' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Where The Sidewalk Ends (1950)

Friday, November 29, 2013

Friday's Old Fashioned: Where The Sidewalk Ends (1950)

There was a quote – written by F. Scott-something – having one thing or another to do with the past, and how we’re in boats, and we’re fighting the current, but the current always wins and sends us splat! Back into the past. I think that was the gist. Consider Mark Dixon (Dana Andrews). His father was a no-good lousy crook, died when Mark was 17. Mark wanted to get as far from his father’s ignoble legacy as possible. So he hopped in a figurative boat, rose through the ranks of the NYPD, made detective, made a living on the right side of the law, see. But it didn’t matter. Not one iota. The whole time he was being beaten back by the current, back into the past, he just didn’t know it.


Getting a smile out of Dana Andrews in “Where the Sidewalk Ends”, Otto Preminger’s noir from 1950, is like asking someone in a 1950’s noir to put out that cigarette, please. Oh, once in a while his lips curve upward, slightly, just slightly, but even then it’s less from a place of genuine joy than of ironic amusement or suspicion by way of happiness. The man is not in a good place. It’s entirely possible he’s never been in a good place. Which is why as the movie opens he is being demoted on account of his needlessly brutal tactics with the crooks he encounters on the job, an obvious way of attempting to alleviate the resentment he feels toward the old man.

Alas, he’s so blind to his rage, he can’t quite tell he’s been transforming into his old man all his life. Dixon will learn what he is truly capable of, in multiple ways, when called upon to investigate the death of a man in a hotel room hosting an illegal dice game run by gangster Tommy Scalise (Gary Merrill). Dixon’s had it in for Scalise for years, and this seems a golden chance to send him up the river, except evidence suggests the killing was done not by Scalise but by Scalise’s cohort, Ken Paine (Craig Stevens). So Dixon is dispatched to find, question and bring in Paine. One problem, Dixon, as Dixon will, roughs up Paine, roughs him up so much that Paine winds up dead.

The reaction of Dixon in this moment is telling. There is a brief moment of shock, but it is alarmingly brief. And really, it’s less shock to begin with than a mild re-arrangement of his callous expression. He checks for a pulse, he doesn’t find one, he instantly graduates to covering his tracks. And, of course, like the oft-cited example of Hitchcock cunningly aligning our sympathies with Norman Bates as he goes about sinking Marion’s car, you will be surprised to find yourself on pins and needles as you silently root for Dixon not to get caught, our darkest selves engaged.


Noir films are so often about entrapping the protagonist in his own failings and misdeeds, and watching the vice clamp down. One of the neatest tricks Preminger pulls, however, is hatching a plot in which it appears that everything is breaking just right for Dixon. Paine was the estranged husband of Morgan (Gene Tierney). He’d roped her and her companion into going up to that dice game, but when her companion won big and they both wanted to leave, Paine couldn’t allow it. He needed them to lose for the sake of his own livelihood. This led Paine to slap Morgan around, demanding that they stay, and when word of this reached Morgan’s father, an otherwise sweet-hearted cabbie named Jiggs (Tom Tully), he hoofed it over to Paine’s place to slug him. Paine wasn’t there, and he wasn’t there because Dixon had already unintentionally killed him, but this put Jiggs at the place of murder at the right time. He’s fingered for it, and Dixon has his out.

You can see Andrews taking all this in, almost humored by his good fortune. But that humor doesn’t last long, and this is because of Morgan. He falls for her. How could he not? She seems the only one able (willing?) to see past his ill temper, to see what made it that way, and to unearth an unexpected attitude of chivalry. Well, a complicated chivalry. He promises Morgan her father is not guilty and shells out gobs of cash to get her and her father a top-line lawyer, etc. But, you know, he’s still the murderer. Can he admit who and what he is to her? Can he admit to himself?

Ultimately this is what makes Morgan less a femme fatale than an anti-femme fatale, not so much luring Dixon into a web of deceit and desire as into a potential dewy meadow of self-realization. It’s a noir about light at the end of the tunnel, not darkness. When the sidewalk ends, we sincerely hope he does not collapse into the abyss, and rather rises to redemption.

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