If you find yourself on this sidewalk, Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger urges you to keep one hand on the pepper spray at all times. Do not talk to anyone, especially the police. Get out while you can.
"Blood will tell"—Scalise
We're accustomed to morally ambiguous (or even downright crooked) detectives in modern movies. From the brutal-but-good-hearted Bud White in L.A. Confidential to the thoroughly corrupt Alonzo Harris in Training Day, bad cops fascinate us with their moral dualities. But the bad cop wasn't always a staple of cinema. In fact, most of our beloved, spiritually tarnished detectives can trace their roots directly back to Det. Mark Dixon and Where the Sidewalk Ends.
Facts of the Case
Morgan Taylor (Gene Tierney, Night and the City) and her washed-up husband Ken (Craig Stevens, S.O.B.) are out gambling at a dice joint run by gangster Tommy Scalise (Gary Merrill, All About Eve). Ken winds up dead. Morgan's father Jiggs (Tom Tully, Love Me or Leave Me) is arrested for the murder because freshly minted Lieutenant Thomas (Karl Malden, A Streetcar Named Desire) wants to make a quick bust.
This blitzkrieg of detective work doesn't sit well with Det. Sgt. Mark Dixon (Dana Andrews, Laura), who is investigating the murder along with his partner, Paul (Bert Freed, 711 Ocean Drive). Dixon suspects that Tommy Scalise and his grimy hoods have something to do with the murder. He also knows something else that will cause him to disobey his superiors, cold shoulder his partner, and cozy up to Morgan in her time of need. As Scalise knows, blood will tell. Will the telling prove Dixon to be decent or black-hearted?
Where the Sidewalk Ends is a good noir film. Otto Preminger's subtle, effective camera movements and stark lighting give the picture an iconic quality. Tierney and Andrews reforge some of their Laura chemistry. And the morally wretched plot is involving enough to keep us tuned in.
Though it's good, at first glance Where the Sidewalk Ends doesn't seem good enough to explain its enduring influence over decades of hardboiled cinema. Otto broke ground with his depiction of morally ambiguous police officers, and films have been referencing his take on the subject ever since. There is more than a little Mark Dixon in L.A. Confidential's Bud White. Both use their fists instead of their mouths. Both are trying to escape the shadows of their criminal fathers. They fly off the handle at wife beaters. They both find peace in the love of a sweetheart bombshell stuck in a crummy situation (a situation that was made worse by the detectives' respective investigations). Russell Crowe even adopts the set jaw and brooding gaze that characterize Andrews's depiction of Dixon (with some success).
Dixon is not the only cop in Where the Sidewalk Ends with modern legs. Det. Nick Curran's trusty, rotund partner Gus in Basic Instinct is the spitting image of Dixon's partner Paul. Both have a laconic bluster that masks acute shrewdness. Both know that something is eating their counterpart, but they give space where it is needed. Both chastise the leads for falling for a woman. It isn't so much the specific behaviors as the general attitudes of the actors; more than once I found myself mentally referencing Gus when Paul was on screen, just as Dixon evoked Bud White. It isn't just the detectives, either. Scalise, Morgan, even Lieutenant Thomas have identifiable clones in modern crime films. Taken as a whole, Preminger's realization of the characters in Ben Hecht's screenplay started an archetypal ripple that has yet to abate.
With that in mind, is it right to move Where the Sidewalk Ends from good noir to great noir?
Further examination will reveal that Preminger's seeming effortlessness is actually hard-earned. Where the Sidewalk Ends seems straightforward, even simple, yet it is anything but.
The film has a wide open feel. Even when he's behind closed doors, Dixon seems to be in a maze of transparent walls with eyes boring into his back. New York City is vast and teeming with people who can give him up at a moment's notice. Yet the vast majority of Where the Sidewalk Ends takes place in small, even cramped, interior sets. Preminger's use of establishing shots is so judicious and so masterful that the scarce location footage suggests a massive environment. Dixon's delicate dance into and out of an apartment set is laced with palpable tension and a sense of space that belie the modest set where most of the action takes place.
For his part, Dana Andrews is sublimely nuanced in his portrayal of the conflicted detective. In many scenes, Andrews simply stands in stony silence while others talk, but our eyes are riveted on the storm of his face. He is fearful of being caught, and morally bankrupt enough to cover his own misdeeds. Yet Andrews also clearly portrays a sense of honor, a desire to right the wrongs he has committed. Andrews somehow gets across this delicate spiritual quandary with pursed lips and quivering eyebrows alone.
Cinematographer Joseph LaShelle earns his paycheck with a series of dramatic and subtle camera textures. One shot of Mark Dixon could be the definitive shot of the doomed noir detective: he stands in a doorway, his black overcoat merging seamlessly with a lance of shadow while a stray beam of light brings his conflicted features into view. There's a time-lapse intrusion of unwelcome daylight that somehow seems more forbidding than the darkness. A simple elevated train stop becomes a fearsome, screeching omen of doom. And the car-in-the-elevator take at the conclusion of the film has a jolting immediacy.
But Where the Sidewalk Ends is most laudable for what isn't there. There isn't any corny dialogue, even when phrases are artificially structured to comply with Code. There's little false sentiment. There's no neat wrap-up, even during the neat wrap-up. In fact, Where the Sidewalk Ends takes very few false steps. This, more than anything, reveals the greatness inherent in the film, and explains its enduring appeal.
Fox has provided a crisp, detailed transfer with strong contrast. There is little perceptible print damage. Aside from a couple of brief stretches where edge enhancement becomes noticeable, the transfer seems to be free of digital manipulation. If only all noir prints were transferred this cleanly!
Commentator Eddie Muller is an interesting guy. He lives and breathes film noir. He writes texts on it. He writes pulp novels. He saves lost noirs and organizes a film festival dedicated to films noir. And yet, he is not stuffy, nor even particularly academic. He has an audacious sense of humor that is as self-aggrandizing as it is self-effacing. Muller uses his indomitable personality and vast understanding of noir to deliver entertaining, informative commentary that praises the film without unduly fawning over it. He runs out of gas later in the track, and the silence lengthens while he increasingly relies on play-by-play commentary.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Fox loves these forced trailers about DVD piracy. The first thing I want to see when I sit down to a new noir DVD is not a lecture set to toneless rock music.
At least the insulting piracy infomercial has a soundtrack, which is more than I can say for Where the Sidewalk Ends. The opening credits feature a whistled snippet of Alfred Newman's "Street Scene"—hope you like it, because the song is reprised over and over to the exclusion of almost any other music.
How about those opening credits? They stick out like a sore thumb. "Look at me! I'm the theme of the movie!" At least they're brief.
Where the Sidewalk Ends is hardboiled to the core—not just in a shallow stylistic sense, but in its morality. Good people blur into bad people so effortlessly that humanity seems like one big cesspool puddled in the gutter. Adroit actors carry the gritty tale with aplomb while the cinematography oozes fear and menace. Preminger's razor-sharp direction seals the deal.
Where the Sidewalk Ends is found guilty of zoning violations and jaywalking, as well as clogging the city gutters with human filth. Community service for all of you!
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by film noir historian Eddie Muller
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