Noirvember Review: ‘Where the Sidewalk Ends’
Every November fans of classic cinema celebrate one of the great genres of filmdom, the film noir. These beloved films ensure fans get their fill of; gritty streets, tough detectives, dark alleys, mysterious femme fatales, seedy bars, villainous gangsters, and a unique moody style. This month I will be looking at some of the great noir films of all time for what has been dubbed Noirvember.
In 1944 Fox execs largely ignored first-time director Otto Preminger and actors Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney as they worked on a film together. The end result was the critical and commercial smash Laura which still stands as one of the watershed pictures of the film noir movement. In 1950, Fox brought Preminger, Andrews and Tierney together once again to venture into cinema’s dark shadowy underbelly. This time the end result was the bleak and gritty masterpiece Where the Sidewalk Ends.
Crooked detective Mark Dixon hopes to turn the tide on a failing career in law enforcement by taking down the gangster Scalise, who has evaded conviction for years. While questioning a belligerent associate of the crook, Dixon gets into a scuffle and kills the man. Already in hot water with his new boss, the detective hastily works to cover up his murder. Hoping to steer the investigation towards Scalise, Dixon gets to know the estranged wife of the man he murdered, Morgan. Despite how bad of an idea it is he gets involved on a personal level with the now widow and the two begin to develop feelings towards each other. When the body he carefully disposed of in the river surfaces, Mark Dixon’s plans grow even more complicated, especially when Morgan’s father is made the prime suspect.
In Laura moviegoers watched an atmosphere of high society with Dana Andrews’ detective as an outsider in that world. In Where the Sidewalk Ends, Preminger chose instead to take moviegoers into a dark lawless urban wasteland and this time Andrews’ detective is right at home. This becomes apparent in just the opening credits as instead of a proper musical score we hear a simple whistling with the camera focused squarely on a rain-soaked gutter. From there we ride along with two cops to the precinct, the only sound is the chaos of the urban wilderness. This is a movie which remains almost exclusively in back alleys, illegal betting parlors, dive bars, chop shops and slummy apartment buildings. This is the kind of world a manipulative thug hiding behind a badge like Dixon can survive. Preminger’s creative camerawork works wonders in immersing the viewer in the bad part of town forcing them into a world they likely would never venture to in real life. To this end Preminger re-teamed with Laura cinematographer Joseph LaShelle who truly captured the rough and tumble inner city. The dialogue crackles thanks to Chicago-crime reporter turned screenwriter Ben Hecht who brought a heavy dose of hard reality to the proceedings.
This easily stands as one of the best performances in the storied career of the great Dana Andrews. Detective Mark Dixon is a fascinating antihero, an amoral crook who hides behind a badge making him quite unpopular among his fellow detectives. At one point one of his superiors calls him a “barrel house vag” in a reprimand (in 21st century speak translates to a vagrant who haunts a rough and tumble bar). Since he and the audience are the only ones in on what is at play, Preminger allows Andrews to tell his entire story using only body language and facial expressions. We see in carefully shot close-ups the entire thought process going through Dixon’s mind as he tries to evade his comeuppance. No matter how much he eventually wishes to escape his past, this dirty cop knows deep-down it will always catch-up with him. While he could have easily been a one-dimensional corrupt cop, we see a fully realized character. He may be unscrupulous but we know how his brain works. His co-star Gene Tierney played the necessary role she had in other film noirs, with the exception of course of Leave Her to Heaven, as the lone bright spot in a dark world. Naturally, the actress thrives in this role with a performance that is so completely natural despite the rough treatment she endured at the hands of a tyrannical Preminger.
In an era where we see so frequently on the news police hiding behind their profession when their recklessness leaves someone dead Where the Sidewalk Ends resonates strongly with modern audience. The film radiates the bleak cynicism prevalent in the noir movement which translates perfectly in our contemporary times. The “bad cop” would go on to become a popular figure in film noir, but Where the Sidewalk Ends was the first of its kind and went a long way in establishing this character archetype for future films.