Where the Sidewalk Ends
Otto Preminger looks at police corruption and comes up with a classy noir starring Dana Andrews as a rogue cop and Gene Tierney as the woman whose father he accidentally frames for murder. With Karl Malden, Gary Merrill and velvety-slick B&W cinematography by Joseph LaShelle.
Where the Sidewalk Ends
1950 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 95 min. / Ship Date February 9, 2016 / available through Twilight Time Movies / 29.95
Starring Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney, Gary Merrill, Bert Freed, Tom Tully, Karl Malden, Ruth Donnelly, Craig Stevens.
Cinematography Joseph LaShelle
Art Direction J. Russell Spencer, Lyle Wheeler
Film Editor Louis R. Loeffler
Original Music Cyril J. Mockridge
Written by Ben Hecht, Robert E. Kent, Frank P. Rosenberg, Victor Trivas from the novel Night Cry by William L. Stuart
Produced and Directed by Otto Preminger
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Want to see an example of a gloriously polished studio production, a film noir with velvety blacks and bright highlights courtesy of cinematographer Joseph LaShelle? This Otto Preminger crime story takes a big step upward in its new Blu-ray incarnation.
Where the Sidewalk Ends is an interesting crossroads noir, poised between the expressionist ‘forties and the realist ‘fifties. It looks like a largely on-the-lot production, Fox having backed away from its all-location ethic of a few years before. It’s about sleazy cops and sleazier crooks, yet includes Gene Tierney to up the glamour quotient. It acknowledges the possibility of police corruption and hints at departmental flaws more extensive than lone rogue cop Dana Andrews. But at the wind-up the old values prevail: the rogue cop is motivated by guilt into doing the right thing and making a noble sacrifice. As an example of the outgoing value system, Sidewalk is a highly entertaining thriller.
Otto Preminger’s classy direction and the seemingly eternal night in New York work up a powerful noir charge, and good supporting actors and convincing art direction make us believe what we’re seeing. And the fantasy of picking up Gene Tierney by just asking her to dinner is undeniably irresistible. Ben Hecht is the key credited writer, with Victor Trivas and future producers Frank P. Rosenberg and Robert E. Kent. I would imagine that William L. Stuart’s novel underwent a serious cleanup on the way to the screen.
Hotheaded detective Mark Dixon (Dana Andrews) is demoted for excessive brutality while the overeager Lt. Thomas (Karl Malden) wins the job of new department commander. Mark then goes out to arrest Ken Paine (Craig Stevens), a suspected murderer in a knifing at a floating crap game. When Paine attacks him Mark counters with one blow … that leaves Paine dead. Told that the dead man was a decorated war hero, Mark dumps the body and rigs the death scene to pin the murder on Scalise (Gary Merrill), the racketeer most likely responsible for the original killing. Mark meets and falls in love with Paine’s widow, model Morgan Taylor (Gene Tierney) and re-acquaints himself with her father, cabdriver Jiggs (Tom Tully), who helped him catch a crook four years before. But complications ensue. The efficient Lt. Thomas makes a good case against Jiggs as the killer. Mark must stand by as an innocent man is railroaded by the system.
Where the Sidewalk Ends starts with a fairly corny image of feet walking over the titles chalked into a literal sidewalk, and then stepping into a gutter. Thus begins an essentially moral tale about the dangers of transgressing from the straight and true. But the movie never quite makes it into the gutter. We only see Mark Dixon picking fights with Scalise, after being provoked. We never see him beating up crime suspects, which leaves a gap between the nice guy he seems to be and the kinds of activities that have put him in the doghouse with his police superiors. We learn that Mark knocked a watchman out cold while tossing a dead body off a pier, but are denied seeing it for ourselves. Either the censors were tightening the screws after a few postwar years of violent license in crime thrillers, or Fox didn’t want Mark Dixon’s positive status marred by images of brutality. He just got finished accidentally killing a man with one blow, and now he’s klonking a helpless old watchman over the head hard enough to knock him unconscious? Only in the movies is violence like that passed off as non-lethal. Early editions of Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward’s Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style print the telltale photo of Dixon throwing Paine’s body off the wharf.
Mark Dixon is given a five-dollar motivation for his brutality: his dad was a gangster, see? In real life the proven context for cops that abuse suspects is institutionalized thuggery, mixed with bigotry and racism. In certain police cultures extreme interrogation techniques to intimidate ‘interviewees’ was and still is a given. Where the Sidewalk Ends hints at this hypocrisy when Mark’s new commander Lt. Thomas is told to ‘get the information out of a suspect using the methods Dixon would use.’ Of course, none of that violence is depicted either. Under the Production Code, the movies generally upheld the integrity of the police. I’m surprised that the 1950 Code office let the dialogue reference pass.
But Dixon is a tough-guy hero so his (unseen) violence is all committed in the spirit of crime busting. We’re on his side as he goes through a personal ordeal of atonement, offering himself as a sacrifice to nail a crook, save a wrongly accused man and clear his name. The story conflicts quickly pile up. Dixon swears loyalty to the force but is the first to admit that the system has put the innocent Jiggs on a fast track to the electric chair. Lt. Thomas is keen to make a big score on his first night of service, and nobody bats an eye when he constructs a case against Jiggs based on a lot of guesswork. Does the emotional Jiggs look like the kind of guy who could kill a man, and then operate so cooly? We hear that Paine was “bleeding all over the stairwell,” so why does nobody check Jiggs’ taxi to see if it shows that a leaky dead body had been stashed in its trunk for the better part of an hour?
Mark must be really disturbed to go really rogue, covering up an accident so it looks like murder. Paine attacked him with a bottle, and he was just defending himself. Mark’s superior Inspector Foley (Robert F. Simon) has dressed him down for his lousy attitude, but if Mark leveled with him he’d probably be okay. The department will surely consider all alternatives before putting one of its own on trial. But Dixon reacts so erratically, we have to think he’s emotionally unbalanced. If he’s that unstable, how does he commit to such decisive action later on? Where the Sidewalk Ends depends a lot on star power for its credibility.
Preminger’s emotionally neutral approach causes us to wonder if some subtleties were even consciously considered. The character that possesses the self-control that Mark and Scalise lack is none other than Scalise’s thug bodyguard, Steve (an unbilled Neville Brand). Steve calmly warns Scalise against killing Dixon, because “killing a cop brings down too much heat.” For once, Savant agrees that a supporting character is probably meant to be homosexual. Neville Brand’s Steve alternates between roughing up Dixon and giving his boss massages. He provides a guiding sensibility for Scalise, and seems genuinely concerned with his welfare. Considering that actor Neville Brand specialized in playing psychotic killers, as in Rudolph Maté’s D.O.A., this Steve is an interesting character creation.
Nowadays the big issue would be Mark’s insistence on coming clean at the end, and confessing. The bad publicity for the department would certainly prompt the head cop to suggest that he just forget the whole thing – the coroner can testify that Ken Paine had a glass head. In a way, Scalise did kill Paine, by framing him for murder. Steve has already implicated Scalise in the other murder, too. Why Inspector Foley holds Mark for a murder charge is strange, when involuntary manslaughter is more appropriate. What Dixon did is innocent, when compared to a suspect death that occurs beacuse cops put a choke hold on him, or bind him in such a way that he expires from stress or exhaustion.
Mark Dixon’s personal anguish over harming Morgan Taylor and her father Jiggs motivates his actions and gives Where the Sidewalk Ends its emotional conflict. We accept Morgan’s falling in love with Dixon because we like the idea of Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews together, a residual effect from Laura. In real life we’d be wondering about their relationship. It doesn’t look good when a woman takes up with a man involved in her husband’s death, even if her husband was a rat. And (spoiler) it also doesn’t seem quite right when Morgan so calmly forgives Mark for making her father suffer the third degree while in police hands. The excitable old fellow might have had a heart attack in jail. A different writer could easily make the Morgan Taylor character into a conniving femme fatale, who maneuvered her worthless hubby Ken Paine into dire straits with the mob. She’d naturally be overjoyed when she finds out that Dixon has gotten rid of Paine for her. And Dixon is handsome and available, too.
Where the Sidewalk Ends has an interesting criminal villain in Gary Merrill’s Scalise, the kind of crook that doesn’t shrink from the police and laughs up his sleeve at Dixon’s attempts to intimidate him. It’s interesting to compare Merrill’s floating craps game with the fairy-tale perpetrated in Guys and Dolls, Loesser and Burrows’ Broadway show that premiered the same year. In addition to his secret gambling, Scalise isn’t above all kinds of craven villainy, fleecing and then murdering the unlucky Morrison (Harry Von Zell) and framing Ken Paine for murder.
Preminger’s camera direction is almost invisible, with the Fox art department making equally undetectable blends between location work and studio shoots. One angle of a taxi pulling up to a building appears to be filmed on the same New York street as the famous shot in Once Upon a Time in America showing a giant bridge stretching out beyond the buildings.
The acting is all smooth and measured, with Dana Andrews once again proving himself the perfect leading man for Otto Preminger. This is also one of Gene Tierney’s better pictures, even though her role is to merely be ladylike and nobly upset through most of the film. It’s amusing that her Morgan Taylor is the daughter of a cab driver, yet carries herself with an elegance of a socialite born into money. Tierney was apparently having romantic difficulties at this time, and I don’t know whether this film came before or after she was sent to London to film Night and the City. Where the Sidewalk Ends is a much better vehicle for her.
The movie is ridiculously stingy with on-screen credits — even actors playing pivotal parts go unbilled, such as Robert F. Simon and Neville Brand. Among the eight names that make the cut, Bert Freed stands out as Dixon’s partner, who tries to steer the rogue cop back to good behavior. The future Peter Gunn Craig Stevens had been acting for ten years already, and does well with his bit as a war hero gone bad. Karl Malden’s chief of detectives is undeveloped, at least on the thematic plane: his rush to judgment is not laudable, but his detective skills seem very impressive. Pre-code comedienne Ruth Donnelly is in to deliver snappy Ben Hecht banter in a number of restaurant scenes. The beautiful Kathleen Hughes (It Came from Outer Space and Chili Williams (of pin-up fame) can be spotted, as can Gene Tierney’s then-husband, designer Oleg Cassini.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Where the Sidewalk Ends is one of the best-looking scans I’ve seen of a classic-era film noir. It’s an exceptionally clean transfer of an almost perfect film element. Joseph LaShelle’s glowing B&W cinematography is a pleasure to watch. One great angle tucks the camera into an automobile elevator in a tall building, riding up with a limo full of gangsters, without a cut. Cyril Mockridge did the score, but Alfred Newman’s “Street Scene” theme is almost the only music heard that catches the ear. It’s whistled under the main credits. Zanuck sure liked to cut corners when he could … I don’t know how expensive movie scores were in relative terms but I’ll bet his music recycling policy made the music department uneasy.
Twilight Time re-runs the excellent DVD audio commentary from Noir expert and author Eddie Muller. The entertaining Muller relates Sidewalk to other rogue cop movies and brings in other well-researched avenues of thought. He goes into welcome detail on the bit players, even stage actor Don Appell’s only movie appearance. A tough-minded trailer is included as well. Julie Kirgo’s insert essay relates the problems in Andrews’ and Tierney’s personal lives to the compromised characters they play.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Where the Sidewalk Ends Blu-ray rates:
Supplements: Isolated Score Track, audio commentary with Eddie Muller, trailer, Julie Kirgo liner notes
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 19, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson