Blonde B-girl Vivian (played by Jan Sterling), is pregnant and tries to contact the father to seek help financially. He refuses to meet and stops taking her calls. She goes to “The Grass Skirt” bar in Boston where she works and picks up a drunk (Marshall Thompson) so she can use his car to drive to Cape Cod, where she can confront the father face to face.
Vivian drives with the car’s owner drunk by her side. When the man realizes he’s miles from Boston, he demands to be taken back. Instead, she ditches him and steals the car. But the father of the child, James Harkley, kills Vivian rather than pay up or risk exposure of the affair to his wife and family. He buries Vivian’s body and sinks the car in a pond.
A day later, the drunk reports the car stolen to his insurance but neglects to mention the blonde, not wanting to get in trouble with his wife (Sally Forrest), who had been hospitalized suffering from the loss of a pregnancy. Months later, the B-girl’s skeleton is found half-buried on a beach. State Police Lt. Peter Morales (Montalban), assigned to the District Attorney’s Office in Barnstable, teams up with Boston police and uses forensics with the help of Dr. McAdoo, a Harvard doctor (Bennett), to figure out who the woman is.
Morales wants to know how she died. Vivian’s nosy landlady (Lanchester) attempts to blackmail Harkley, the man Vivian had been calling from her boarding house, going so far as to visit the wealthy married man and steal his gun. Morales tracks down the stolen car from police records and questions Henry Shanway, the drunk Vivian was with the night she disappeared. Morales eventually finds Shanway’s car and he’s identified in a police lineup. The innocent man is arrested and charged with the murder.
Dr. McAdoo discovers a bullet stuck in the car. Morales then finds that the landlady has the gun, but not before she tries to blackmail Harkley for $20,000, is knocked over the head and dies. Morales chases but loses the killer. He comes across a hidden baggage check in the landlady’s bird cage, which sends Morales racing to catch the killer before the murder weapon can be disposed of. At the train station, he apprehends Harkley and takes him into custody. Shanway gets to be set free.
Time magazine called it a “low-budget melodrama without box-office stars or advance ballyhoo [that] does not pretend to do much more than tell a straightaway, logical story of scientific crime detection” but notes that “within such modest limits, Director John Sturges and Scripters Sydney Boehm and Richard Brooks have treated the picture with such taste and craftsmanship that it is just about perfect.” The New York Timescalled it “an adventure which, despite a low budget, is not low in taste or its attention to technical detail, backgrounds and plausibility” with a performance by Montalban that is “natural and unassuming
Tight forensic murder mystery thriller – fine film noir.
Author: Arne Andersen (email@example.com) from Putney, VT
22 February 2000
This is a forgotten piece of film noir with a clever and educational forensic angle – find the murderer when all you have to go on is a skeleton. The screenplay is top notch (the Original Story was nominated for an Oscar) as is the black and white cinematography -composition especially. The plot whips along with some clever twists and turns. Altogether a very interesting and entertaining film. Elsa Lanchester turns in an Oscar nom-worthy supporting performance as a meddling and greedy owner of a boarding house. The effect on his marriage of the incarceration of an innocent suspect is well-handled for the time. Altogether first-rate and worth a look.
Stunningly Photographed “B” Mystery; Great Villain; Fine Cast and Values
5 July 2005
This is an unusually-well-photographed detective film, starring Ricardo Montalban as a handsome and improbable young Boston detective. It has a first-rate villain, an interesting investigational format, some very good actors in minor parts and very fine B/W production values. The script was by Leonard Spigelglass, Sydney Boehm and Richard Brooks with first-rate direction by John Sturges. Rudolph G. Kopp did the music, Edwin Willis the sets with Ralph S. Hurst, Cedric Gibbons and Gabriel Scognamillo the art direction and John Alton the beautiful cinematography. In the unusually large cast besides Montalban as Pete Morales were Sally Forrest, Marshall Thompson, Elsa Lanchester, Edmon Ryan as the villain, Bruce Bennet as a forensics professor, Betsy Blair, Jan Sterling and many others. The storyline is actually fairly simple. A “B” girl being told to get lost by her rich married boyfriend has to hijack a car driven by a second man to get from Boston to Cape Cod. Months later, she turns up as a skeleton near Cape Cod. Working from clues with a forensics professor, Morales tries to free the innocent motorist she had hijacked from suspicion, prevent another killing and catch the guilty man. This is a very attractive and well-mounted production; Forrest is somewhat wasted as a housewife; but many people, Lanchester and Ryan especially, have small to large telling parts in this very good narrative. Not a great film but far-above-average in every respect.
. The genre is docu-noir, and with the crime procedural plot and location shooting (this may have been the first film Hollywood ever shot in Boston!) a touch of style does help.
*. The forensics are impressive. I was amazed that they showed the death photos. And the bit about the bullet holes in the car having closed up because the car was submerged was news to me. They didn’t have all the toys of the CSI team yet, but the crime lab stuff here is good.
*. When Vivian is shot she falls forward on her car horn. I’m always interested in the first time a particular piece of film business appears. It’s a hobby of mine. Of course the dead person falling on their car horn is probably best known for its appearance at the end of Chinatown, and has since become a cliché. Was this the first movie to do it?
*. The women make things happen. The men tend to be more passive, either reacting to events set in motion by women, or being dragged along or following in their wake. It’s the four lead women who get the plot to work. Like Vivian, they’re in the driver’s seat. Vivian and Mrs. Smerrling pursue Harkley (to their own eventual undoing), Mrs. Shanway tries to clear her husband, and is doing a pretty good job tracking down leads, while Jackie is indirectly responsible for disarming Harkley.