Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)

Where the sidewalk ends, morality falls away, darkness prevails and in the black folds of the night, nobody can see who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy.

Where the sidewalk ends, you’re on your own, making your own moral choices, with no guidance other than your past, and your own spur of the moment errors — your own dry, cold and helpless anger, your vendettas.

In this devilish and dangerous land, film noir lives and breathes — and Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950) is an epic film noir, one of the greats. It's a film that drives the cynicism home, before kicking it to death in the garage.

Directed by Otto Preminger and starring Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney and Gary Merrill.
Dana Andrews in Where The Sidewalk Ends (1950) Hardboiled and in a Hat
Where the Sidewalk Ends presents one of the great noir themes — the cop relentlessly hunting the bad guy, a personal battle in which the two are sometimes indistinguishable.

What’s great about Dana Andrews in Where the Sidewalk Ends, is that you never even see his nemesis committing a crime — although you see the cop Andrews plays breaking in to places, beating people up, and bullying whoever gets in his way.

This police officer's level of brutality is unnecessary, and of all the heroes of questionable virtue in noir, Dana Andrews playing Mark Dixon has to be one of the greatest.

Of course, he's plagued by the shadow of his father, who was once a mobster, and so for the first time in a big screen flick, we delve deep into the easily corruptible nature of authority, with the implication that this corruption and deep-set moral confusion will lead in every case to violence.

This lack of control is a common film noir theme, and the collision of a psyche trapped by circumstance in a man also adrfit from social controls and norms, is typically dark, typcially urban, and as strong a film noir vision as can be.

He’s the classic psycho cop who’s willing to pin anything on his nemesis, and who’ll break every law in the book to get him.  The bad guy in this picture — Gary Merril — doesn’thave to do anything except offer up the lizardly smile of satisfaction, from time to time.

Gary Merril in Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)
Dana Andrews had a long and celebrated career in the films, and starred in some pretty memorable films, like  Fritz Lang’s 1956 While the City Sleeps and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, and Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon (1957) and The Fearmakers (1958).

He’s also in Laura (1944) and in one of my real favourites, Fallen Angel (1945) — although his career kind of tailed away into indifference and alcoholism, before he retired and made a packet investing in real estate.

Dana Andrews has plenty to be paranoid about
In its hey day, film noir capitalised on a lot of public fears — crime, madness and political and social complacency.

The opening scene of Where the Sidewalk Ends shows in contrast to this an extremely efficient police department that is moral to the hilt — presided over by its new lieutenant, a young Karl Malden.

The bad apple in this barrel is however Dana Andrews, a cop possessed of a lust to persecute one gangster in particular, and Where the Sidewalk Ends is driven first by this hubris-fueled battle, and then by a few simple mistakes, which escalate into hugely inescapable drama.

The sidewalk is of course a metaphor — principally the sidewalk is where a cop works, padding the beat — and so the point at which the sidewalk ends represents a falling off into darkness, a place where the gloves are off and the rule book’s thrown out of the window.

In Where the Sidewalk Ends we also find director Otto Preminger reunited with his two principal Laura actors, Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney, and also his director of photography, Joseph LaShelle — all of whom worked with him on the previous film in 1944, which is probably better known.

Laura however is an elegant murder mystery, while Where the Sidewalk Ends is grimy, urban and is acted out in small tenement apartments, the police precincts, and has a climactic scene in a parking garage.

... plus a fine turn from Karl Malden
Because of these locations, Where the Sidewalk Ends is certainly classic film noir.  The storytelling takes place in a bubble — cop Dana Andrews is warned that he’ll lose his job if he continues to be such a violent force in the community, and the first thing he does next is accidentally kill someone.

Falling in love with the murder victim’s wife (Gene Tierney) makes things worse, as do his unreasonable attempts to pin the murder on his nemesis, Tommy Scalise (played by Gary Merrill).

A must see performance from Gene Tierney

And a great villainous turn from Gery Merrill
It wouldn’t be film noir without a spade o’ guilt however, and this is shovelled on to the plate when Gene Tierney’s ailing rather frail and vaccilating father falls into the frame for the murder — and it’s this that gives Where the Sidewalk Ends its drive.

From a vendetta  story, and from police procedural, we end up watching in fascination as Dana Andrews attempts to cover up the murder he committed —and it is most suspenseful.

This kind of psychology is true noir — the cop that finds out his father is a criminal — his subsequent pathological hatred of criminals and steep turn into self-destruction.

Daylight falls on the action of Where the Sidewalk Ends as only a very temporary blast, and Joseph LaShelle who shot the film reflects the darkness off Big Apple alleys, brownstones, and docks, offering an ideal landscape for crime, failure and doubt.

What makes the action compelling amidst this is something common to many gripping tales — the idea that things can go very badly wrong, very quickly.

Once the slippery slope has been reached and you are on it, decisions seem hard if not impossible, and in your doomy down moments, you are forced to ask what of this is your own doing, and the result of your own flawed morality.

Is Where the Sidewalk Ends classic — classic cinema or classic film noir?  If it’s not, it’s a close call.

It’s a progressive piece of cinema, and is pretty dark in theme and tone.  There’s a lot of sleazy characters, and Karl Malden’s steady and rock-solid performance is easy to overlook since his character is so much less interesting than most of the others.

Good crime films of the era tended to have within their scripts tiny details which would blow up into massive psychological affrronts — such as the waving gesture observed by a rather cliched elderely lady who is the chief witness to virtually nothing.

A lot of it is contrived in fact, but that’s fate for you — things fall the way they do — and watching the eyes of panic stricken Dana Andrews, it works.

As both criminal and cop, Dana Andrew excels.  He’s able to bring both nervousness and toughness to the fore, and plenty good close ups show us him sweating it out as we wait to see if he’ll get away with things or not.

This is another noir staple — the hero who is a good guy at heart.  Try as he may, Dana Andrews’ violent cop cannot escape his own actions however, and harder still can’t escape himself.

We find out over the course of the picture that his father also was a hood, and so psychologically speaking, where the sidewalk ends and the cops tip into chaos, we find this hero beating himself up, unable to resolve contradictions which lie in his very heart.  Dana Andrews is great at slow-burning anger and bottled up pain, and always fortified by a fedora, and this is probably his best role.
There is also a fine helping of slick dialogue, and boy does that stuff help.  Those Hollywood writers had their good days and their bad days, but in essence they were able to cram a lot of entertainment into a few lines, and noir was a great place to showcase hard-edged humour.  Here are some snappy lines from when the cop Dixon takes his squueze, Morgan, to Martha’s café:
Martha: You know, I like places like this that specialize in good food instead of headwaiters.
Dixon: It's the worst food in town, but don't worry. They usually serve a stomach pump with the dessert.
Martha: Who invited you to come to my restaurant, Mr. Detective? Not me!
Dixon: Martha's the head of a ring of burglars. My presence makes her nervous.
Martha: Yeah, last night we got a whole basketful of diamonds. You wanna see?
Dixon: Bring us two of your dangerous dinners, Martha.
Martha: You know how much I've been offered to poison this man?
Dixon: Ten dollars.
Martha: That's right. I'm holding out for fifteen. Two dinners. Do you want wine?
Dixon: Bring a small bottle.
Martha: Huh! Same old cheapskate!
Morgan Taylor: [after Martha leaves] She adores you, doesn't she?
Dixon: She ought to. I sent her husband up.
Morgan Taylor: Was he really a burglar?
Dixon: A wife beater.
Where the Sidewalk Ends was the last of the films that Otto Preminger made as a director-for-hire for Twentieth Century Fox.

This series included Laura, Fallen Angel and Whirlpool.  The story was originally dramatised on radio in January 1949 for the series "Suspense", under the title "Night Cry", staring Ray Milland in the Dana Andrews role, but as often happened a radio version of the film was then produced — in this case broadcast as a part of Lux Radio Theater. This was a 60 minute radio adaptation of the movie that went out on April 2, 1951 with Dana Andrews reprising his film role.

To end where the film begins, most people will find the credits of Where the Sidewalk Ends completely striking, as there effectively no music — not only was the traditional Twentieth Century Fox fanfare music not used at the film's opening, but Alfred Newman's Street Scene Theme is whistled over some unique credits, in which the title and other items are written in chalk on a sidewalk.

It’s a cracking good start to a tale of plain failure and corruption, during which you will see many and various paranoid eyes darting from side to side, for fear of retribution, capture or even the plain surfacing of the truth.
Read about Where the Sidewalk Ends on Wikipedia.

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