Vivian Heldon (Jan Sterling) is a down-on-her-luck gal who lives in a Boston boardinghouse and works at the Grass Skirt Cafe. Struggling to come up with the money she owes to Mrs. Smerrling (Elsa Lanchester), the boardinghouse owner, Vivian calls her old flame James Joshua Harkley (Edmon Ryan). Harkley is a married man with whom she recently had an affair, and she hopes he’ll pay up.
Waiting anxiously for Harkley to show up, Vivian meets a drunk man named Henry (Marshall Thompson). She offers to drive him home since he’s clearly unfit to do so, but instead steals his car.
Vivian’s night continues on a downward spiral from there, and three months later, skeletal remains are found on a beach. Are they the bones of Vivian Heldon? Lieutenant Peter Moralas (Ricardo Montalban) and Detective Tim Sharkey (Wally Maher) investigate the case, with the bones being their only clue to work from.
Mystery Street was directed by John Sturges. Sydney Boehm and Richard Brooks crafted the script, from an original story by Leonard Spigelgass.
The film begins with a very dark tone. Jan Sterling only gets about fifteen minutes of screen time, but she’s very effective as Vivian in these early scenes. She’s obviously very distressed, and desperate to improve her financial situation.
Once the investigation begins, there are some quirky side characters that make the film fun to watch and lighten the mood. A socially-awkward bird watcher, a tattoo artist, a professional oyster shucker, and of course Elsa Lanchester’s grumpy landlady character — there are a lot of odd, unexpected people who get wrapped up in the investigation. (Lanchester is given a subplot in which she attempts to find the killer before the investigators do, so she can blackmail him to get the money she’s owed!)
Despite this slight quirk factor, I wouldn’t consider Mystery Street to be a mystery-comedy. The investigators, Peter and Tim, are all business. The film focuses on their investigations and the use of forensics to solve the crime, giving the viewer a look into the scientific side of mid-century criminal investigations.
This makes for a very interesting watch. One particularly neat scene has the investigators matching photographs of the skull with photographs of missing women by photographing the skull from the same angle, same distance, and on the same type of paper as existing photographs of the missing women.
If you’re at all interested in forensics or procedural dramas, you’ll likely enjoy this lesser-known mystery. The pace is a tad slow, but the investigation is fascinating, and the film is very well-acted. I, for one, enjoyed it quite a bit. The score: 4/5