Y’know a movie is going to be hard when it starts with trash floating down a gutter. Ottto Preminger’s Where the Sidewalk Ends has a solid premise – a detective investigating a murder he committed – and one tough as nails leading man, Dana Andrews, best known as the droll cop in Preminger’s Laura. The film addresses typical noir themes such as doomed fate and punishment, all presented in Preminger’s clear-cut style. No frills or excessive visual flair, no social commentary, just a rugged, violent thriller of the streets.
Andrews stars as Dixon, a two-fisted cop with more than one excessive force complaint under his holster. One night, while interrogating a piece of shit murder suspect named Paine, he cracks him a little too hard, killing him. Dixon attempts to cover up the accidental killing by planting evidence so a gangster named Tommy Scalise (Gary Merrill), his arch rival, is pinched for it.
Everything goes to shit though and lonesome cab driver Jiggs Taylor gets blamed for it. See, Jigs’ daughter Morgan (Gene Tierney, also from Preminger’s Laura) was estranged to Paine. Jigs hated his guts, so the police figure it was a crime of passion. Now Dixon is facing a daunting moral dilemma that’ll ever end with Jigs or him on death row.
The script, based on the novel Night Cry, is incredibly smooth. Each scene transitions fluidly with zero filler – all killer. There aren’t many suspenseful bits, but the ones that are present are real tense. The entire sequence of Dixon ditching Paine’s body and disguising himself as him is fantastic. The composition of shots right outside Paine’s apartment is particularly effective – with the old woman peering out of her basement tenement.
Where the Sidewalk Ends contains some of the same actors as Laura, which Preminger directed six years before, but it’s got a whole lot more grit. It was shot on location in Washington Heights and other sections of New York City – at night, of course, making a whole lot darker than Laura too. Here Andrews doesn’t slump around with a prancing fancy boy millionaire trying to play detective, there’s none of that shit, no. Here he walks the street looking for trouble. Also, how fucking insane is it that he punches Paine so hard he kills him. He literally knees him in the gut, then punches him in the face. Whap. Dead.
Him and Morgan strike up a little romance, which isn’t entirely believable under the circumstances. Dixon is trying to save his ass and her father is gonna be hung for a murder he didn’t commit. Who has time for romance? But like I mentioned, it’s a fluid film that doesn’t waste any time on crap, so the romance plays second string to the main plot. Good thing too, since there’s no way this one can have a happy ending.
I really dug the straightforwardness of the this one. According to some loose internet searching, noir’s approach shifted in the early 1950s to be more about crime and punishment and not so much about social commentary, like some of the 1940s classics were. Where the Sidewalk Ends definitely fits this mold, with its murder + lies + shame = punishment motif. I’ll have to check out more of Preminger’s crime flicks soon.