Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950 USA 95 mins)

Where the Sidewalk Ends

Source: NLA Prod Co: 20th Century-Fox Prod, Dir: Otto Preminger Scr: Ben Hecht from a novel by William L. Stuart Phot: Joseph LaShelle Ed: Louis Loeffler Art Dir: Lyle Wheeler, J. Russell Spencer Mus: Cyril Mockridge

Cast: Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney, Gary Merrill, Bert Freed, Karl Malden, Neville Brand

Where the Sidewalk Ends marks a specific moment in Otto Preminger’s directorial career. After the overwhelming success of Laura (1944), he made 11 more films before he turned independent with The Moon is Blue (1953). As Peter Bogdanovich points out, Preminger never repeated the commercial success of Laura, yet, in the following nine years, he produced a string of minor successes: Fallen Angel (1945), Daisy Kenyon (1947), Whirlpool (1949), Where the Sidewalk Ends and Angel Face (1952). However, these complex and revealing cinematic texts remain significant for the reading and interpretation of his work. (1)

An adaptation of William L. Stuart’s novel Night Cry, Sidewalk is an ostensibly simple tale, told with dark and ferocious intensity. In it, Preminger examines the social aftermath of the war against the squalor, corruption and desperation of 1950s America. The film is set in New York, a doleful metropolis of crime and violence; a city with no limits, no values and absolutely no rules, inhabited by a series of disillusioned and insecure loners who are casualties of urban decline and apathy. As Thomas Elsaesser points out, Preminger belongs to a group of directors influenced by German Expressionism and Max Reinhardt, who developed a new visual culture in the period following the domination of silent film with his theatrical methods of mise en scène. (2) The brooding atmosphere of mysterious nocturnal underworld, enhanced by cinematographer Joseph LaShelle, intensifies a sense of predestination, characteristic of early expressionist dramas and typical for the texture of film noir. In this ambience, bereft of compassion and understanding, in which everyone informs on everyone else and even the omniscient police have something to hide, the dwarfed and marginalised human figure is bound to fight for redemption and survival.

Sidewalk reflects a specific phase in the development of film noir. Thomas Shatz notes that Hollywood continued to turn out film noir in the early 1950s, including two classics, Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder) and The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston), both made in 1950. However, in spite of this, the big production houses backed away from the social-problem drama, opting for low-budget and low-risk thrillers such as: Panic in the Streets (Elia Kazan, 1950), No Way Out (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950), Night and the City (Jules Dassin, 1950) and Sidewalk, avoiding the wrath of conservative critics and social watchdogs. (3) As Paul Schrader establishes, films produced in this period mainly concentrate on the forces of personal disintegration: “After ten years of steadily shedding romantic conventions, the later noir films finally got down to the root causes of the period: the loss of public honor, heroic conventions, personal integrity, and, finally, psychic stability.” (4)

The dismal and transient relationships of Preminger’s characters suggest that they are bereft of emotional and personal harmony. This theme, central to his work in the 1940s and 1950s, emerges here as a specific dramaturgical feature in the narrative structure of the film, because, as Elsaesser suggests, “the drama moves towards its resolution by having the central conflicts successively externalised and projected into direct action.” (5) This is particularly true of the main character in the film, a cynical and ruthless police investigator, Mark Dixon (Dana Andrews), haunted by his father’s criminal past. Preminger portrays Dixon as a troubled and unhappy loner, whose investigation of the New York underworld reveals the intensity of an Oedipal quest. Pursuing his father’s former companion, Tommy Scalise (Gary Merrill), the detective accidentally kills Ken Paine (Craig Stevens). He conceals the crime by creating a false alibi and continues the investigation, allowing for a case against wrongfully accused taxi driver, Jiggs Taylor (Thomas Lee Tully). Dixon’s simmering anger and obsessive pursuit of Scalise reveal the loss of social coordinates, moral and professional integrity, and mental stability in the doomed and claustrophobic urban underworld. As Janey Place puts it, describing the dilemmas of male protagonists in film noir, “[M]an has been inexplicably uprooted from those values that offer him meaning and stability, and in the almost exclusively urban landscape of film noir […] he is struggling for a foothold in a maze of right and wrong. He has no reference points, no moral base from which to confidently operate. Any previous framework is cut loose and morality becomes ‘relative,’ both externally […] and internally. Values, like identities, are constantly shifting and must be redefined at every turn.” (6) It is not surprising that Dixon’s Oedipal equation of masculinity with power and authority gradually evolves into a feverish search for moral and emotional identity. His relationship with Paine’s former wife and Taylor’s daughter, Morgan (Gene Tierney) forces him to confront his fears and eventually confess to the crime.

Preminger’s detailed and articulate characterisation reveals that Dixon is surrounded by characters who are also trying to put their gloomy personal lives behind them. His girlfriend Morgan is trying to forget a failed marriage to an depressive war veteran prone to criminality, while his partner Steve (Neville Brand) lives in a dismal relationship marred by poverty and disagreements; and the owner of the restaurant Dixon frequents Martha (Ruth Donnelly) is recovering from a marriage to a ruthless, abusive husband. Stranded between destructive communal and dysfunctional family life, the characters strive to show their essential need and desire to belong, to disclose their emotional self and create relationships of confidence and understanding in an atmosphere of existential and emotional insecurity.

The director is less concerned with the narrative development and mechanisms of noir thriller than the moral dilemmas of his protagonists, which, paradoxically, remain largely unresolved as the film unfolds. The death of a dismal war veteran and the incrimination of an aged and impoverished taxi driver are marginalised by the gangster tale and Dixon’s cathartic confession. Yet, even then, the film remains open ended. Dixon’s resolute decision to deal with the consequences of his crime, and Taylor’s faith in the society’s capacity to reform and rehabilitate a ‘fallen’ individual sound naive and contradictory in a climate of despair and moral disillusionment. This may well evince Brian Neve’s contention that, in its era, film noir generally evaded social and political scrutiny. (7) Nevertheless, Preminger’s uncompromisingly bleak, sombre vision of 1950s America persistently reminds the audience that Dixon and Taylor face the wrath of a society that denies any possibility of purgation.

Preminger selected an experienced cast and crew that had continuously worked on most of his films throughout the 1940s. Stuart’s novel was adapted by Ben Hecht, who worked with the director on Whirlpool. Other scriptwriters included Frank Rosenberg, former art director with Pabst, Victor Trivas, and the star of 1930s B grade movies, Robert Kent. The oppressive and claustrophobic visual compositions of cinematographer Joseph LaShelle (Laura, The Fan [1949] and The Thirteenth Letter [1951]) give a specific dimension to the film narrative, while the musical score of Cyril Mockridge, enhances the dramatic tension and sense of expectation besieging the main protagonist. Preminger assigned the two leading roles to Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney who played the leading characters in Laura. Andrews, who worked with Preminger on Fallen Angel and Daisy Kenyon is convincing as a ruthless, but vulnerable character, while Tierney, who also appeared in the leading role in Whirlpool, successfully portrays a beautiful woman who is a victim of tragic circumstances. The performances of two renowned Hollywood actors who never reached the status of stars, but maintained powerful cinematic presence as the central figures of Preminger’s cinema of the 1940s, make the viewing of this bleak, exciting and often brutal film an engaging experience.

Otto Preminger as Producer and Director

Laura 1944;
Fallen Angel 1945;
Centennial Summer 1946;
Daisy Kenyon 1947;
The Fan 1949;
Whirlpool, Where the Sidewalk Ends 1950;
The Thirteenth Letter 1951;
Angel Face, The Moon is Blue 1953;
Carmen Jones 1954;
The Man With the Golden Arm 1955;
Saint Joan 1957;
Bonjour Tristesse 1958;
Anatomy of a Murder 1959;
Exodus 1960;
Advise and Consent 1962;
The Cardinal 1963;
In Harm’s Way, Bunny Lake is Missing 1965;
Hurry Sundown 1967;
Skidoo! 1968;
Tell Me That You Love Me Junie Moon 1970;
Such Good Friends 1971;
Rosebud 1975;
The Human Factor 1980.

Endnotes

  1. Peter Bogdanovich, Who the Devil Made It? New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997, p. 611.
  2. Amongst others, Elsaesser mentions Ophuls, Lubitsch, Sirk, Preminger, Welles, Losey, Ray, Minnelli and Cukor. Thomas Elsaesser, “Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Melodrama,” in Christine Gledhill (Ed), Home is Where the Heart is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman’s Film. London: BFI, 1987, p.51. First published in Monogram No. 4, 1972, pp.2-15.
  3. Thomas Shatz, Boom and Bust: The American Cinema in the 1940s. New York: Simon & Schuster Macmillan, 1997, p. 386.
  4. Paul Schrader, “Notes on Film Noir,” Film Comment, 8:1, Spring 1972, p.12.
  5. Thomas Elsaesser, “Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Melodrama,” p.55.
  6. Janey Place, “Women in Film Noir,” in Anne Kaplan (Ed.), Women in Film Noir. London: BFI, 1980, p.31
  7. Brian Neve, Film and Politics in America: A Social Tradition. New York: Routledge, 1992, p.147. Also quoted in Thomas Shatz, Boom and Bust: The American Cinema in the 1940s, p.386.

About The Author

Boris Trbic teaches Scriptwriting at Swinburne University of Technology (TAFE) and Screen Language at RMIT University (TAFE) in Melbourne. He is a reviewer on 3RRR’s Film Buffs’ Forecast, and writes screenplays, short fiction and occasional pieces about oriental carpets.