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.

33 thoughts on “Where the Sidewalk Ends

  1. Merry Christmas Colin and thanks as ever for making this last year so much more worthwhile at RTHC. Great choice here – WTSE is a great harboiled Noir to end the year on (glad to say I have the BFI set). All the best for 2023.

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    • Hope the holiyhave been good for you too, Sergio. I’ve been revisiting some Preminger movies of late and this felt like a suitable one to see the year on the blog out on. I’m pleased I picked that Bfi box up when I did, and for a very good price too as I recall.

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  2. Brilliant flick. Love the unique opening titles. Dana Andrews is terrific here. I own that boxset you mention at the end and can confirm it was well worth buying as the films were restored so well and it shows. Hope you’ve had a lovely Christmas, Colin.

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  3. Preminger really was one of the grand masters of noir. I’m inordinately fond of Whirlpool. Great Gene Tierney performance.
    That bfi set sounds good but I already own all three movies.

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    • He worked well in all genres, in my opinion, but I quite agree his noir pictures are uniformly good. I’d love to see a decent version/release of The 13th Letter, which only seems to show up in distinctly ratty condition.
      The Bfi set is attractive but, admittedly, all three movies looked pretty good on DVD in the first place.

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  4. The thanks should go to you, Colin, for bringing us all together around superb writing. I look forward to much more in 2023.
    WTSE is a terrific dark noir story and a gripping movie. Add me to the list of Dana Andrews fans – he was a fine actor and quite courageous to play a not-very-nice character in this film. He is one of a few actors (Robert Ryan, Barry Sullivan and more) who really never gave less than their best. They were capable of portraying light and shade equally well. Andrews’ work with Preminger resulted in some of that director’s best films in my view.

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    • I admire leading actors who had the guts to take on less than virtuous parts. All of the characters Andrews played for Preminger were flawed or compromised in some way and were much more interesting as a result.

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        • I would say so, yes. McPherson may not have the same kind of ambiguous characteristics seen in those other Preminger films, but he’s not quite the perfect hero either. The fact he grows more obsessed with a woman he believes to be dead, all of which is highlighted just before that famous reveal when the living Laura arrives back home unexpectedly, indicates a psychological peculiarity. Perhaps it’s not at the level of the driven and despairing Scottie Ferguson in Vertigo, but there is that flaw present.

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          • I suggest McPherson responds as he does because he has not accepted Laura’s death, and he is clearly correct. Just an esthetic instinct.

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            • Perhaps, that is one way to interpret it. Regardless of whether one sees it as a major or minor flaw, or just a temporary quirk, I think the important thing is that Andrews played the role well and that Preminger consistently managed to coax strong work from him.

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  5. Merry Christmas to you Colin and to other readers of RTHC!

    Your review of “Where the Sidewalk Ends” is so enticing that I’ve decided to watch it again. In my youth, I would watch certain movies over and over again. Now, with the proverbial clock ticking down, I’m trying to watch only movies that I’ve never seen before. But again, your excellent review convinces me that WTSE definitely deserves a second viewing.

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    • Here’s hoping you had a good Christmas, Frank, and that the New Year brings good things too.
      Naturally, I’m pleased to have sparked your interest in a rewatch. I try to strike a balance between returning to stuff I’m already familiar with and that which is new to me. I’d hate to be without some old favorites, and my feelings about movies change over time do I like seeing how my reactions have evolved. However, it is important for me to see something fresh as well, to keep my mind as freash as possible if nothing else.

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  6. Yes, I like to mix my re-watches with my first-timers too.

    Wish I had been able to pick up that BFI set you mention, Colin. I do have all 3 films but that set would be a ‘tempter’. I do though have the excellent MillCreek set of Columbia’s “The Whistler” series which Santa Claus very thoughtfully brought for me this Christmas! Again I do have several of the films ‘off-air’ but this new set looks stupendously good. Two films in the set are new to me (which is great) and my ‘off-airs’ include the missing film from this set – “THE MARK OF THE WHISTLER”. Nice little B-movies and well-made, with the definite bonus that most star Richard Dix. Definitely recommended.

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  7. This is a film I like a lot, and I think my appreciation grew when I revisited it not long ago.

    I don’t say it often enough in the comments, but my sincere thanks to you for providing such interesting, thoughtful reviews throughout the course of the year. You’re one of my “must read” sites!

    Best wishes,
    Laura

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    • I think many of the better films noir reward return visits, when the basic plot details are of less importance and we’re free to give more attention to other aspects.

      Thank you very much for those kind words, and I wish you a happy 2023.

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      • I think many of the better films noir reward return visits, when the basic plot details are of less importance and we’re free to give more attention to other aspects.

        I agree very strongly. I think it applies to any genre – if a movie is really worth seeing then it will be worth re-watching.

        If it’s a really fine movie then the second viewing is usually more rewarding than the first.

        If a movie is only worth seeing once then it probably wasn’t worth seeing at all.

        If the only strength a movie has is its plot then it’s a movie I probably won’t be interested in.

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        • Good movies will always draw viewers back, and the better the movie the more often they are likely to return.
          Last night, I watched Last Train from Gun Hill, which I’d not seen for a good few years. I’m very familiar with bith plot and performances, even some of the dialogue sticks in my mind. Nevertheless, I was totally absorbed once again and my appreciation was as strong as ever. The restoration on the Blu-ray is superb by the way and I recommend it without reservation.

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  8. Thanks for another great review, Colin. I finally came across your site maybe two years ago, and I was immediately hooked: your choice of films to review is almost exactly up my alley, and your takes are inevitably interesting and insightful. So yes, glad you are doing what you are doing, and glad I found you!

    I watched “Where the Sidewalk Ends” a number of years ago, and I liked it a LOT. Reading your review, I’m reminded why (in part): any number of themes that feel entirely true to life… and expertly played. I share your enthusiasm for Dana Andrews; I like him in other genres as well, but he’s arguably my favorite male noir actor. (And that’s a somewhat crowded field with the likes of Bogart, Lancaster, Mitchum, and, I would add, Richard Conte.) I have the Twilight Time blu-ray, and after reading your review, I’m definitely going to have to give it a spin.

    Anyway… thanks again, and Happy New Year!

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    • In box office terms? I never pay much attention to that as I’m not looking at this stuff in business terms but rather as a fan. When I think of success, it’s the quality of the production and how I feel about it that matters.

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  9. Colin, my ‘to watch’ pile just got me to “THE REVOLT OF MAMIE STOVER” and I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed the film. I seem to recall that several others, like me, had been put off by the title (sounded as though it could be a comedy western!) but of course nothing could be further than the facts.
    The storyline, centering the action in Oahu in 1941, made for an interesting surround to Mamie’s story and her relationship with Richard Egan. It was an adult story and played that way by the good cast. Egan had floated around the bottom of casts of several films for U.I. alongside Anthony Curtis and Rock Hudson. All three found fame quickly though Egan’s fame was lesser. A good actor though, I’ve always thought.
    Thanks for putting me on to the film by your fine review last year.

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