent.
►Local color: Over 50 years later, many of the shooting locations will have you wondering their exact whereabouts, especially Trinity Station. But the movie’s issues also hit close to home at times, specifically the hypocrisy of the landlady, a self-righteous moral guardian who no doubt supported many a Boston book banning, and the elitism of Vivian’s blue-blooded killer, who not only victimizes her, but also feels superior to first-generation American Moralas, and lets him know it.
Here's a link to the movie's trailer.