For those who don’t know, Ricardo Montalban is one of my movie husbands. Handsome, suave, distinct voice, devout Catholic, a faithful husband who adored his wife Georgie unto death. He’s just the ideal. I know that for many, he’s Khan from Star Trek. Having never watched the series, he’s forever the dreamy Old Hollywood star to me.
Montalban had a fruitful career in his native Mexico before he signed with MGM. He was usually typecast as the Latin Lover (see 1953’s Latin Lover), but when he wasn’t, he was just amazing. He was amazing as a casanova too, precisely because that was the complete antitheses of who he was offscreen.
Today I’ll be looking at two of his films, one of which will not be airing on TCM but is still worth a look.
Right Cross (1950)
Montalban stars as a boxer named Johnny. He’s had to deal with prejudice against his Mexican heritage, which naturally makes him an angry man. He’s in love with his promoter Sean’s daughter, Pat (June Allyson). Sean is played by Lionel Barrymore, wheelchair bound in this stage of his career and still making film appearances. His best friend Rick (Dick Powell) is also in love with her, but Johnny doesn’t know. Johnny has gotten one too many injuries to his right hand, which puts his future in a precarious position.
Right Cross was directed by John Sturges and it’s a fine film. Ricardo is purely excellent. He’s so great at communicating Johnny’s rage, without making him some kind of brute. He and June Allyson are also terrific together. There’s a scene where he hugs her and says she’s so pretty and warm and soft, like a kitten. Not only did I melt, but it’s a perfect description of Junie too! Marilyn Monroe also has a bit part in this film.
This film, like the next one, makes me wonder why Ricardo didn’t land juicier roles. Of course, the most obvious reason is his background. Although he was European by birth (his parents were Spanish and had emigrated to Mexico), his name and features were not. TCM will be airing Battleground (1949) on Ricardo day, an excellent WWII film that features one of his most sincere and endearing performances. Hailing from Mexico, his character, Roderigues, has never seen snow before!
Mystery Street (1950)
This film will be airing at 12 am. Also directed by Sturges, it’s a Boston (!) set film noir that stars Montalban as detective Peter Morales.
The film revolves around the murder of a young woman (Jan Sterling), whose skeleton was discovered on the beach. She was also pregnant. Forensic experts are summoned to determine her identity. Here’s a film that takes science into consideration, showing the very interesting and complex process of solving crimes and reconstructing a skeleton.
Once the young woman is identified as Vivian Heldon, the investigation is launched. The number one suspect is Henry Shanway (Marshall Thompson), who was seen leaving with her from the bar where she worked. The two went for a drive and she stole his car, which he lied about. His wife had just given birth to a stillborn baby girl, and he went out drinking, then left with Vivian. He feared the consequences of telling the truth. After all, he was the last person to see her alive, or so the police think.
Morales tracks down another suspect, James Harkley (Edmon Ryan), a haughty man. There’s an exchange between the two, where Harkley smugly speaks of his background. His family has lived in America for generations, slyly knocking down Morales and his accent. “From the way you talk you haven’t been here long.” But Morales isn’t fazed in the slightest. He comes back with a retort so smooth that you wouldn’t believe this film was released in 1950. Or better yet, it’s one that wouldn’t be out of place today, because bigotry often remains the same throughout the decades.
Harkley: “You know I’m used to respect, people looking up to me.”
Morales: “So am I Mr. Harkley. And my family hasn’t even been in this country for 100 years.”
Elsa Lanchester plays Vivian’s nosy and overbearing landlady, Mrs. Smerrling. She’s not a likable character at all and stoops to blackmailing Harkley. She doesn’t care about Vivian whatsoever, but Jackie Elcott (Betsy Blair), a sympathetic boarder in Mrs. Smerrling’s boarding house, does.
Ricardo Montalban is in top form in Mystery Street. This may be a noir but he’s not a brooding or tortured character. Morales is cheery, he cracks jokes, but he’s serious about his job. That sunny demeanor makes room for his intensity too. Maybe more films noir would benefit with easy going guys in the lead roles. Might makes the films, despite their dark subject matter, a little more enjoyable like this one.
John Alton’s cinematography is also outstanding. The film was made on a low budget, but it certainly doesn’t look it. The film is also notable because it’s about securing justice for an imperfect victim. Vivian at first is nameless, but she doesn’t come from a distinguished family. She’s a poor girl who got pregnant by a wealthy, titled man who killed her to cover up his wrongdoing. It’s really quite a remarkable film, with one of Hollywood’s most charming actors.
We’re all treated to some really great Montalban movies on TCM today! Musicals, comedies, and dramas. Be sure to tune in and celebrate this icon all day during Summer Under the Stars and click the banner below for more posts!