Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Where the Sidewalk Ends is an interesting crossroads noir, poised between the expressionist 40s and the realist 50s. It looks like a studio film, Fox having backed away from its all-location ethic of a few years before. It's a story about sleazy cops and sleazier crooks yet has Gene Tierney to make it all seem on the glamorous side. It acknowledges the possibility of police corruption and hints at departmental flaws more extensive than lone rogue cop Dana Andrews. But when it comes to a wind-up, the old white-wash prevails. If it weren't for Dana Andrews' haunted portrait of a fallible law enforcement officer, the movie might have little to recommend it.
As it is, Otto Preminger's classy direction and the seemingly eternal night in New York work up a powerful noir charge, and good supporting actors and convincing art direction make us believe in the story we're seeing. And the fantasy of picking up Gene Tierney just by asking her to dinner is undeniably irresistible.
Hot-headed detective Mark Dixon (Dana Andrews) is reprimanded for excessive brutality on the job, and then goes out to arrest Ken Paine (Craig Stevens), a suspected murderer in a knifing at a floating crap game. Paine attacks him so Mark counters with one blow ... that leaves Paine dead. Told over the phone that the dead man was a decorated war hero, Mark dumps the body and covers up the crime, hoping to pin the murder on Scalise (Gary Merrill), the racketeer most likely responsible for the original killing. Mark meets and falls in love with Paine's widow, model Morgan Taylor (Gene Tierney) and re-acquaints himself with her father, cabdriver Jiggs (Tom Tully). But complications ensue --- overeager new commander Lt. Thomas (Karl Malden) makes a good case against Jiggs as the killer, and Mark must stand by as the innocent man is railroaded by the system.
Where the Sidewalk Ends starts with a fairly corny image of feet walking over the titles chalked into a literal sidewalk, and then stepping into a gutter. Thus begins an essentially moral tale about the dangers of transgressing from the straight and true. But the movie never quite makes it into the gutter. We're never shown Mark Dixon beating up crime suspects, leaving a gap between the nice guy he seems to be and the kinds of activities that have him in the doghouse with his police superiors. We learn that he knocks a watchman out cold while tossing a dead body off a pier but are denied seeing it for ourselves. Stills exist showing that the scenes were shot, suggesting either that censors were tightening the screws after a few post-war years of violent license in crime thrillers, or that Fox didn't want Mark Dixon's positive status marred by images of brutality. He just got finished accidentally killing a man with one blow, and now he's klonking a helpless old watchman over the head hard enough to knock him unconscious? Only in the movies does that happen without killing somebody. 1
Mark Dixon is given a five-dollar motivation for his brutality - his dad was a gangster, see? In real life the proven reason for such behavior is institutionalized thuggery - in certain police cultures extreme interrogation techniques to intimidate 'interviewees' is a given. Where the Sidewalk Ends hints at this hypocrisy when Mark's new commander Lt. Thomas is told to "get the information out of a suspect using the methods Dixon would use." I'm surprised that censors let that pass.
But Dixon is a tough-guy hero so his (unseen) psychotic violence is in the spirit of crimebusting. We cheer for him mainly because he goes through a personal ordeal of atonement, offering himself as a sacrifice to clear his name, nail a crook and save a wrongly accused man. The contradictions in the story pile up quickly. Dixon swears loyalty to the force but is the first to admit that the system has put the innocent Jiggs on a fast track to the electric chair. Lt. Thomas is obviously out to make a big score on his first night of service, and nobody bats an eye when he constructs a case based on a lot of guesswork. If Paine was bleeding all over the stairwell, perhaps somebody should check Jiggs' taxi for signs that a dead body had been stashed in the trunk for the better part of an hour. Does the emotional Jiggs look like the kind of guy who could kill a man, and then operate so cooly?
For that matter, why is Mark so panicked that he covers up an accident so it looks like murder? Yes, he'd be in trouble but if he just took his chances he'd probably be okay. Mark's superior thinks he's too fast with his fists, not corrupt or murderous, and the department will gladly look to any alternative than putting one of its own on trial. When Dixon reacts so erratically, we have to think he's emotionally unbalanced. If he's that unstable, how does he commit to such decisive action later on? Where the Sidewalk Ends depends a lot on star power for its credibility.
Nowadays the big issue would be Mark's forcing his own arrest at the end - the bad publicity for the department would certainly prompt the head cop to suggest that he just forget the whole thing. In a way, Scalise did kill Paine by framing him for murder. Steve probably confessed to this already. Why Mark's superior holds him for a murder charge is strange, when involuntary manslaughter is more appropriate. What's the difference between what Dixon did, and a suspect dying because cops put a choke hold on him or leave him bound in such a way that he expires from stress or exhaustion?
Dixon's personal anguish over harming Morgan and her father Jiggs motivates his actions and makes Where the Sidewalk Ends flow smoothly. We accept Morgan Taylor's falling in love with Dixon because we like the idea of Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews together, a residual effect from Laura perhaps. In real life we'd be wondering about their relationship. It doesn't look good when a woman takes up with a man involved in her husband's death, even if her husband was a rat. And (spoiler) it also doesn't seem quite right when Morgan so calmly accepts that Mark has been personally responsible for all the grief visited upon her father -- an excitable old fellow who might have a heart attack in jail. A different writer could easily make the Morgan Taylor character into a conniving femme fatale. She could have maneuvered her worthless hubby Ken Paine into dire straits with the mob. What is she doing at that floating crap game in the first place, acting so naturally? She'd naturally be overjoyed when she finds out that Dixon has gotten rid of Paine for her. And Dixon's handsome and available, too.
Where the Sidewalk Ends has interesting criminal villains, the kind that don't shrink from police and laugh up their sleeves at Dixon's attempts to intimidate them. It's interesting to compare Gary Merrill's sleazy floating crap game with the fairy-tale perpetrated in Guys and Dolls, Loesser and Burrows' Broadway show that premiered the same year. Scalise runs secret gambling but isn't above all kinds of craven villainy. For once, Savant agrees that a supporting character is probably meant to be homosexual: Neville Brand's Steve is Scalise's right hand man but also provides a guiding sensibility, warning him against offing Dixon because "killing a cop brings down too much heat."
Preminger's camera direction is almost invisible, with the Fox art department making equally undetectable blends between location work and studio shoots. One angle of a taxi pulling up to a building appears to be filmed in the same New York street as the famous shot in Once Upon a Time in America showing a giant bridge stretching out beyond the buildings.
Bert Freed stands out in the supporting actor category, with Craig Stevens (future Peter Gunn) doing well. Karl Malden's obvious bad guy chief is undeveloped, at least on the thematic plane. Pre-code comedienne Ruth Donnelly is in to deliver snappy Ben Hecht banter in a number of restaurant scenes. Woo woo girls Kathleen Hughes (It Came from Outer Space and Chili Williams (pin-up fame) can be spotted, as can be Gene Tierney's one-time husband, designer Oleg Cassini. She was apparently having romantic difficulties at this time, and I don't know whether this film came before or after she was sent to London to film Night and the City. Where the Sidewalk Ends is a much better vehicle for her.
Fox's DVD of Where the Sidewalk Ends is an exceptionally clean transfer of an almost perfect film element, indicating that the film hasn't been out of the vault all that often. Joseph LaShelle's great B&W cinematography is a pleasure to watch. One great angle tucks the camera into an automobile elevator in a tall building, riding up with a limo full of gangsters, without a cut. Alfred Newman's "Street Scene" theme is almost the only music heard, and it's whistled under the main credits. Zanuck sure liked to cut corner when he could ... I don't know how expensive movie scores were in relative terms but I'll bet the policy made the music department uneasy.
Noir expert and author Eddie Muller offers an entertaining commentary with a hardboiled attitude of his own. He relates Where the Sidewalk Ends to rogue cop movies and has a number of well-researched ideas to share; he goes into welcome detail on the bit players, even stage actor Don Appell's only movie appearance. I'd complain about him using the opportunity to pitch his own hardboiled fiction, but I'm told his books are very good reads so I'll just add my plug to his own. A tough-minded trailer is included as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Where the Sidewalk Ends rates:
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Trailer, Commentary by Eddie Muller, Still Photo gallery
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 3, 2005
1. Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward's Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style prints the telltale photo of Dixon throwing Paine's body off the wharf. Savant helped proofread later editions but didn't catch a whopper in the Where the Sidewalk Ends entry: (spoiler) The synopsis wrongly states that Gary Merrill's Scalise is killed at the end. In a book packed with facts, written before Home Video made close research possible, mistakes happen.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson