Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)
Release Date: July 7th, 1950 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Otto Preminger Actors: Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney, Gary Merrill, Bert Freed, Karl Malden, Tom Tully, Ruth Donnelly
unique and bold exemplar of classic film noir, “Where the Sidewalk Ends” tells the morose tale of a hard-boiled cop who can’t keep out of trouble. Switching between riveting demonstrations of utter vigilantism and reluctantly doing the right thing, this murky mystery reunites “Laura” players Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney with director Otto Preminger, who proves to be a veritable master of the genre. With gritty villains and an unusual amount of violence for a film from 1950, “Where the Sidewalk Ends” marks an exquisite reinvigoration to the genre, made more significant with its powerful yet ambiguous conclusion.
Mark Dixon (Dana Andrews) is a cynical, disagreeable, hard-as-nails New York detective who believes that criminals should pay at all costs, whether or not the law allows for it. When he accidentally kills a suspect after fighting with him, he decides to hide the body and pin the death on sleazy crime boss Tommy Scalise (Gary Merrill), a crook deserving of incarceration but one who regularly evades prosecution. When the crime is instead blamed on innocent cabbie Jiggs Taylor (Tom Tully), Dixon must decide how best to still get the wretched kingpin, clear the guiltless unfortunate, win the girl (Gene Tierney as Morgan, the driver’s daughter), and deal with the bodies that keep piling up around him.
Full of mystery and darkness, “Where the Sidewalk Ends” costumes every player with low-brimmed fedoras and long, flowing trench coats. Low angles look up into faces swallowed by ominous shadows, while discernible expressions seem to elude obscured visages. These elements are popular trademarks of the genre and favorites of Preminger. The characters themselves also perfectly embody film noir, with an antihero protagonist continually making mistakes and then trying to cover them up, quickly becoming ensnared in a web of his own design. Similarly, the predicaments build until they can only end in tragedy. “Where the Sidewalk Ends” also presents an interesting parallel to “Chinatown,” Roman Polanski’s 1974 neo-noir masterpiece. Here, Dixon goes through a portion of the film with a bandaged chin after a run-in with Scalise, while Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes also wears a bandage across his face for the better part of “Chinatown.” Both pictures suggest that even the good guys are ruffians and can handle, or are prone to, a bit of punishment.
Creating a corrupt post of judge, jury, and executioner, Dixon metes out his own suitable reparation (hiding behind his badge) with sarcastically biting dialogue (another staple of noir), including the line “let’s leave the police out of this” and, when speaking of Taylor, the proclamation that “innocence doesn’t always help.” With a troubled family and a tormented past, Dixon overreaches with his sense of righteousness, both to negate his father’s own notorious reputation and to prove himself the opposite of the immoral patriarch. Through Dixon’s justifiable perspective, the audience is likely to be contented with his otherwise questionable actions; as his viewpoint is centralized, his decisions represent a thought-provoking twist on respect, honor, and cinematic satisfaction. At the dishearteningly unexpected finale, Dixon is given the option of jurisprudential propriety or the agreeable but unlawful liberation from impeachability. A long pause and a careful study of his nearly expressionless face makes one wonder whether or not he’ll sacrifice freedom for esteem, or perhaps simply misplace his faith in the system he previously manipulated for his own agenda. Some will certainly prefer the “wrong” choice.
– Mike Massie