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Sunday 25 November 2007

Mystery Street (1950) John Sturges

We're in a low budget rooming house in Beacon Hill, Boston, and a beautiful blonde a little the worse for wear is apparently in trouble. She works at the Grass Skirt as a professional lady of the evening of some description or other, and she hijacks a drunk's car (with the drunk in tow) to get herself all the way out to Cape Cod, not caring that his wife is in hospital after losing their baby. She's a real piece of work, leaving him out on the road when he sobers up enough to wonder where he's at, but perhaps she doesn't quite deserve getting shot in the head and dumped into the Cape.

Six months later she's a skeleton washed up on the beach, and Lt Peter Morales from the Boston PD gets to investigate. He's a young Ricardo Montalban, of all people, and he has so much trouble finding the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard University that we have to wonder how great a detective he could possibly be. However he does have the help of Bruce Bennett, playing Dr McAdoo, something of a 1950 version of Bones from the TV series of the same name. Of course this being 1950, they're working with a lot lower tech. No 3D holomorphic displays here, that's for sure.

Montalban is good, much better than you'd expect for someone best known for Fantasy Island and being a thorn in Captain Kirk's side on film. He's very much the brawn here, doing the legwork that the case calls for, working through the numbers. He's not stupid at all and in fact is pretty sharp, but he's certainly overshadowed mentally by the Harvard professor. Bennett is excellent as McAdoo, defining a character who is working at the cutting edge of his science, a science that most people really don't believe in yet. Jan Sterling is spot on as the bitch of a woman who gets killed, but there's another bitch who's even more memorable.

Her landlady, Mrs Smerrling, is played by no less than Elsa Lanchester, a genius actor full of subtle touches who nonetheless knows how to scene steal. She was the title character in Bride of Frankenstein, after all. Here she's a growing presence, scuttling around early on and gradually sinking her claws into the story to wring anything she can out of it, resorting to lies, blackmail and no end of shady little tricks.

Best of all though is the script. Scriptwriter Leonard Spigelgass was Oscar nominated for his work, a real tribute for what was presumably a film noir B movie. It was well deserved though, because it's lean and mean and full of detail that seems amazing for nearly sixty years ago. I've long admired CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and watch it every week, though I've long stopped recording the spinoffs, especially the dire CSI: Miami. However much I admire the concepts that CSI plays with, I know it wasn't the first to do what it does and there are some surprising antecedents.

I grew up watching Quincy, for instance, and I was already a huge fan of the most obvious predecessor, Manhunter, the first Hannibal Lecter story to reach the screen, directed by Michael Mann and starring CSI's own William Petersen. However it's comparably recently that I've found films like Jules Dassin's The Naked City from 1948 and the Philo Vance mystery The Kennel Murder Case, made as far back as 1933. This is now a firm addition to that short list and I'd love to know what else should be on there too.

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