“One false move and you’re in over your head.”
I tend to steer clear of prestige noir--there just isn’t much new to say about such films, and more often than not they wrap up in too neat a package. But in revisiting Where the Sidewalk Ends after a two-decade hiatus, I discovered a far better picture than I remembered--surprisingly post-modern in its depiction of a murky gray world where it’s difficult to tell right from wrong, with characters neither entirely good nor entirely bad, for whom just getting by is all that can be rightfully hoped for. In Dana Andrews’s detective Mark Dixon I found a man wracked by the human imperfections that compel us to watch film noir, deeply flawed yet nurturing a private hope that somewhere, somehow, in some unexplored place out beyond the neon signs and the never-ending warren of streets, there might be a chance at grace, at a better kind of life. Through the course of the film, Dixon comes to finally understand what such a chance demands of a man, and he gives it.
Any way you look at it, Where the Sidewalk Ends is a plum of a movie. Released by Fox in that most noirish of years, 1950, it reteams director Otto Preminger with stars Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney, the key players from the 1944 hit Laura. And while a comparison of the two films would make for a meaty essay in its own right, here I’ll just note that while Laura, with its shakier claim at noir status, is concerned with human weakness in the New York glamour set, Where the Sidewalk Ends presents a more frightening--and far more exhilarating--vision of the big city. The tall buildings, bright lights, and chic glamour of Laura are present, but seem forever lost in the distance, seen only through grimy windows, over dilapidated fences, and through the fog of a city beginning to devour itself.
The world Preminger depicts here is bleak and gritty, strewn with trash, where predators lurk around the next street corner, and hopelessness blights each back alley. It’s a night-world, as different from the previous Preminger-Andrews project Fallen Angel as it is from Laura.
Look in the window of a cheap basement flat and you’ll find Mrs. Tribaum, sleeping the years away at her kitchen table, longing for death to remember her address. Hail a taxi and you’ll meet Jiggs Taylor, who dreams that his fares are dignitaries to be shuttled from one party to the next, so beaten down by a dreary existence that he has trouble separating reality from fantasy, and worships the cop who once used his cab to chase down a petty thief. That clean-cut guy with the dice? That’s Kenneth Paine, an ex-war hero who took off his uniform only to discover that there weren’t any jobs after all, no matter what they said in the Stars and Stripes. Now he’s a degenerate gambler who drinks and smacks his wife.
And then there’s the cop. Where the Sidewalk Ends serves up one of film noir’s most finely drawn anti-heroes. Dana Andrews is hard-boiled detective Mark Dixon, enigmatic poster boy for loneliness and alienation. Like many other noir protagonists, Dixon can’t escape his past. He is further complicated by the fact that he isn’t responsible for his past, though he’s borne the burden of it since childhood. The blame lies instead with his father, a lifelong felon gunned down while attempting to blast his way out of Sing Sing. Now, neither the crooks he encounters nor his fellow officers will let him forget that he’s “Sandy Dixon’s son.”
And it holds true that, as life often reminds us, the abused eventually become abusers. Empowered by a badge, the relentlessly beaten little boy is now a frayed insomniac obsessed with strong-arming criminals, unhinged by his desire to revenge himself on his long-dead father. Dixon craves violence, and even begs his boss for permission to beat a confession out of a suspect. The film’s opening finds Dixon getting dressed down for yet another string of brutality complaints. If he can’t reign in his temper, he’ll be fired; for now he’s forced to accept a demotion. And to make things worse, he’s saddled with a new straight-arrow precinct commander, Lieutenant Thomas (Karl Malden). On this night however, fate is only beginning to vex Dixon, whose life is about to spin out of control.
Ben Hecht’s masterful screenplay uses a one-two punch of critical early scenes from which uncoil all of the film’s drama. The first takes place in a swanky midtown hotel room, where Mr. Morrison, an out of town craps player, is murdered after taking Scalise (Gary Merrill, superb), a gangster with whom Dixon has a long history, for nineteen grand. Morrison was lured to the hotel by ex-soldier Paine, who used his pretty wife Morgan (Gene Tierney) as bait. When she refuses to continue the scheme by convincing Morrison to keep playing, Paine smacks her. Morrison intercedes, but Paine Kos him and flees, leaving the unconscious gambler with Scalise and his crew--and they want their nineteen large back.
So it’s no surprise that when the scene jumps to Dixon and his partner, cruising through Times Square, the radio dispatcher sends them to the hotel on a murder beef: Morrison is dead, knifed through the heart. Scalise, who clearly did (or ordered) the killing after Paine left, denies that Morrison won money in the game and wanted to leave, and contends instead that Paine murdered him in a jealous fight over Morgan. Dixon doesn’t buy it, but Lt. Thomas chalks the detective’s skepticism up to the torch he’s been carrying for Scalise and tells him to locate Paine, which brings us to the second scene. Dixon enters Paine’s cheap flat and discovers him attempting to phone Morrison--he wants his cut of the winnings--which refutes Scalise’s version of events and makes him for the real killer.
But when Dixon tries to clear things up by taking Paine in, the drunk comes at him with a bottle. One well-placed uppercut later and Paine drops like a sack of potatoes, somehow dead from the blow. We find out later that he had a “silver plate in his head,” which explains how a bump on the noggin could kill him. The critical moment in the picture comes when Dixon squats down and realizes that he has accidentally killed Paine--albeit in self-defense. Preminger exploits the moment by lingering on Andrews’s terrified face. Rather than coming clean with the brass, Dixon stages an elaborate ruse to cast suspicion on Scalise. He tosses the room and throws Paine’s body in the river. He later offers a reason for his panicked response: “I covered it up...I couldn’t shake loose from what I was.”
In the immediate aftermath of the events at Paine’s flop, things seem to go well for Dixon, who develops a fast friendship with the newly-widowed Morgan, and begins to be teased by the possibility (as per Laura) of a life different than the one in which he’s been mired. (Yet Preminger’s ever-present moral ambiguity forces us to ponder whether it’s the relationship with the girl that saves the cop from the darkness, or if she isn’t some sort of ostensible femme fatale, and that because of her Dixon chooses to destroy himself.)
It isn’t until Lt. Thomas directs his suspicion at Jiggs, Morgan’s taxi-driving father, that Dixon’s guilt begins to consume him. He eventually sees just one path out of his dilemma, that will exonerate Morgan’s father and bring Scalise to some sort of justice. The film’s final act sees Dixon’s confront his own demons and make his play for redemption. The denouement is far better than most viewers have given it credit for. It’s unexpected and subtle, a two-sided coin as rife with ambiguity as it is with possibility.
This is Dana Andrews’s film from start to finish, and Where the Sidewalk Ends rises and falls on his casting, which isn’t surprising given that he was a Fox contract star and had a both proven track record with Preminger as well as great chemistry with Tierney. Personally I love the guy, and the actor’s struggles away from the screen (Andrews alcoholism was at its peak at the time of production) certainly lend gravitas to his performance.
Yet one wonders what sort of film this would have been if perhaps one of Hollywood’s more renowned tough guys--Hayden, Ryan, McGraw--could have been given the role. Certainly male-female chemistry is a significant aspect of the film, and Andrews was inarguably a more well-rounded leading man than those three, but Preminger asks his audience to accept Dixon’s toughness on his say-so, rather than establishing his brutality as, for example, Nicholas Ray does with Robert Ryan in On Dangerous Ground.
Neither does Preminger do himself any favors in this regard by casting Neville Brand as a thug. An important physical scene calls for Andrews and Brand to mix it up, which plays like a fight between a hardened criminal and a bank teller. A closer look at the sequence, set in a Turkish bath, reveals a missed opportunity--one that if capitalized upon may have enhanced this film’s reputation as a noir. Rather than have the men fight amidst a backdrop of roiling steam, partially obscured by clouds of vapor, they trade fists in the massage room under the clarity of the hot lights. Compared to similar moments in other crime films, the fight seems clumsy and staged: Brand, as he did in so many of his films, simply overwhelms the leading man.
Setting this minor quibble aside, Where the Sidewalk Ends is beautifully filmed, entertaining, and disturbing. The opening credits alone are worth the price of admission. What follows is special: an archetypal film noir that, although plot driven, manages to develop strong characters who undermine the pervasively upbeat notions of postwar American society.