by Tony Dayoub
This is a contribution to For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blogathon being led by Marilyn Ferdinand of Ferdy on Films and the Self-Styled Siren, Farran Smith Nehme, with assistance by Greg Ferrara of Cinema Styles.
John Sturges' Mystery Street is often cited as more of a police procedural than a straight film noir. But because of my own Hispanic background I feel particularly attuned to why this is an oversimplification. It's the unusual choice of a Latino for the lead that firmly ensconces the movie in the realm of noir. Mexican actor Ricardo Montalbán plays Boston police lieutenant Pete Morales, a compelling hero who seemingly plays by the book. In some distinct ways, though, he is as much of an outsider as your typical noir hero, marginalized by institutional racism both external and internal.
For instance, one can infer much into an early scene in which Morales admits this is his first murder case; his throwaway line, "Up in the Portuguese District, what I'm assigned is mostly small stuff," reveals his eagerness to transcend the limitations of his current position. It also hints at a subtle racism within the police force itself, alluding to the fact that Morales was assigned to an ethnic neighborhood despite the fact that its culture (and language) is presumably different from his own. This explains, in part, Morales' eagerness to accept McAdoo's strange investigatory innovations. It explains Morales' willingness to spend considerable amount of time doing legwork to enable such investigation—like when he starts along the time-consuming mission to determine which missing female's photograph matches the skull he found by collating the focal lengths, distances, and conditions in which each picture was taken. And it also explains his desperation and urge to cut corners and even disregard McAdoo's deductions as he gets closer to solving the crime, almost sending the innocent Henry Shanway (Marshall Thompson) to prison simply because he was with the victim on the night she was murdered. Morales wants to impress his bosses and move up the ranks of the police department quicker than his more experienced cohorts.
A later scene in which Morales plays handball in the police gym is a glimpse into how he sees himself. Sturges and cinematographer John Alton start the scene shooting through a chain-link fence, with Morales surrounded by the concrete walls of the handball court. He aggressively bounces the ball against each wall as two co-workers come in and invite him to play. They joke, "... still knocking down walls, huh?" It is a clear reference to Morales' transgression into "their" institution. Morales walks away under the pretense of working on the case despite having closed it with the arrest of Shanway. The still above shows how Alton's framing of Morales emphasizes his "otherness," his "separateness" among his peers even at what should be his greatest moment of triumph.
Unwilling to embarrass himself if he should make a mistake, Morales increasingly visits witnesses and suspects alone, relying on his partner only for simple errands. Sturges codes characters both benevolent and evil by how willingly they accept Morales as an equal. To the blue-blooded chief suspect, James Harkley (Edmon Ryan), and the victim's landlady, Mrs. Smerling (Elsa Lanchester), Morales is a reminder of ethnicity and lower-class. To most everyone else—the victim's flatmate (Betsy Blair), Harvard's Dr. McAdoo, and even the wrongly prosecuted Shanlay and his wife (Sally Forrest)—Morales is simply a cop doing his job, and ethnicity never even comes up. Contrasting depictions of the way an immigrant works to assimilate is illustrated best comparing the upstanding Morales, who tries to work within the system, to the nosy Mrs. Smerling, who seeks acceptance into society by trying to subvert the system. Smerling is the only other character in Mystery Street saddled with an accent that identifies her as an outsider. Compare her visit to Harkley to Morales' interrogation of the man much later. Mrs. Smerling tries to insinuate herself into Harkley's social class with fancy clothing and erudition before being dismissed by him with a simple, "Madam, the bus leaves in about ten minutes, or one of my truck drivers can take you back to town..." This emboldens Smerling to blackmail Harkley, an ex-boyfriend of the dead bar-girl who Smerling can incriminate. Morales' visit with Harkley goes much different. Morales uses his undeniable legal affiliation to probe into Harkley's whereabouts on the night of the murder. With no easy way of countering Morales' invasion into his private affairs, the fearful Harkley attacks the cop with not-so-veiled racism, "There was a Harkley around these parts long before there was a U.S.A. You can ask anybody. But from the way you talk, you haven't been around here long...You know, I'm used to respect, people looking up to me!" To which Morales responds, "So am I Mr. Harkley! And my family hasn't been in this country for even 100 years!"
The Boston setting then gains greater significance for it allows Sturges to pose the Hispanic Morales in strong relief against it. It fuels Morales desperation to overcome his status by solving this highly publicized crime. It motivates Morales to feel like an outsider during the course of his probe, giving him opportunities to both innovate and impress using McAdoo's new investigative theories. It influences Morales to be self-reliant, possibly to his own detriment, for it is only when his assumptions are re-examined by McAdoo and/or Morales' partner that the investigation moves forward. This is the key to identifying Morales as a noir hero: the flawed character trait which is both an asset and impediment at times, that he must overcome to succeed in his mission. Mystery Street's finale, in which Morales finally catches up to Harkley at Boston's Trinity Station with the help of his partner, sees the lieutenant finally asserting himself AND accepting aid from a cohort. As he captures the murderer, incriminating him with a vital piece of evidence supplied by the victim's flatmate, it is the first time we see Morales confidently command one of his cops, "Take him in!"
Please donate any amount you can to support the efforts of the Film Noir Foundation by clicking on the button below.
The Film Noir Foundation is a non-profit public benefit corporation created as an educational resource regarding the cultural, historical, and artistic significance of film noir as an original American cinematic movement. It is their mission to find and preserve films in danger of being lost or irreparably damaged, and to ensure that high quality prints of these classic films remain in circulation for theatrical exhibition to future generations.