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Tag Archives: Jan Sterling

Mystery Street (July 28, 1950)

Mystery Street
Mystery Street (1950)
Directed by John Sturges
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

“Mystery Street” is too generic a title for this groundbreaking crime thriller.

To me, Mystery Street sounds like one of those mystery programmers from the ’30s and ’40s designed to run as a second feature — perhaps featuring Charlie Chan or The Crime Doctor.

But with its focus on forensic investigation, Mystery Street is an innovative police procedural. Only its title is run-of-the-mill. If you’re a fan of TV shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Bones, make some time to watch this movie, and see where the genre got its start.

Montalban and Bennett

In the post-war years, “reality” entertainment was king. The “ripped-from-the-headlines” police procedurals that are still all over TV kicked off with the film He Walked by Night (1948) and the radio show Dragnet, which began broadcasting in 1949 and quickly inspired a slew of imitators.

Mystery Street follows the established formula of the police procedural, but focuses on the process of forensic investigation. When Lieutenant Peter Morales (Ricardo Montalban) is assigned to a murder case with no clues — only skeletal remains that have washed up on the beach — he turns to Dr. McAdoo (Bruce Bennett) of Harvard Medical School. (Incidentally, Mystery Street was also the first Hollywood film to shoot in Boston and Cambridge, MA.)

Discriminating fans of CSI will enjoy the outlandish example Dr. McAddoo gives Lt. Morales when he explains the kinds of crimes forensic science can solve: a seemingly open-and-shut murder case that turned out to be a combination of a bloody nose, a paroxysmal seizure, and a head injury caused by a fall. (It only looked like the woman’s husband had beaten her to death.)

Mystery Street is a stylish and very entertaining noir. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Story. I think it would make a great double bill with Border Incident (1949), another film that starred Ricardo Montalban when he was first establishing himself in Hollywood. He’s a compelling and charismatic leading man, and it’s fun to watch him before he was a household name.

According to Wikipedia, Mystery Street lost money at the box office, which is a shame, because it’s a great little flick. Maybe a better title would have helped?

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Caged (May 19, 1950)

CagedCaged (1950)
Directed by John Cromwell
Warner Bros.

“Pile out, you tramps. It’s the end of the line.”

With those words we are plunged into the dark, unforgiving world of Caged, a masterpiece of the women-in-prison genre from director John Cromwell.

Caged is a tough, tragic, and intelligent film; it’s hell and gone from the cheap, lurid flicks that would define the women-in-prison genre during the exploitation heyday of the 1960s and ’70s.

Not only is Caged a great drama, it’s also a feminist film. Some of the prisoners in Caged are victims of abusive husbands, many of them were forced into a life of crime by their husbands or boyfriends, and all of them are subject to a justice system run by men. Even the woman with the most power in the film, the reform-minded warden Ruth Benton (Agnes Moorehead), has to answer to the governor and his officious underlings.

Like most prison movies, Caged focuses on a first-time offender, or “fish,” who’s new behind bars and has to learn the ropes. Her name is Marie Allen (Eleanor Parker), and she’s serving time for driving the getaway car for her young husband, who was killed during the commission of a robbery that netted a mere $40. “Five bucks less and it wouldn’t be a felony,” says the woman in the prison office who types up Marie Allen’s intake forms. (The arbitrary and sometimes brutally unfair nature of the criminal justice system is a theme that runs through the film.)

Eleanor Parker

Caged wasn’t the first movie to feature scenes in a women’s prison, but as far as I can tell, it was the first women-in-prison film to take place pretty much completely behind bars.

There were movies in the pre-code 1930s that featured scenes behind bars in women’s prisons. And about a year before Caged was released, Crane Wilbur’s The Story of Molly X (1949) proudly boasted that its prison sequences were filmed in a real women’s correctional facility. But the prison sequences in The Story of Molly X were a relatively small part of the whole film, and were the kind of violent and lurid exploitation most people normally think of when they hear the words “women in prison.”

Caged, on the other hand, is a great film with great performances. It’s a tragic story about a young woman who barely needed rehabilitation in the first place, and yet has everything systemically taken from her until she is a hardened criminal with nothing but criminality to look forward to when she’s released.

There are plenty of filmed women-in-prison stories that I’ve enjoyed, but I honestly can’t think of a smarter or more affecting one than Caged until the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black came around in 2013. However, I haven’t yet seen So Young So Bad, which was released in theaters one day after Caged. It’s the next film I’ll review, and we’ll see how it stacks up.

Caged will be shown on TCM Friday, February 20, 2015, at 1:30 PM (ET).

Johnny Belinda (Sept. 14, 1948)

Johnny BelindaJean Negulesco’s acclaimed film Johnny Belinda stars Jane Wyman as a deaf-mute girl named Belinda McDonald who lives on the island of Cape Breton in Nova Scotia. Wyman was awarded an Oscar for her performance at the 21st Academy Awards on March 24, 1949.

Johnny Belinda is based on Elmer Blaney Harris’s play of the same name. Harris was 62 years old when Johnny Belinda opened on Broadway in 1940. He was a busy man, and by that point in his career he had many plays, films, and screenplays under his belt. Even so, it can’t have been easy for him when the play was savaged by critics. Richard Watts of the New York Herald Tribune dismissed Johnny Belinda as “cheap melodrama” that was full of “shameless sentimentality.” Brooks Atkinson, drama critic for the New York Times, was even less kind when he wrote the following:

Now that Johnny Belinda has reached the stage, there may not be enough drama left to last through the rest of the season. Elmer Harris has shot the works in one evening at the Belasco Theatre. The mortgage is in it; also seduction, childbirth, death by lightning, murder by shotgun, a snowstorm, a Canadian Mounted in scarlet uniform and a court room scene. As minor diversions Mr. Harris throws in a lesson on grinding grain on a water wheel and a scene with a spinning wheel. Being a thorough workman, he also includes the kitchen stove and the kitchen sink.

I’ve never seen the stage play version Johnny Belinda, so I can’t say how sensationalistic or melodramatic it is, but Negulesco’s film version is an excellent piece of work. He took controversial material that could have easily become histrionic twaddle in the hands of a lesser director and used it to craft a deeply affecting movie.

Johnny Belinda has a terrific sense of place. Ted D. McCord’s stark cinematography depicts a windswept, beautiful landscape populated by desperately poor, uneducated people. (McCord was nominated for an Oscar for Best Cinematography, Black and White.) Max Steiner’s Oscar-nominated score reflects the mostly Scottish heritage of the people of Cape Breton.

Ayres, Wyman, and Bickford

Much of the success of Johnny Belinda is due to its actors. Wyman deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as Belinda, beating out Irene Dunne in I Remember Mama, Barbara Stanwyck in Sorry, Wrong Number, Ingrid Bergman in Joan of Arc, and Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit.

Lew Ayres (nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award) plays Dr. Robert Richardson, the deeply caring physician who teaches Belinda sign language. Charles Bickford (nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award), plays Belinda’s father, Black MacDonald. Agnes Moorehead (nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award), plays Belinda’s aunt, Aggie MacDonald. And Stephen McNally, who plays the vicious brute who rapes Belinda, is a despicable villain of the first order.

Johnny Belinda received 12 Academy Award nominations — the most of any film in 1948 — but it only took home one Oscar; Wyman’s award for best actress. I think Johnny Belinda is an excellent, well-acted film. My only reservation about it is the use of a dummy in a murder scene that is one of the most egregiously awful things I’ve ever seen. If you can overlook that (and I can … mostly) and accept that its treatment of its themes are of its time and place, then Johnny Belinda is a film worth seeking out.

Johnny Belinda will be shown on TCM on Thursday, April 11, 2013, at 2:45 PM ET.