Sunday, April 17, 2016


Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, 94m 49s

Set in nonaffluent sections of New York City, producer/director Otto Preminger's WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS opens with an emphasis on the city streets and the characters who navigate them. Like the Western's frontier, the film noir city often becomes something of a character, one with its profound influence on everybody who inhabits it. This particular city's featured noir protagonist is Mark Dixon (Dana Andrews), an experienced detective who perhaps brings a little too much passion to his work. In fact, a dozen citizens have registered formal complaints against Dixon recently. Inspector Nicholas Foley (Robert F. Simon) lectures Dixon about the rogue detective’s penchant for beating up thugs. Foley reduces Dixon to second-grade status in the hope the volatile cop will mend his ways. Another potential level of stress for Dixon is introduced before the demotion, when Foley announces all cops now answer to Lieutenant Thomas (Karl Malden). While he points to the leadership Thomas will provide, Foley looks upon Dixon with obvious disdain.

A serious man

The uniquely urban storyline is rooted in a floating craps operation gone wrong. Mr. Morrison (Harry von Zell) tries to slither out of the illegal dice game after scoring $19,000, but it is not a good idea to take the money and run when gambling with Tommy Scalise (Gary Merrill), a smug little bastard and noted area crime magnate. The man who brought Morrison to the dice game is Kenneth Paine (Craig Stevens), who slaps up his wife Morgan Taylor (Gene Tierney) before knocking out Morrison. When the 16th Precinct representatives arrive, Morrison has been pronounced dead thanks to a knife through the heart. Dixon is quick to assign blame to Scalise, a slippery hood who walked after Dixon got him in court two years back. But when Dixon attempts to question the hopeless drunk Paine, the conversation turns violent and Dixon accidentally kills him. Then Dixon learns Paine was a war hero. Through no fault of his own, at the time anyway, Dixon falls into one of those untenable noir situations. Given his reputation as a cop who crosses the line when it comes to police procedure, who would believe what actually happened? The detective attempts to cover up his connection to Paine by pretending to be dead man, never a sensible practice in the film noir (i.e. DOUBLE INDEMNITY [1944], NORA PRENTISS [1947], HOLLOW TRIUMPH [1948]). In one of the genre's great moments of palpable tension, Lieutenant Thomas asks Dixon to re-enact his impersonation of the fallen Paine!


The film's brisk first act ends as New York City exercises its power over the individual. By way of a window, the nighttime urban landscape dissolves into daylight as Dixon sweats it out. Widespread physical trauma and sickness characterize the corrosive urban milieu, a place where the disposal of a human body occurs with classical music audible in the background. Due to shrapnel, the decorated veteran Paine returned to civilian life with a silver plate in his head. Per film noir norms, after surviving wartime combat the veteran is far worse off within the American city, where arch criminal Scalise addictively relies on a nasal inhaler to breathe. Further evidence of physical suffering is associated closely with the family, which often is in jeopardy in the film noir, as it certainly is in this instance. Scalise was sponsored by Dixon's father, a thief who died in an attempt to shoot his way out of incarceration. Dixon claims he always endeavored to be different from his father, but how different is he? According to Scalise, Dixon is "half cop and half killer." The product of the same father figure, Scalise embodies Dixon’s dark half. Maybe the shadowy past of Dixon's family explains his attachment to cafe owner Martha (Ruth Donnelly), who was victimized in the past by a wife-beating husband, now in prison thanks to the efforts of Dixon.

The Taylor family is under considerable strain as well. Morgan Taylor is married to the abusive drunkard Paine, though they are separated. Her pop Jiggs Taylor (Tom Tully) is furious with Paine for striking his daughter, which leads to the angry father’s detention. Ironically, years ago the cab driver Jiggs was commended for aiding Dixon's pursuit of gun-toting criminals, but the dysfunctional relationship between his daughter and her husband causes the innocent man Jiggs to become a murder suspect. The requisite moment of existential recognition, so crucial to the downbeat tone of the film noir, occurs when Dixon laments, "Innocent people can get into terrible false move and you're in over your head." In the cruelly indifferent noir universe, even the innocent can be accused of a capital offense, both harmless people like Jiggs Taylor and well-meaning if overzealous detectives like Dixon. WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS suggests there is a cost associated with bending the rules in the interest of crime deterrence, but in a scene that willfully contradicts that notion, Foley tells Thomas to interrogate Steve (Neville Brand, D.O.A. [1950]) with the strong-arm methods for which Dixon is noted. The implication is, like it or not, tough tactics sometimes may be necessary to get results. Such thinking is not in vogue today, but the flawed detective Dixon of WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS is redeemed by the moral code that guides so many noir protagonists. In his letter to Inspector Foley, the obsessed Dixon is prepared to die to incriminate Scalise and free Mr. Taylor. The narrative wraps with an emotional resonance unusual for the noir film, especially one that revolves around a morally ambiguous cop.

The examination of gritty detective work in WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS anticipates the better-known film noir ON DANGEROUS GROUND (1951), in which Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan) struggles with anger management when it comes to his police work. Subsequent "bad cop" noirs included THE PROWLER (1951) starring Van Heflin as scheming cop Webb Garwood and PUSHOVER (1954) with Fred MacMurray in one of his rare heel turns. But today when Dixon is asked to take a one-week vacation for consistently annoying his superiors, the viewer immediately recalls the plot mechanics of DIRTY HARRY (1971) and its four sequels, all of which made the same general point that the detective must employ tough tactics to fight crime, yet the detective's various bosses invariably frown on those measures.

Despite the reunion of stars Andrews and Tierney from Preminger’s commercially successful LAURA (1944), WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS was the poorest box office performer released by Fox in 1950. Thankfully the film’s reputation has improved since the time of its theatrical release, and now we have a gorgeous Twilight Time Blu-ray version derived from a recent 4K restoration. Framed at 1.33:1, this 1080p interpretation of the 35 mm film provides a superior presentation in comparison with the Fox Film Noir DVD released in 2005, in terms of both image quality and information within the frame. With interior compositions and location work combined, the production serves as a veritable showcase for the skill of director of photography Joseph LaShelle, who also covered such genre staples as LAURA, FALLEN ANGEL (1945), ROAD HOUSE (1948) and the noir straggler STORM FEAR (1955).

Twilight Time Blu-ray

Fox Film Noir DVD

Supplements include the audio commentary track with noir expert Eddie Muller, which was ported from the Fox DVD. Muller draws the viewer's attention to the "bookend composition" framing style frequently employed by Preminger, as well as the director's fondness for fluid camera movement and minimal cuts. The understated filmmaking style of the famously cranky Preminger blended well with Andrews, who had the ability to convey multiple thoughts simultaneously. Close-ups are used sparingly and are seldom static. Muller notes prolific screenwriter Ben Hecht wrote the story for UNDERWORLD (1927), thought by some to be the very first American film noir. In the case of WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS, according to Muller, noir credentials are certified when Dixon briefly considers reporting the accidental death of Paine before proceeding with a plan to conceal the truth. When faced with crises, noir characters often make bad decisions that invite a whirlwind of increasingly complex troubles.

An isolated score track and an original theatrical trailer (1m 47s) are selectable, and the disc's packaging includes a booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo.