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April 11, 2014 8:51 AM Weekend Film Recommendation: Where the Sidewalk Ends

By Keith Humphreys

My tribute to Dana Andrews continues with the film with which he closed out the most glittering decade of his career. In 1944, Andrews and his frequent co-star Gene Tierney, Director/Producer Otto Preminger and Cinematographer Joseph LaShelle made Laura, a classic film of high society longing, love and murder. Take that same foursome, move the story setting down significantly in economic strata and add a dose of brutality and you have this week’s film recommendation: 1950′s Where the Sidewalk Ends.

The story, as conveyed through one of Ben Hecht’s many outstanding scripts, centers on Police Detective Mark Dixon (Andrews). Dixon’s hatred of gangsters is legendary, and leads him to relentlessly un-Miranda-type behavior toward thugs. He has a particular grudge against mob boss Tommy Scalise (an oleaginous Gary Merrill), for reasons that are revealed during the film. While investigating a murder in which Scalise is involved, Dixon loses his temper one time too many, resulting in a tragic death which he tries to cover up. He hopes to frame Scalise, but suspicion instead falls on an innocent man (sweetly played by Tom Tully) whose dishy daughter (Tierney) turns Dixon’s head. The dark story twists like a knife from there, up to and including the very last scene.

The film has some superb noir cinematography, with the standout shot being a long, fixed point take of a car with Dixon and some mobsters in it approaching and entering a car elevator (in which LaShelle cannily placed the camera) and then rising up off the screen as the men in the car eye each other suspiciously. There are also a number of arresting shots that draw the viewers’ attention to two distinct points on the screen. My favorite is when Andrews is about to tell Tierney the truth but then turns toward the viewer, his face partly shaded. She then talks over his shoulder at the camera, as his face is transfixed with shame and doubt. Preminger set up many scenes this way in his career, challenging the viewer to track both external action and internal reactions in the same shots.

Who gets the credit for these effective framings and the movie’s overall cool look? I have written before about how some directors are more controlling than others of the camerawork. Preminger was a legendary martinet on the set, so one can presume at least some of the photography set ups were his idea. On the other hand, LaShelle was an excellent cinematographer not just in the half dozen films he made with Preminger but also without him: He was nominated for an Oscar nine times! So credit both of them for an effective collaboration, especially LaShelle because Preminger could be such a domineering artist.

Beyond the big names on the marquee, Hecht and Preminger do an exceptional job of letting the smaller parts really sing. Indeed, my favorite scene is when Dixon’s partner (Bert Freed), whom he has treated badly, has to decide along with his wife whether to lend Dixon some money. It’s a slice of real-life — a dowdy middle aged couple making a difficult decision about money — that provides a perfect counterpoint to the larger-than-life story that the glamorous leads are acting out. I don’t put Preminger in the absolute top tier of film makers because he too often tried too hard to force a particular reaction in his audience. But this little scene is one of many in the movie that makes clear he was just a notch below being an all-time great. He left a legacy of many very good films, including this one.

Let me close this review by focusing on the star. The angry, self-destructive and guilt-wracked Dixon is one of Dana Andrews’ finest hours as an actor, and ironically came right at the moment when his career arc was about to begin its descent. Andrews and Tierney work well together, as they did in all of their many collaborations, but his alcoholism and the rise of the Brando/Clift type of male protagonist worked against him from this point in his career onward (though he still had some successes, such as the 1957 film Curse of the Demon, recommended here). Where the Sidewalk Ends is thus a perfect chance to see a fantastic movie star in top form, before more difficult days came to dominate his life.

p.s. Look fast for Tierney’s first husband, Oleg Cassini in the scene where she is modelling dresses.

p.p.s. Want to learn more about Dana Andrews? Click here for my recommendation of a sterling recent biography by Carl Rollyson.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

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