Where the Sidewalk Ends(1950) reunites director Otto Preminger with the stars of his iconic 1944 film ‘Laura’, Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney. This is a more darker tale with Andrews playing a morally conflicted, hard-boiled, New York cop who’s trying to stay one step ahead of the law as he obsessively hunts down a mob boss.
When director Otto Preminger teamed up with stars, Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney for the first time, they created a dreamy, romantic Noir classic- the 1944 film “Laura”. When the three came together again, it was for another Noir, the 1950 “Where the Sidewalk Ends.” But this one was a more darker, hard-edged, masculine Noir as opposed to the women centric melodrama that “Laura” was. This one does not have Laura’s glossy production values, romantic underscoring or the wit and sophistication of Clifton Webb. While “Laura” was set in the ritzy upper echelons of New York society, here we’re in the low-rent district of dark streets, hoodlums, cheap restaurants and crummy flats. Unlike “Laura,” Gene Tierney is not the center of attraction here, she’s playing more of a supporting role- perhaps an indication of her waning stardom. She’s as gorgeous as ever, but she works as a department-store mannequin and lives in Washington Heights- as opposed to the luxurious Manhattan apartment of “Laura”. Dana Andrews had by then established himself the go-to-guy for tough guy roles in Noirs and Westerns. He had already made “Fallen Angel” and “Daisy Kenyon” for Preminger in the interim, and had a huge critical and commercial success in William Wyler’s Oscar winning “Best Years of our Lives.” In “Sidewalk”, Andrews plays Detective Mark Dixon. He is a more explicitly cynical, violent, dark and sadder version of the smooth Detective Mark McPherson he played in “Laura”. Dixon despises all criminals because his father was one, and he’s particularly hostile towards mobster Tommy Scalisi (Gary Merrill), because Dixon’s father mentored Scalisi. Dixon almost had Scalisi on a murder charge about a couple of years ago, but Scalisi managed to get himself acquitted. Since then he has been obsessively pursuing Scalisi. Dixon’s attempts at differentiating himself from his father made him choose to become a cop, but it has also made him a rough and violent cop, who is itching to beat up every criminal he encounters. When the film opens, Dixon has once again resorted to violence, and his superior, Inspector Foley (Robert F. Simon) is seen fiercely reprimanding him. Not only that, Dixon is also demoted, and Foley warns him that one more faux pas like this, and Dixon would be walking the beat. Foley also takes great pleasure in pointing out to Dixon that the newly promoted Detective Lt. Thomas (Karl Malden) started in the service at the same time as Dixon. If Dixon had managed to discipline himself, he would have been in Thomas’ position, but as things stand now, Dixon has to report to Thomas; and as we will soon see, Dixon’s intemperance is going to land him in much deeper trouble than he had ever been in.
When a Texas tycoon, Morrison (Harry von Zell) ends up dead at a floating crap game run by Scalisi, Dixon realizes that this is the golden chance to put away the mobster once and for all. We have earlier seen Morrison and Scalisi’s associate, Ken Paine (Craig Stevens) get into a scuffle over Paine’s rough treatment of the beautiful Morgan Taylor (Gene Tierney)- Paine’s estranged wife, whom Paine has brought along so that Morrison would be tempted to tag along to the game. Morrison was actually up $19,000 at this point in the game, and was planning to leave- something Scalisi cannot permit, and he had gestured to Paine to do whatever it takes to stop Morrison from leaving. In the scuffle, Morrison is knocked out, but when Dixon and his partner, Detective Sgt. Paul Klein (Bert Freed) arrive at the scene, Morrison is found stabbed to death. When interrogated, Scalisi puts the finger on Paine as the culprit, though Dixon is sure that Morrison was murdered at Scalisi’s behest . Dixon goes to Paine’s apartment and questions him, but Paine becomes angry and starts a fistfight. An already aggressive Dixon knocks him out with a punch, but on closer inspection, Dixon is shocked to realize that the punch had ended up killing Paine; unknown to Dixon Paine is a War-hero, and a war injury has left Paine with a metal plate in his skull. When he fell, he hit his head and died instantly. Realizing that killing a war-hero would be the end of his career (and maybe even his life)- especially with his past record of violent behavior and reprimands, Dixon creates an elaborate ruse in which he makes it appear that Paine has left town. Then Dixon comes back to pick up the body of Paine, but he’s almost discovered by Morgan’s father, cab driver Jiggs Taylor (Tom Tully), who has come to pick a fight with Paine for his rough treatment of his daughter. Taylor leaves when nobody answers the door, and after he has left, Dixon takes the body and dumps it in the river.
Of course, Dixon is still investigating Morrison’s murder, and in the course of the investigation, he comes close to Morgan and her father. Soon Dixon and Morgan fall in love, and this proves to be particularly inconvenient when Paine’s body is discovered and Morgan’s father – being the last man spotted at Paine’s house – become the chief suspect in Paine’s death. Dixon does his best to pin the two murders on Scalisi, but his superiors are not buying it and they ask him to keep away from the mobster. Detective Thomas takes charge of the investigation and he manages to prove that Paine never left his apartment, and that Taylor is the murderer of Paine. Now a desperate Dixon goes to confront Scalisi face to face and gets into a violent brawl with him and his men. Dixon is brutally beaten up by Scalisi’s thugs, but he somehow makes it out of there. As a last resort to saving Taylor’s life as well as to putting Scalisi behind bars once and for all, Dixon writes a letter of confession regarding Paine’s death. He addresses the envelope to Inspector Foley, making sure that the letter is opened in the event of his death. He then arranges to meet with Scalisi again, fully expecting to be murdered but reasoning that this time Scalisi will be caught for it; but Scalisi has anticipated this, not only that, has has also deduced that it was Dixon who killed Paine. So at the meeting, Scalisi refuses to kill him. But when one of his thugs brings news that the cops have beaten the truth – about the death of Morrison- out of one of his henchman, Scalisi decides to lock Dixon up and leave town with his men. But Dixon once again manages to foil their plans and delay their departure till the cops arrive. The film ends with Dixon voluntarily confessing to the death of Paine; he’s immediately arrested, but Morgan stands by him, and assures him that he will not be convicted for an accidental death.
Though it’s an extremely well-made Noir\detective thriller, with great performances and technical values, the film has a lot of plot holes: the speed (and the evidence) at which Thomas establishes that Taylor is Paine’s murderer is preposterous to say the least. And not so ridiculous, but still exaggerated is Dixon’s fear at being convicted for Paine’s murder. He was a cop under attack, and he acted in self-defense, he could still have walked free, irrespective of his reputation. The screenplay is written by the great Ben Hecht, who adapted this from the novel Night Cry by William L. Stuart. In a career spanning fifty years, Hecht had proved himself to be a master of every conceivable genre, from screwball comedy to Westerns to science fiction to film noir to musicals to thrillers. He had a hand in writing over 100 films and directed seven of them himself, but his specialty has always been writing dark, cynical melodramas; maybe because he himself was cynical about the screenwriting profession. I have not read the novel, Night Cry, so I don’t know whether the plot contrivances came from the novel, but Hecht certainly garnishes the screenplay with his witty and pungent dialogues that cover up most of the script’s faults. Preminger’s direction is also a thing of beauty; his imperceptibly complex, long takes, with exquisite blocking of actors makes the film a pleasure to watch. Check out the climax scene where Andrews drives into Scalisi’s den on a car elevator- a continuous shot that begins in the garage and proceeds all the way up to the top where the hoods are hiding out. Working with his regular collaborators, cinematographer Joseph LaShelle, art director Lyle Wheeler, and editor Louis Loeffler again, Preminger creates the foreboding, fast-paced, chiaroscuro world of film Noir effectively. Almost the entire film is set at night, and even though there’s very little location shooting, the Fox Art department have managed to recreate the seedy downtown streets of New York to perfection on the backlot. The sequences where the film cuts from real locations to the backlot is indistinguishable. Right from the film’s opening sequence where we have the film’s credits written with chalk on the sidewalk and the whistling tune playing on the soundtrack, we know that we are in for a gripping Noir. The pace of the film never slackens, and even in the film’s romantic portions where we have Dixon courting Morgan, Preminger introduces the terrific Ruth Donnelly as the owner of a Manhattan diner called Martha’s which is frequented by Dixon. Donnelly plays as a sort of caustic mother figure to Dixon; her acting talent and Ben Hecht’s dialogue brimming with wit and sarcasm makes sure that she steals every scene she’s in. Preminger and La Shelle also transform Times Square into a menacing place, where only bad things happen, and only the criminal elements roam the night. The film is a prelude to other ‘NYC Noir’ masterpieces like “Sweet Smell of Success” that was shot completely on location and portrays New York as a dirty, corrupt city.
“Sidewalk” belongs to a sub-genre of Noir involving morally ambiguous cops that can be characterized as ‘Rogue-cop’ Noir: movies about police vigilantism, or brutality, focusing on cops who can’t control their violent impulses. The other examples of this kind of Noir from that time includes William Wyler’s “Detective Story” and Fritz Lang’s “The Big Heat.” It’s a kind of subgenre that will find its full bloom two decades later in the form of violent Urban cop drams like “Bullitt,” “The French Connection” and “Dirty Harry“. Like Kirk Douglas in “Detective Story”, Dixon owes his seething contempt for criminals to his father’s criminal past. But while Douglas, and Glenn Ford in “The Big Heat“, are self-righteous and blind to their own faults, Andrews’ Dixon is a vey self-aware character, and he’s burdened by repressed guilt and self-loathing throughout. In his attempts to differentiate himself from his father, he ruthlessly, and rather unnecessarily, pursues his father’s protégée. The result is that he ends up killing an innocent man and framing another innocent man for the crime. In the end he proves that he’s no different from his father, even though he’s a good guy deep down; the character fits into Preminger’s worldview that all cops are legalized killers. And It’s not just Dixon who comes in for scrutiny, but also Karl Malden’s Thomas, who, again, in his self-righteousness and self-assuredness is quick to pin the crime on an innocent man. You can also glimpse the hypocrisy of Inspector Foley, who sternly reprimands Dixon for his brutal tactics, but later counsels Thomas to use Dixon-like tactics to beat the truth out of another hood. In Preminger’s world, cops are as despicable as the criminals they’re chasing. But unlike classic film Noirs, this film does not have the amoral protagonist going down in a downbeat ending. Despite the fact that Dixon is arrested, this film has a more upbeat conclusion that’s totally unusual for the genre. Further, there is no femme fatale, usually an ambiguous seductive woman that manipulates her lover to do something dangerous and amoral. Only the good women – in the form of Morgan- who falls in love and supports the amoral hero through thick and thin is present. Tierney’s Morgan has the potential to be changed into a femme fatale, but the filmmakers did not go that route. I guess these changes is the result of this film being a big-studio Noir, as opposed to a poverty-row studio (read RKO Studio) Noir like “Out of the Past.”
Dana Andrews gives one of his best performances as the seething Detective, Mark Dixon. Andrews gives Dixon a bleak stare and troubled intensity that makes you as uncomfortable as he seems. Dixon is a very cold and distant character who’s difficult to like, but it’s to Andrews’ credit that he makes us understand his motives and sympathize with his plight. His clipped, minimalist style of acting is very effective in portraying a hardboiled detective who’s pretty good at his job, but is also hiding dark secrets even as he’s haunted by his past demons. This is the kind of role that Andrews was born to play- along with Robert Mitchum, he’s the ultimate film Noir hero. The same cannot be said about Gene Tierney, who’s too well groomed and glamorous for the role and her surroundings. She oozes movie star polish and sophistication form her every pore and appears the last person who could get mixed-up with some of these unsavory characters. It’s not really her fault, it’s just the way Tierney comes across. But, she does manages to get a nice chemistry going with Andrews, and her inherent gentleness is perfect for this good girlfriend role . The rest of the cast is just as solid: Karl Malden is sufficiently powerful and intimidating as Detective Thomas with Tom Tully as the boastful, wrongly accused, cab-driver father of Tierney being a real standout. “Sidewalk” came at the end of a cycle of film Noirs that Otto Preminger made at Fox. Preminger was going through a messy divorce from his wife at the time of making this film, and it seemed to have contributed to the bleak, angry nature of this film. Preminger never talked out about this film in later interviews- always claiming that he doesn’t remember much about the making of the film. The film was also a box office flop; in fact, it was the lowest grossing film 20th Century Fox released in 1950, and its box office performance was the lowest the studio had seen since 1947. Earning back a meager $1 Million but costing $1.475 Million to produce. That may have also contributed to Preminger’s lack of enthusiasm for the film. But this is one of the last films that truly showcases Preminger’s filmmaking prowess; because soon, he would become a very different kind of filmmaker- tackling ‘social problem’ pictures and epic dramas, where his filmmaking would become slack, and subservient to the ‘heavy messages’ that are propagated.