Fill your brain with enough ephemera, and eventually you’ll lose track of some of it. Consider the case of Where the Sidewalk Ends, an Otto Preminger noir cum police procedural screening at 7:00 pm on Thursday, March 22nd as part of Pacific Film Archive’s ongoing series, “Dark Past: Film Noir by German Emigrés.”
Though I’d seen Where the Sidewalk Ends in the past, my addled brain had long since conflated it with Fritz Lang’s 1956 crime drama While the City Sleeps — perhaps in part because both films are headlined by Dana Andrews. Of course, Lang was an Austrian, technically disqualifying his work from this series. Then again, Preminger was born in the Ukraine: perhaps PFA should have called this series “Film Noir by Citizens of the Former Habsburg Empire.” Maybe next time.
In Where the Sidewalk Ends, Andrews plays Mark Dixon, a New York police detective with a reputation for roughing up suspects. In just one month, he’s had 12 citizen complaints filed against him for assault and battery — and all this in the days before pepper spray, tear gas, and ‘less than lethal’ munitions. Tongue lashings are dutifully delivered by Inspector Foley (Robert Simon) and new precinct captain Thomas (Karl Malden).
Duly chastened, Mark and prowl car partner Paul Klein (Bert Freed) find themselves investigating the murder of Morrison (‘70s TV commercial pitchman Harry von Zell), a businessman fatally stabbed in a gambling den operated by sleazebag Scalise (Mr. Bette Davis, Gary Merrill). Mark tracks down witness Ken Paine (Craig Stevens), but accidentally kills him in the course of an ‘interrogation’.
The balance of the film follows our anti-hero as he tries to cover up his own crime, pin the Morrison murder rap on Scalise, and woo Paine’s estranged widow Morgan (Gene Tierney), a model who lives at home with her taxi driver dad (Tom Tully). It’s a tall order for one man, but it works thanks to two-time Oscar winner Ben Hecht’s skillful screenplay, which keeps the proceedings on the right side of believable while also eschewing a typical Hollywood happy ending.
Those familiar with the Big Apple will greatly appreciate Joseph La Shelle’s black and white cinematography, which luminously captures the hustle, bustle, and bright neon lights of the city at night. In addition to scenes shot around Times Square and near the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels, La Shelle shot extensive exteriors outside 58 Pike Street, an iconic location familiar to anyone who’s seen Turner Classic Movies’ standard ‘open all night’ bumper.
Familiar character actors
Where the Sidewalk Ends also features familiar character actors Grayce Mills as Paine’s Victorian-era landlady, ‘30s second feature regular Ruth Donnelly as a diner operator, and a very young Neville Brand as one of Scalise’s enforcers. Of note is the one and done contribution of Allen Jenkin’s lookalike Don Appell, who never made another film but is superb here as a weaselly parolee.
Andrews, however, is the film’s anchor, delivering one of his best performances as a morally compromised cop with a chip on his shoulder. Kirk Douglas would essay a similar role to fine effect in 1951’s Detective Story, but, in many ways, Andrews’ performance is superior. It’s a career highlight for an actor who was always underrated and under-appreciated.
Footnote: Where the Sidewalk Ends features very little non-diagetic music; its opening credits play over silence and there’s no scored music at all until Paine’s death in the second reel. It’s an interesting and unusual artistic choice, especially for the period.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.
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