Where the Sidewalk Ends

Otto Preminger’s Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950) has the feel of something that might have been cooked up had Cornell Woolrich and William P McGivern ever decided to collaborate on a story. There is that quality of the inescapable nightmare, a fatalistic vortex relentlessly dragging the protagonist down, while he is one of those big city cops who appears to be as uncomfortable in his own skin as he is in the department he works for. The end result is a form of psychological trial by ordeal, where the moral fiber of a man is measured by his ability to meet the challenge laid down by his own past.

Right from the beginning it is clear that Mark Dixon (Dana Andrews) is a man in trouble. The patience of his superiors in the police department with his brutal, two-fisted approach to the job is wearing perilously thin. What is perhaps more dangerous though is his appraisal of himself. It’s not voiced yet the truculence that pervades features, manner and posture clearly announces a deep-rooted dissatisfaction. With a final warning still ringing in his ears, he sets out to investigate the death of a rich out of town businessman. The victim ought to have been the mark in a rigged game of dice, but a bit of bad luck on the part of the mobsters running the racket leads to a misunderstanding, which leads to a scuffle, which leads to a murder. So Dixon is one of the bulls sent to investigate and is soon on the trail of the man being lined up as fall guy for the killing. Seeing as this is a story that is full to the brim with ill fortune and bad judgement calls, it is somehow inevitable that a man with a hair trigger temper such as Dixon is going to get into deeper strife when he finds himself alone with an antagonistic suspect. That’s exactly what happens, blows are traded and the suspect, a war veteran with a metal plate in his head, winds up dead on the floor. And it’s here that everything begins to spiral completely out of control. Shocked and panicked, Dixon attempts to cover up the accidental killing, but once he sets the ball rolling the momentum generated threatens to crush everything and everyone in its path, not least the dead man’s father-in-law.

The entire business is further complicated by the fact Dixon finds himself falling in love with the estranged wife (Gene Tierney) of the man he’s just killed. What follows is a variation on that noir trope of a man investigating a killing he is responsible for, the hunter essentially hunting himself. The personal angle and the need to see that blame is not wrongly placed on an innocent man adds some spice, as does the fact Dixon is all the time fighting an internal battle borne of the fact his own father was a career criminal. It sets up an intriguing study of the concept of justice and how it may be best achieved, as well as looking at the potential for attaining personal and professional redemption.

Where the Sidewalk Ends feels like something of a watershed movie. That whistling intro with the opening bars of Alfred Newman’s Street Scene playing over credits chalked on the sidewalk, suggestive of the casual impermanence of a crime scene and the expedience of the methods used to mark it out, as anonymous citizens stroll past seems apt given the way film noir – that genre that wasn’t even aware of its own name at the time – was moving along into other areas. As the new decade went on noir would move gradually away from those tales of personal misfortune and shift its focus onto wider societal ills, organized crime and institutional corruption. The director too would soon be on his way, leaving behind the restraints imposed by being under contract to a major studio.

Recently, after revisiting Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder I was watching one of the supplements on the Criterion Blu-ray where Foster Hirsch was commenting on the directors insistence on shooting that movie on authentic Michigan locations. Some of that fondness for using real locations comes through in Where the Sidewalk Ends too with much of the film shot on familiar Fox studio sets, but also taking the cameras out onto the streets of New York where possible to give it an air of genuine urban grit. The whole picture has a strong noir aesthetic, canted angles, telling close-ups, characters clustered in tight, claustrophobic spaces framed by doorways and windows, and plenty of shadows carefully lit and photographed by Joseph LaShelle.

Where the Sidewalk Ends was the fourth of five films Dana Andrews would make with Preminger. All of their collaborations are interesting and there’s not a bad movie among them. Andrews has always been a favorite of mine whatever genre he happened to be working in and I’m sure I’ve spoken before of that marvelous internalized style he used so effectively on so many occasions. The part of Mark Dixon allowed him to tap into that: his rage and hunger for violence barely contained every time he encounters Gary Merrill’s conceited gangster, the appalled horror at what he has done when he realizes the murder suspect is lying dead before him, and then the sickening, sliding sensation as he witnesses the net cast by the law drawing tighter around those who least deserve it. These are all different emotions and reactions yet all of them are perfectly conveyed with great subtlety and quietness by Andrews – superb screen acting. Gene Tierney was another veteran of Preminger’s movies, making four in total for the director over the years. One might say her character isn’t as directly involved in the story yet her presence is one of the primary drivers of the plot – the initial killing stemmed partially from her attendance at the dice game, her father called on her abusive ex and placed himself at the scene of the crime as a result of what happened to her, and Dixon’s journey back from the brink towards redemption could not take place without her.

Gary Merrill is good enough in the role of the villain, although he is off screen quite a bit. In a sense though, one could argue that Merrill is not the main villain, that honor belonging to Dixon’s father, the ghost of a long dead hoodlum haunting his son’s conscience and putting a hex on his character. An uncredited Neville Brand makes for a memorable sidekick, superficially tough but easy to crack under pressure. That pressure is applied not only by Andrews but also by Karl Malden as the newly appointed lieutenant who is keen to make a quick arrest. As Tierney’s cab driver father, and Malden’s prime suspect, Tom Tully is hugely endearing. Both Tully’s playing and Tierney’s devotion to him lend credibility to the conflict which assails Andrews as the plot unfolds. All of the supporting actors turn in good work, including Bert Freed, Craig Stevens and Ruth Donnelly. I want to add a brief word too for Grayce Mills, who only appears in one scene. Many of these studio productions contained seemingly throwaway moments, little vignettes that are easily overlooked yet frequently stick in the memory. Such is the case with the old widow living the basement below the apartment where Andrews runs into trouble – there is something touching and memorable about this old lady’s few telling lines about the insignificance of time to the aged, and how she sleeps in the parlor with the radio softly playing to assuage her loneliness.

Some years ago the Bfi released a Blu-ray set of three Otto Preminger films noir comprising Where the Sidewalk Ends, Whirlpool and Fallen Angel, but it now seems to have gone out of print. Anyone fortunate enough to have picked that set up will know that this movie (and the other two titles) looks exceptionally good so it’s worth keeping an eye out should it be reissued, or if a competitively priced used copy pops up.

So, this year ends with Where the Sidewalk Ends. My thanks to all of you who came along for the ride, and I hope I’ll be seeing you again in 2023.

Youngblood Hawke

Youngblood Hawke (1964) was the penultimate film directed by Delmer Daves, one of those melodramas he turned his attention to from 1960 onward. The critical response to these films has been mixed at best, although one could say that this characterizes the response to the director’s body of work as a whole. So far, I have only seen a smattering of these late career movies myself, but I fully intend to catch up with them all sooner or later. Youngblood Hawke is a classic rise and fall drama with a pleasing thread of self-discovery and renewal forming  the backbone of the narrative.

Arthur Youngblood Hawke (James Franciscus) is an aspiring writer, driving coal trucks in Kentucky by day and spending his nights working on his novel. His break comes just before Christmas, a phone call from a New York publishing house confirming its desire to publish his book and inviting him to the city to sign contracts and so on. So it’s with a mix of awe and joy that Hawke arrives in the metropolis, dazzled by the scale of the place, the skyscrapers and monuments, and scarcely able to absorb the fact that someone is prepared to pay him good money to do what he loves, to write. Before the day is over he will have made the acquaintance of two beautiful women, both of whom will alter the course of his life. He is taken in hand by his editor Jeanne Green (Suzanne Pleshette) who finds him a small attic room to rent in the same building she occupies in Brooklyn. That same evening, Christmas Eve, at a literary party he’s been asked to attend he meets Frieda Winter (Genevieve Page), wealthy, sophisticated, provocative, and married. In these early stages, every step Hawke takes is an ascending one, his career path rises promisingly before him, the critics and socialites flatter and flirt respectively, and he, as any young man thrust suddenly into such a position would, basks and revels in the attention and allure of it all.

So Youngblood Hawke is a success; he’s been declared just that by the men and women who create reputations, but those same people can crush them just as easily and just as quickly. The thing is, for all his apparent charm and his ability to write award winning prose, Hawke is at heart a novice in the art of living. He craves success and thinks that the appetizer he has been served up will lead naturally to a grander and richer main course. For it’s riches in the real, monetary sense that draw Hawke, not for their own sake – he’s not so mercenary as that – but for their ability to set him free from financial worry, free to pursue his art in earnest. This leaves him walking something of an ethical tightrope, performing a precarious balancing act between artistic integrity on the one hand and the lure of the fast buck on the other. That someone so inexperienced should falter and lose his way is only to be expected, and that lack of artistic or professional surety extends to his personal affairs as well. This of course provides the real meat of the story, the tug-of-war for his heart with the excitement and illicit unpredictability of Frieda on one side and the reliability and patient devotion of Jeanne on the other.

Youngblood Hawke was Delmer Daves’ first movie shot in black and white since Kings Go Forth, and while I understand budgetary considerations played a part in that decision I also think it works well in this story, and the cinematography of Charles Lawton (a frequent collaborator with Daves) is luminous in places. In truth, I think the story lends itself to monochrome with some of the more powerful scenes, particularly those in Hawke’s apartment, benefiting from the starkness. Daves had a lot of creative control on the movie, not only directing but also producing and adapting Herman Wouk’s novel. As such, I think it’s fair to say it’s very much his film and his trademark theme of placing complex people in difficult positions where there are no easy choices is fully explored. The script ties it all up in a much more positive way than I understand to be the case with the source novel. Again, this positive thrust is characteristic of the director’s work, there’s always that path towards redemption, or renewal and rebirth as far as Youngblood Hawke is concerned, in his films. His characters are put to the test by life’s challenges, forced to confront harsh and perhaps unpleasant realities, both with regard to themselves and those most precious to them. Yet there is a reward to be attained, a victory which is frequently richer and more satisfying by virtue of being so hard won.

The movie begins and ends at Christmas and it’s surely significant that the main character experiences the dawn of new phases of his life at both points. Is the whole film to be viewed as a parable of sorts, or perhaps as an allegory? Daves’ films do have a strong sense of the spiritual to them after all, so perhaps that’s not such a stretch. Hawke sets out on his journey from humble beginnings and winds up being lauded and celebrated, drawn across the river to Manhattan to be tempted by its glitter and glamor. Yet it proves to be something of a creative desert for him, sapping his creativity and his spirit, and so he retreats back to Brooklyn, back from the brink and back to life itself, to be reborn as another Christmas comes around.

I’ve heard it said that the casting of James Franciscus is one of the weaknesses of the film, but I’m not sure about that. For the most part he acquits himself well, catching that wide-eyed wonder of Hawke in the early stages and that ever present ambition that blinds him to the pitfalls ahead of him. If there is a touch of awkwardness in some aspects of his performance, it feels appropriate for a character who at times shows an astonishing lack of perception. Genevieve Page’s worldly Frieda points out the paradoxical contrast between his artistic voice with all its depth of appreciation of the human soul and the tone deaf naivety of his interactions in his private life.

It is the women in Hawke’s life who understand him better than he does himself, laying the foundation for two very strong roles for the characters of Frieda and Jeanne and the two actresses playing those parts produce correspondingly fine performances – of course Daves typically presents women in a highly positive light. Both women are drawn to the writer right from their first meetings but then find themselves repelled by the selfishness, pettiness, and latent prudery he fails to control on various occasions, although never quite enough to make a clean break with him. Daves had already worked with Suzanne Pleshette on Rome Adventure a few years earlier and her role as Jeanne allowed her to explore a down to earth sexiness that feels very authentic. As the more passionate and the more conflicted Frieda, French actress Genevieve Page has the showier part and has more to work with. She gets to play two fine scenes with Franciscus, one in her own home and one in his studio apartment, both of which run the gamut from passionate desire to a cauterizing self-disgust. There is some real rawness on display, in a very human performance, and it is to Daves’s great credit that he never invites the viewer to make cheap or facile judgements about this character and affords her a marvelously classy exit. She is written as a person with flaws and failings as well as strengths and virtues, Page plays her in that way, Daves directs her so, and the movie as a whole benefits from that frankness.

Aside from the leads, the supporting cast is deep and constitutes a major draw in itself. Among the highlights are the seemingly ubiquitous John Dehner as Hawke’s chiseling uncle offering a masterclass in misplaced overconfidence, Mildred Dunnock as his prim mother, juggling defiance and reproval, Edward Andrews as the critic who mixes smarm with acid, and Kent Smith’s cool, calculating cuckold. All those alongside Mary Astor and John Emery, Lee Bowman and Eva Gabor, Berry Kroeger, Werner Klemperer, Don Porter, and so on.

Youngblood Hawke is available on DVD via the Warner Archive and it offers a fine, crisp and clean widescreen transfer of the movie. There are no supplements whatsoever, which I feel is a pity as the film does merit some attention. Frankly, I found much to enjoy and appreciate in this film – the appealing cast, Charles Lawton’s cinematography, Max Steiner’s buoyantly memorable score, and of course Delmer Daves’ hearteningly positive view of people.

The Angry Hills

If I were to offer the choice of a movie with a thin plot stretched beyond the point of endurance or one so crowded and packed with incident that breathing space is at a premium, which one would you choose? Well, the wise viewer would most likely pick neither and instead plump for something more balanced. As one whose curiosity typically allows wisdom to be elbowed aside, I would probably try the overloaded option. I mean, that one ought to be pacier and potentially more exciting, right? Not necessarily. The Angry Hills (1959) is a movie that has some weighty themes baked into it, but there is frankly too much going on, too many plot developments and too many characters drifting in and out of proceedings. In the end, it loses focus, simultaneously reducing the entertainment value and blurring or trivializing the more serious points it might have made.

The Angry Hills takes place in 1941, on the eve of and then in the period just following the German invasion of Greece. It starts with the arrival in Athens of  journalist Mike Morrison.The situation in the city could charitably be described as fluid and he’s keen to move on as soon as possible, or as soon as he’s had the opportunity to clean up and sample some of the local night life at least. Journalists get to know all kinds of people in the course of their work and an old acquaintance of Morrison’s passes on a list of Greeks who will be able to filter information through to British Intelligence in the months and years ahead. The idea is that a pressman will be in a better position to smuggle such a list out of the country before the city is occupied. Morrison frankly wants no part of this but he gets stuck with the list nonetheless. As a result, the movie develops into what is essentially a long chase back and forth across the country with the Germans, and those who would collaborate with them, in hot pursuit of the reluctant courier. As Morrison tries to dodge the Gestapo commanded by the enigmatic Conrad Heisler (Stanley Baker), he is plunged into the interior of the country where he becomes involved with the fledgling partisans trying to organize resistance and has a brief and tragic romance with a peasant girl (Gia Scala). By the by, he ends up back in Athens, still hunted by Heisler and his local stooge Dimitrios Tassos (Theodore Bikel), still looking for a way out and still endangering all those who cross his path.

Director Robert Aldrich was apparently unhappy with the film being recut by producer Raymond Stross, losing 10 minutes or more of footage. He felt it unbalanced the movie, which may be so but I’m not sure it really needed additional scenes. While I can’t claim to know exactly what was trimmed, I suspect it was material that related to Morrison’s first exit from Athens, a section that is papered over somewhat via a voiceover and a few brief shots indicating a longer journey. I do think the film is a little disjointed and there is a clumsiness to the narrative, but more footage in that sequence wouldn’t fix any of those problems. I’d actually go so far as to say the entire in country section with Gia Scala and the partisans could have been excised and not have really harmed the movie. In fact, it might have tightened it up considerably. There are themes touching on betrayal and trust, on the lengths people will go to for the sake of those they love which appear at various points, indeed the whole climactic sequence hangs on just this premise. However, a movie that uses the mechanism of the chase to power its narrative needs to keep moving, and preferably in one direction. What happens in The Angry Hills is that Morrison flees Athens with his enemies in hot pursuit, gets chased through the mountains, and then doubles back to the capital to essentially finish up where he started. It’s all too circular and means that too much happens to too many people for too long and to increasingly little effect. The story is an adaptation, by A I Bezzerides, of a Leon Uris novel; I’ve never read any of the man’s work so I can’t say if that contributes to the general muddle and torpor of it all, but I do know that screen versions of his books tended to be pretty lengthy affairs. Exodus is worthy but that running time of three and a half hours is incredibly taxing, while Topaz remains, in my opinion, by far the dullest and least involving of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies.

While there is no escaping the fact that there are problems with the scripting and structure, the movie does have positives. A glance at the cast list alone ought to attest to that. Robert Mitchum tops the bill as the newsman who claims to believe in little, to have seen too much, yet who experiences something of a spiritual or ethical reawakening. The seeds of a compelling character arc are certainly present but, once again, it’s never given the attention it ought to have received. Mitchum only seems truly involved emotionally in the latter stages, when the effects of the relationship with Gia Scala and the subsequent turn of events become clear. It arrives late and I’m not convinced it’s fully earned. While Gia Scala herself is fine as the village girl who gets under his skin, the romance that grows up between them is a half-hearted one at best. That entire section of the movie should provide the emotional core that supports the final act but the combination of the slowing down of the plot and that slightly lackluster romance weakens it.

A starring role for Mitchum is always a draw, even when it’s not all it could be. Something similar could be said for Stanley Baker, who gets a nice meaty part as the conflicted Gestapo chief. It is the type of role that one would expect to be pretty one-dimensional yet it is far from that. Baker had great presence and he could add layers of menace with the most subtle of glances and gestures, but he could also use that finely modulated voice to inject a quiet authority, a hint of warped civility in this case that makes his character all the more fascinating. His Heisler is easily the most interesting character on show, a potentially cartoonish villain invested with much needed depth. Elizabeth Muller is the woman who connects Mitchum and Baker and as such it’s a pivotal role, but neither the writing nor the performance really exploits that. In support, Theodore Bikel is marvelously sinister and corrupt, willing even to use the charms of his sister to further his aims. As that sister, Jocelyn Lane is stunningly attractive and it’s a pity her part wasn’t expanded. Marius Goring flits in and out of the picture  as an effete but dangerous German officer. There are small parts too for both Sebastian Cabot and the recently departed Leslie Phillips, the latter clearly enjoying his view of a surprising (taking into account the era in which the movie was made) and earthily energetic topless cabaret performance by Marita Constantinou.

The Angry Hills has been released on DVD via the Warner Archives in a very  attractive anamorphic ‘Scope transfer. Both the cast and the setting caught my attention initially and, as someone who has lived for many years in Athens, I welcomed the fact that the location shooting offered a glimpse of the changes that have occurred to the look of the city over time. The movie overall is a decidedly mixed bag, an odd blend of overcrowded plot with too much incident yet not enough character development to allow the viewer to properly engage or empathize. In short, the cast and location work ensure it remains watchable despite the structural flaws.