Where the Sidewalk Ends | Otto Preminger | USA | 1950 | 95 min
Detective Mark Dixon (Dana Andrews) wants to get away from his father’s reputation. But when he ends up in a criminal situation, he starts to act more like his dad and less like a man on the right side of the law.
My light exposure to Noir is limited to films starring Humphrey Bogart or directed by Howard Hawks. Though those films do have murder, deception and blood, most often romance overrides the plots I’ve seen. Those films are riddled with over-the-top, almost cliché, acting that I took as appropriate for the genre. While I love these films, Where the Sidewalk Ends is superior because of the heaviness of the story, and because it avoids corniness by delivering a truly dark Noir.
Not much is sugar coated. Even the main character, Detective Mark Dixon (Dana Andrews), has an ambiguous nature. He is established as someone who hates criminals and would do anything to catch the right guy. But when Dixon picks up a murder suspect, Ken Paine (Craig Stevens), and accidentally kills him, his immediate and shady actions in attempting to cover-up the murder puts his true character into question. His limit is unclear. The audience shares his perspective though a series of unlucky events, therefore we are forced to abide by his explanations and empathize with him.
Like most Noir films there is a love interest, Morgan Taylor (Gene Tierney), and her involvement in the investigation creates a moral complication for Dixon. Morgan was married to Paine, and it was known that her father despised Paine for how he beat his daughter. When Paine turns up dead, the first one the police bring in for questioning is Morgan’s dad. So while Dixon might have been okay with himself for letting a murderer die, he cannot escape the guilt when the father of the woman he loves might be blamed.
Not only is the story raw and ruthless, it is well crafted and the characters are excellent. The only one-dimensional character is Tommy Scalise (Gary Merrill) who is an all-bad criminal. But Morgan is a much more complex character; she is deceptively strong and knowingly acted weak in her long marriage to a criminal who had taken advantage of her. Plus, Gene Tierney is a babe. The new Lieutenant (Karl Malden) sets up a very logical investigation that is difficult to refute. I’ve loved Malden from On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire, and here he provides an even more assertive performance than Waterfront. But the acting highlight comes from Dana Andrews, who costarred with Tierney in Otto Preminger’s earlier film, Laura (1944). Dixon’s moral ambiguity and self-destruction is the most intriguing part of the film. At the moment he realizes he has killed Paine, his face flashes panic yet his immediate actions suggest an experienced criminal, as if he had covered up a murder before. His facial expression conveys an uneasiness throughout the whole film. Then his face then relaxes.
Where the Sidewalk Ends is different from the Noir films I’ve seen because it relies less on the plot twists to provide entertainment and instead on the simplicities of the story and characters’ questionable nature. Rarely do you see such an unlucky main character, or one who might be more like a criminal than a cop. Because of the beautiful, yet subtle, cinematography and mise-en-scene, it is better to see this film on a big screen. The Wisconsin Film Festival, with a newly restored DCP, gives you that opportunity.