Monday, November 17, 2014

Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)

Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950) Otto Preminger
20th Century Fox
B/W 1:35

Netflix rental

While New York City’s 16th Precinct welcomes new commander Detective Lieutenant Thomas (Karl Malden), Detective Mark Dixon (Dana Andrews) isn’t exactly in a celebratory mood. Dixon’s superior, Inspector Foley (Robert Simon), reminds Dixon that he and Thomas started at the same time, but Dixon’s career has been riddled with complaints of police brutality. “Your job is to detect criminals,” Foley tells him, “not to punish them.” 

Cut to an illegal crap game where a gambler named Paine (Craig Stevens) beats a Texas high-roller (Harry von Zell) to death, then flees the scene. Dixon (pictured above) takes the case, tracks Paine down and accidentally kills him in a fight. In one of the film’s most gripping scenes, Dixon has only moments to decide whether he’ll do the right thing and admit the truth or try to cover up the accident. Of course we know what he’s going to do... 

Not only does Dixon have to cover up what he’s done, he also has to investigate the original case, which makes for an interesting plot twist. To twist things even tighter, Dixon begins to fall for Paine’s wife Morgan (Gene Tierney), but he certainly can’t tell her the truth about what happened to her husband. 

Although brief, the famous opening shot of the title credits on the sidewalk soon gives way to - literally - the place where the sidewalk ends, as we watch bits of trash falling into the sewer, a metaphor for what happens when someone (a policeman, in this case) steps out of bounds and descends into darkness. One of the great themes of film noir is the idea of the city and its corruption seeping into a character’s being, filling his or her soul with an inevitable and fatalistic darkness. Andrews gives a superb performance, often without saying a word, allowing his eyes to act and react to every word, every idea, every theory that’s being offered around him. One of the weaknesses of film compared to prose is that you can’t know (aside from voice-over narration) what a character is really thinking, but in watching Andrews, we come pretty close to understanding every thought flashing through his head. 

Ben Hecht’s superb screenplay withholds an essential piece of information until we really need it. It’s a bit of information that explains much and in the hands of a lesser screenwriter, would’ve been presented too early and too often. By keeping that card close to the vest, Where the Sidewalk Ends allows the viewer to delve into the troubled psyche of Dixon’s soul, exploring the regions of darkness of a character who struggles to be a good man doing the right thing. 

Although the film was released in 1950, in what’s generally considered the second half of the classic film noir era, there’s one scene that represents a presence that would later be seen in many neo-noir films of the 60s, 70s and beyond. It’s a very brief moment, one that lasts maybe two seconds, but it helps define neo-noir. At the crap game, Payne and the Texas high-roller are fighting. The room is filled with other men, yet none of them are cheering, jeering, chanting, or doing anything but watching in silence. Certainly this isn’t the first time we’ve seen silent onlookers in a fight, but the expressions on the faces of the onlookers seems to convey a “This is how it is” attitude. There’s no emotional connection, no sense of either regret or enjoyment. It’s simply noir. This is how it is. 

Where the Sidewalk Ends is one of those films that works so well visually and one reason is that Preminger doesn’t call attention to own direction. There’s nothing fancy going on here, but each shot places his characters in exactly the right place spatially to fit the mood of the scene. For instance, Lieutenant Thomas questions Morgan in one scene with Dixon standing in the middle. Dixon is literally caught in the middle of this and other scenes, having to listen to and not react to Thomas’s questions and Morgan’s answers. Again, Dana Andrews’s eye movements ratchet up the tension and are worth the price of admission. 

The supporting players - including Gary Merrill as the slimy crime boss Scalise - are all fabulous, but the weakest link in the film has to go to the character of Morgan. It’s simply not very believable that her husband has been killed and her father has gone to jail for a murder he didn’t commit, while she goes about town with Dixon, apparently carefree. She doesn’t stay that way, but Morgan’s dreamworld goes on a bit too long. 

Where the Sidewalk Ends is certainly a rock-solid film noir title that you should see and probably own. The current DVD edition includes an excellent commentary by film historian Eddie Muller. The film is not yet on Blu-ray, but I suppose we can dream of a Preminger Blu-ray box set including Where the Sidewalk Ends, Laura, and Fallen Angel, all of which also feature Dana Andrews.


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