Wednesday, March 17, 2010

#35: Where the Sidewalk Ends (Otto Preminger, 1950)

Released: June 26, 1950

Otto Preminger; Screenplay: Ben Hecht, Robert E. Kent, Frank P. Rosenberg, Victor Trivas based on the novel “Night Cry” by William L. Stuart; Cinematography: Joseph LaShelle; Music: Cyril J. Mockridge; Producer: Otto Preminger; Studio: 20th Century Fox

Cast: Dana Andrews (Detective Sgt. Mark Dixon), Gene Tierney (Morgan Taylor-Paine), Gary Merrill (Tommy Scalise), Bert Freed (Detective Sgt. Paul Klein), Tom Tully (Jiggs Taylor), Karl Malden (Detective Lt. Thomas), Ruth Donnelly (Martha), Craig Stevens (Ken Paine), Neville Brand (Steve), Oleg Cassini (Oleg), Kathleen Hughes (Secretary), Lou Nova (Ernie), Harry von Zell (Ted Morrison)

- "Innocent people can get into terrible jams too..."

Many of the actors and principal figures involved in production may be the same, but this 1950 release from director Otto Preminger is entirely differently from the critically-acclaimed Laura. Where Laura is sophisticated and witty, spinning a yarn centering on a high society whodunit,Where the Sidewalk Ends goes back to where noir thrives – the streets. In this film, Preminger walks the audience through a dark, gritty view of the underworld and gives an intimate view of how one many wrestles with demons that he has carried with him his entire life. Laura may be charming, but Where the Sidewalk Ends is rough. And both are great films. Laura quickly achieved the status that it deserves and is rightly held up as one of the preeminent films of the 1940s. Where the Sidewalk Ends, on the other hand, seems to get overlooked by other Preminger films. Perhaps people compare it to Laura, which is understandable considering the lead pairing, and see it as inferior. Personally, I go back and forth on which of the two that I prefer. Laura is undoubtedly the greater of the two, but in terms of a noir countdown like this, I have been tempted to place this one above it. In the end, since Laura has yet to appear in the countdown, I obviously chose the more conventional position. But I still think that Where the Sidewalk Ends is every bit as entertaining and well-made as its more popular counterpart.

Dana Andrews stars as brooding NYPD Detective Sgt. Mark Dixon. Very early in the film it is established that Dixon has a history of brutality, working over suspects in order to get confessions. When he is sent to investigate a recent murder and robbery at a late-night dice game run by mob boss Tommy Scalise (Gary Merrill), he once again takes things too far. Rather than just roughing up smalltime hood Ken Paine (Craig Stevens), Dixon inadvertently kills the man in his apartment. In order to cover it up, Dixon fixes the evidence to look like a gangland rubout engineered by his longtime nemesis Scalise. It looks like an easy frame-up, as Scalise was involved in the original killing, but things are complicated when Dixon gets to know his own victim’s ex-wife, Morgan (Gene Tierney). Morgan and Ken Paine had been separated after a rocky relationship and as police continue their investigation, many – led by Detective Lt. Thomas (Karl Malden) – in the department begin to suspect Morgan’s father Jiggs (Tom Tully) as Ken’s killer. Dixon is then forced to begin working not only to keep suspicion away from himself, but to keep Morgan’s father from taking the fall. All the while, he and the Scalise gang remained locked in a cat-and-mouse game that will likely have violent consequences.

If I remembered where I read it I would give proper credit, but somewhere among the various film and noir books and resources I’ve perused over the years, I remember someone saying that while Laura is all about Gene Tierney, Where the Sidewalk Ends is all about Dana Andrews. I don’t completely agree with this assessment – I think that the character study of Andrews’ McPherson is far too interesting to completely disregard – but I get the general sentiment that is being proposed with such a declaration. It is true that the shadow of Tierney’s Laura Hunt hangs over everything that takes place in that film. In Where the Sidewalk Ends, though, it really is all about Dixon and the demons that he has battled his entire career as an officer. This is a man trying to live down the notorious past of his father, resulting in a detective who will go to any length in order to stamp out what he perceives to be crime or corruption. Maybe it is an often-used parallel to juxtapose the criminal methods that Dixon uses a detective with the equally brutal methods of the hoods he hunts, but it is still incredibly effective. With the exception of Morgan and her father Jiggs, nobody in the film is particularly likable, meaning that you’re scrambling to decide how you think the story should unfold – does Dixon pull off the frame? Does he go down for the murder? In the corrupt world in which he operates, does it even matter in the end?

I don't think this one necessarily qualifies as underrated, but I do think that it pushes very close to being my favorite work from Otto Preminger.


  1. Dave, a great film! Dark, gritty and well acted. Preminger and LaShelle created a bleak squalid post war America. My only problem with it is the ending which rings a false note considering all that has come before. That said, this is a must for any fan of noir.

  2. My favorite Premingers now are LAURA and BONJOUR TRISTESSE, but you make some persuasive points here including this:

    "Where Laura is sophisticated and witty, spinning a yarn centering on a high society whodunit,Where the Sidewalk Ends goes back to where noir thrives – the streets. In this film, Preminger walks the audience through a dark, gritty view of the underworld and gives an intimate view of how one many wrestles with demons that he has carried with him his entire life. Laura may be charming, but Where the Sidewalk Ends is rough...."

    That said, I don't rate this film as highly as you do, but I can't at all fault you for thinking otherwise; still it's a solid piece with great work by Andrews and Tierney and bravura camerawork. Another welcome surprise choice though. I suspect LAURA will be up higher, and I would concur on that.

  3. I have yet to see a Preminger movie that I won't like... I adore him!

    Dana Andrews is one of my all-time favorite actors. No one could do vulnerable as he: His eyes seem to reflect all the world's sorrows...

  4. Dave, I have problems with Preminger as a director. I've never understood the reputation he enjoys among film critics. And he certainly doesn't strike me as fitting the definition of an auteur, which to me means a director who has a fairly consistent style and a persistent interest in certain themes. Andrew Sarris seems to think that his preference for very long takes constitutes a style, and Preminger says that preference comes from his background in theater. But I wonder if this is not more of an economic consideration than an artistic one. Preminger was known as an efficient director (and producer) who brought his projects in on time and on budget, and it seems to me that it's far easier to use a smaller number of long takes than a larger number of highly edited short takes--it takes less time (and to a producer time is money) to plan the movie in advance and to move the camera and the actors around than to indulge in numerous camera set-ups, changes of location, and placement of actors, then assemble all that footage into a whole in the editing stage as someone like Terrence Malick does. Sarris also thinks that Preminger's "ambiguity of objectivity" (that he doesn't often side clearly with one or the other of his characters or ideas that form the basis of the conflict in the plot) constitutes a thematic preoccupation. I wonder if this isn't rather a laziness of intellect on Preminger's part, a reluctance to think through the implications of the conflict in his plots. Other than his long takes and "objectivity," Preminger's movies seem to me to be all over the map.

    Two of his movies strike me as masterpieces--"Laura" and "Anatomy of a Murder." As for "Laura," he and DP Joseph LaShelle replaced Rouben Mamoulian and Lucien Ballard partway into filming because the movie was falling behind schedule. Ballard has said that he and Mamoulian had planned about 75% of the movie together before leaving the project. Knowing Preminger's reputation for economy (the reason he replaced the original director in the first place), I wonder how much of Mamoulian's work he discarded. It seems quite possible that he went ahead and made the movie as Mamoulian had planned it, which would explain why to me it seems so different from the rest of his films.

    Now, as for "Where the Sidewalk Ends," this is my next favorite Preminger movie after those two masterpieces. Maybe because he didn't aim so high as in some of his other movies or overcomplicate the plot, it seems more successful to me, admirable in its surface simplicity. Preminger often incorporated elements of noir into his early films, but this one strikes me as pure noir, whereas "Laura" is more romance-mystery-noir. So I don't think you're overrating it at all. I do agree that the film is all about Andrews, and I think your analysis of his character and his dilemma is spot on. This and "The Best Years of Our Lives" are my two favorite performances by Andrews, one of the most interesting actors of the 40s. Here he conveys the inner conflict of the character, torn between noble and ignoble impulses, expertly. This movie makes an interesting comparison with "On Dangerous Ground," where Robert Ryan's character, another brutal cop, is in many ways quite similar.

  5. Second best noir by Preminger after Laura. My feelings on this film are similar to yours on Pickup On South Street. It just seems that something is missing overall to declare this a great film. I agree with John that the ending is rather weak. Andrews spends the whole film evading detection and covering up the evidence against him. The movie is basically his attempt to avoid being caught that when he willfully turns himself in at the end you wonder why he went through all the trouble. I guess I answered my own question as to why this film falls somewhat short. I do love the mood/look of the picture. My comments seem negative but I do like this film. As to Preminger's greatness as a director, Laura is the only film I would rate 5 stars or a 10. I do find his overall body of work to be slightly overrated but he made quite a few worthwhile pictures......M.Roca

  6. John - Yes, the ending does leave something to be desired, but I almost take it as par for the course considering this era of Hollywood. As you rightly say, there remains plenty here for a connoisseur of noir to enjoy.

    Sam - Thanks... I completely understand your feelings toward this one and know that I rate it a bit higher than many other people. Yes, it's not quite to the level of Laura, but I think it's close.

    Quirky Character - Agreed about Andrews... a truly great actor.

    R.D. - Incredible response here and it's much appreciated. I'll slightly disagree on the "masterpiece" label. I certainly think it applies to Laura, but Anatomy of a Murder has never done anything for me. Your analysis concerning Preminger is impressive, but I have to admit to not having considered things as in depth, at least in terms of his overall body of work. There are some Premingers that I love (this one and Laura), some that I just like (Bonjour Tristesse), and others that I think are downright bad(Bunny Lake is Missing). So my experience with him has been a mixed bag. As for Andrews, I completely agree - a wonderful actor. Thanks again, R.D., for a Hall of Fame caliber response!

    M.Roca - We're on the same page here, it seems. This one and Laura are the only Preminger films I have seen that I truly love. He has others that I enjoy, but these two are easily my favorites.

  7. Our good friend R.D. Finch's response here is unquestionably masterful and his position is incredibly well defended. However I would pose to add BONJOUR TRISTESSE on the masterpiece level with the other two he rightly acknowledges.