Director Otto Preminger reunites with Laura stars Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney in his 1950 noir Where the Sidewalk Ends. Cinematographer Joseph LaShelle is also on board, crafting a world that stands in visual contrast to the elegance of the 1944 classic. And the Ben Hecht script, based on the William L. Stuart novel Night Cry, is like a slug to the chest.
Where the Sidewalk Ends deals in notions of fate and corruption, especially when it comes to the heart of the protagonist. Andrews is particularly adept at playing characters haunted by internal strife and he is tremendous here as a man nearly torn in half by guilt.
Andrews plays police detective Mark Dixon. He hates criminals and is admonished by his superiors for his rough tactics on the job. Inspector Foley (Robert Simon) has decided to give him another chance in hopes that Dixon will take after the newly promoted Lieutenant Thomas (Karl Malden). Dixon finds himself in hot water when he’s accidentally responsible for the death of Ken Paine (Craig Stevens).
Paine, a war hero with friends in journalism, was a suspect in the murder of a gambler and Dixon decides to try to pin the crime on his nemesis Tommy Scalise (Gary Merrill). Scalise is a crime boss and Dixon hopes fortune will smile on him, allowing him to put the scumbag away once and for all. Unfortunately, a cab driver (Tom Tully) gets caught up and somehow blamed for Paine’s murder instead.
Tierney plays the cab driver’s daughter Morgan. Conveniently, she was married to Paine and was estranged from him at the time of the death. Her dad was going to sort out the fellow, which put him in line as a suspect. One thing leads to another and the case starts to look pretty bad for Morgan’s old man, which is where Dixon’s integrity is really tested.
Dixon is attracted to Morgan and that obfuscates things to the point that he begins to search for the man he’s supposed to be. He’s constantly living under the shadow of his felonious father and that’s fuelled his hatred for hoodlums, but now he’s finding himself with more in common with his pop than he ever considered possible.
Regardless of the inadvertent nature of Paine’s death, Dixon is responsible. His evasion of accountability impacts others. It threatens to sever his relationship with his partner (Bert Freed) and has a blameless man facing the ironclad justice of Lieutenant Thomas. All the while, Dixon still tries to get away with the crime. He even hires Morgan and her father a high-priced lawyer.
Guilt motivates the living daylights out of Dixon, who is really in hot water given his record. The irony is that he was restraining himself with Paine and the kerfuffle was a one in a million shot. He makes his situation worse by covering the killing, going so far as to impersonate the stiff in order to fool the watchful eyes of an old woman.
Where the Sidewalk Ends is dazzling stuff. It contends with Dixon’s responsibility and spreads it against the overwhelming march of fate, giving him no choice but to essentially drown himself in it. Andrews is fantastic as a man unhinged, exemplifying a cop weighed down by culpability and the sins of the past. He never quite ventures into “good guy” territory because it’s just not in him.
Preminger’s picture is gloriously ferocious in its depiction of the aggression of the streets. There are a number of fight scenes, including a frenzied sequence in a Turkish bath that has Dixon going all-out regardless of the odds. His hostility doesn’t exactly lead him to make the best decisions, after all.
This is the stuff film noir is made of. It holds all the fatalism, guilt and deception the genre is steeped in. It could be argued that Where the Sidewalk Ends is more conventionally “noir” than Laura, but that doesn’t make it a lesser film. It is a compelling contrast, even a confidante to Preminger’s champagne dreams. Where the Sidewalk Ends is the real deal, a magnetic plummet into the dark hearts of guilty men.