Thursday, April 7, 2016

WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1950) Twilight Time

Cinematographer, Joseph LaShelle’s uber-gritty elegance on a mostly back lot recreation of New York City – married to clever matte process shots and some location work thrown in for good measure, is on full display in Where The Sidewalk Ends (1950), the last of director, Otto Preminger’s commitments to 2oth Century-Fox, costarring two of the studio’s greatest assets…well, sort of. Oh, how the mighty had fallen and interesting to consider what the relatively brief span of six years had done to the careers of Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews, the pair first appearing together, while on the upswing, in Laura (1944) – one of Fox’s biggest hits of the decade, and by far, Preminger’s glossiest confection in the noir cycle. Despite her thin voice (which Tierney herself referred to as “an angry Minnie Mouse”) and crippling bouts of stage fright, Tierney had been meticulously groomed for stardom and coddled by the system to succeed. Her marriage to erudite European fashion designer, Oleg Cassini (who briefly appears in the movie), alas, against studio chief, Darryl F. Zanuck’s strenuous objections, was to create a minor backlash. But Tierney’s life story is one more tragic than anything put on the screen; an act of benevolence during her pregnancy exposing her to a virulent bout of German measles; the baby, Daria, born with devastating complications; Tierney’s marriage and career steadily crumbling thereafter from the strain of raising a child with special needs. By 1950, Tierney had already begun to suffer from hellish bouts of depression, compounded by an even more disturbing inability to memorize lines. Zanuck did all he could to shore up and mask these difficulties, easing Tierney into the limelight with kid gloves, but it was no use. Tierney’s box office appeal had slipped; gone from A-list starlet to D-listed fallen idol.
Similarly, Dana Andrews’ star power had taken a tumble, though mostly of his own accord; the Hollywood highlife hitting hard and fast with a one/two knockout punch. The hackneyed device of the ‘rogue cop’ is so overplayed in countless detective thrillers since it is saying a great deal Andrews’ bleary-eyed Det. Mark Dixon in Where the Sidewalk Ends can still hold his own in the crowd. Perhaps Andrews could sincerely relate: the handsome star of such immortal classics as State Fair (1945), The Best Years of Our Lives and Boomerang (both made in 1946) already struggling in his own hush-hush unsuccessful attempts to crawl out of the bottle; alcoholism steadily eroding his chiseled good looks and thus a key element of his drawing power with the ladies. In hindsight, Where the Sidewalk Ends plays like a perverse farewell to its stars; a safety net, momentarily delaying the supernova implosion of both their careers. Andrews is the real star of the picture; the graceless fall of a one-time heroic, if hotheaded cop, inadvertently guilty of murder; Tierney – who might have commanded the screen only a year or two before – now left with the rather abysmal and thankless part as ‘his girl Friday’; dime-a-dozen model, Morgan Taylor.
Boy, our Morgan sure can pick ‘em. Her first love was a solider, turned shiftless ex-military/ex-husband, Ken Paine (played with over-the-top pomp by Craig Stevens), to whom she cannot say the magic word ‘no’. Paine wouldn’t be such a bad lot if he could just keep his fists to himself. But no, he finds he can get mileage from a good belt across the cheek; a wife-beater with a weakness for bad liquor and even worse social acquaintances that have only served to bring him low since his glory days as a decorated G.I. Joe. The second of Morgan’s romantic misfires is ironically Andrews’ Dixon. He should have been her ‘happily ever after’, if not for the tantrum that led to that fatal blow he dealt Paine; compounding the ‘accident’ by covering it up, then pursuing a one-man campaign to frame mobbed-up Tommy Scalise (Gary Merrill) for his crime.
Where The Sidewalk Ends has so much going for it as a B-grade gritty noir, one can almost excuse the fact it plays very much like a standard police procedural with a minor wrinkle thrown in; Dixon’s anti-heroic fall guy, then something unseen in the movies, though hardly new to those who knew New York’s finest in their less than glamorous days.  And truth be told, Mark Dixon is not of the corrupt ilk the movies would revisit ad nauseam in years yet to follow, as much as he is clumsily ensnared by his own overzealousness to solve another murder; a very (un)lucky sucker punch depriving him of his only eye witness while pushing Dixon deeper into a dead end scenario from which there is no escape. Yet, this is precisely where the sidewalk ends for Mark Dixon - in a cesspool of gutter depravity, false cover-ups and a fatally flawed agenda to rid the city of a truly vial criminal. Mark’s tough, but too righteous for his own good, and, as it turns out, too good to truly be turned to the dark side. He sacrifices everything, except perhaps his last chance at happiness with a good woman, in order to do the morally right thing. At once, this fits the anti-authoritarian character traits of our protagonist rather nicely and serves the moral high ground of Hollywood’s self-sanctioning production code of ethics. After all, whether he meant to or not, Dixon has killed a man. And according the Production Code – crime doesn’t pay. Okay, Ken Paine was a bum and a cheat, using his ex as bait to lure a fat cat to Scalise’s floating crap game from which he was expected to lose the shirt off his back. But Paine was also a decorated war hero.  
Where the Sidewalk Ends opens with a few bars of Alfred Newman’s iconic ‘Street Scene’.  Interminably, it is a part of too many Fox movies, inserted whenever the studio needed a pseudo-contemporary ‘Rhapsody in Blue-ish’ theme to typify that atypical cosmopolitan center of the universe – Manhattan. Yet, herein, Newman’s iconic score is given decidedly short shrift; barely a whistled little nothing as the camera tracks along a damp sidewalk and sewer grate; the names of our stars and the film etched into the cement with either chalk or white graffiti paint. With barely 95 minutes to spare, director, Otto Preminger wastes no time cutting to the 16th precinct; the hub of our story, where first we meet Det. Mark Dixon, his partner, Det. Paul Klein (Bert Freed), late for the ceremony to appoint Det. Thomas (Karl Malden) as the new acting Lieutenant. Insp. Nicholas Foley (Robert F. Simon) takes this opportunity to pull Dixon aside for a little tête-à-tête in his private office; reducing his rank after Dixon’s most recent spate of complaints. “From who?” Dixon casually inquiries without concern, “Hoods?” Foley lowers the boom on Dixon. His job is to enforce the law, not use it as an excuse to beat undesirables to a pulp. It won’t play – not for Dix’, who wastes no time pulling over dapper hustler, Willie Bender (Don Appell), already on parole. Bender lies to Dix and Klein. Although it is unlikely he will make his curfew, no one – least of all Dixon – can prove Bender has been ‘consorting’ with spurious types.
Alas, before long Bender finds himself at Tommy Scalise’s floating crap game; Scalise’s latest pigeon, Texas high roller, Mr. Morrison (Harry von Zell) winning a minor fortune from the house – a deliberate ploy to ease the sting of him losing everything later on. Too bad for Ken Paine his ex, Morgan suggests rather prematurely – and naively - it is time to go home. Scalise gives Paine the signal to shut his woman up, but it’s too late. Morrison concurs. The action has cooled – enough for him to take his winnings and prepare to retire for the evening, something Scalise will not allow. Paine gives Morgan a smack to shut her up; a move that causes Morrison to get into a chivalrous tussle with Paine.  He is no match for the ex-G.I., however, and is quickly subdued. A short while later, Dix and Klein get the call to investigate a homicide. It’s Morrison, lying with a knife stuck through his heart; Scalise denying any wrong doing. He even suggests Morrison was a lame duck who was losing badly at craps and probably decided to do himself in, in shame and misery. While Dix’ instinctively knows this to be untrue, Lt. Thomas reserves the right to hear Scalise’s side first; too much red tape for Dixon, who manages a clue leading him to Paine’s seedy apartment. Paine is…well…a pain, refusing to take Dix’s advice and explain what really happened to save his own skin. Instead, the boys get into a fist fight; Dix, sober and full of venom, easily knocking his inebriated opponent senseless. Too bad for Dix it’s anything but a golden gloves knockout; Dix immediately realizing Paine has struck his head on the way down. He’s dead.
With a suspension already hanging over his head, there is only one thing to do: dispose of Paine’s body before anyone is the wiser, then pretend he was too late to track Paine down; thereby pinning Morrison’s murder on Paine and Paine’s – if, in fact his body is ever discovered – on Scalise. It’s all rather simple and neat, except for the gnarled old widow landlady, Mrs. Tribaum (Grayce Mills), who sleeps in a chair facing the window with a view of the street while listening to grand opera. She sees someone matching Paine’s description leave the building in the dead of night with a satchel; Dix having cleaned out the apartment and already hidden Paine’s body inside the closet before Klein’s arrival. Dixon buys a one-way train ticket out of town, sending Paine’s bag on ahead and hoping to hell there is enough time to return to the scene and retrieve Paine’s body for its watery burial. There is, and Dix now dumps Paine in the trunk of his car before hightailing it for the riverfront; determined to sink the evidence into silence.
So far, so good; except Dix is not prepared for his first encounter with Morgan Taylor.  She ought to have been some smart-mouthed cheap trick he could badger, belittle and badly mistreat as he goes through the G-men’s motions of ‘solving’ the crime. But Morgan is nobody’s idea of a gun moll. In fact, she is a rather nice girl – level-headed, polite and eager to help in the investigation in any way she can. Dix feels like a heel. He should, overcompensating by offering to take Morgan out for dinner at his favorite restaurant. But before this, Morgan brings Dix home so she can change from her work clothes into something a little more casual. Dix meets Morgan’s father, Jiggs (Tom Tully), who drives a taxi and once aided Dix in a tail job that made it into all the papers. Dix is tops in Jigg’s ledgers – undeserved praise, it only makes Dix feel less like a hero and more the creep.  
Morgan is empathetic. She really wants to get to know Dix and thinks she understands his ‘goodness’. Perhaps, under his sometimes gruff exterior there really is the heart of a tender, sweet and retiring man she could love. It is a pity Morgan does not have much more time to find out. The law is closing in…only, not on Dix, but Morgan’s dad; Lt. Thomas unapologetically ready to pin a murder rap on Jiggs for defending his daughter’s honor after Paine roughed her up at the crap game. Dix wants to tell the truth, but doesn’t – instead, pushing hard to get Scalise to roll on the Morrison murder. Too bad, Dix has underestimated his male prowess in a brawl, particularly when confronted by three of Scalise’s best boys inside a sauna steam room. In short order, this trio (played by Neville Brand, John Daheim, Anthony George) use Dix for their punching bag; Dix limping back to Morgan’s a battered mess. She cleans him up and he vows to clear Jiggs of the crime. Dix is determined to hire high-powered attorney at law, Jerry Morris (Mack Williams). But for this he needs a thousand dollar retainer – too rich for Dix’s blood. In fact, he is $300 shy, unless, of course, Klein can spot him the cash. Klein is torn. Earlier, Dix ordered his partner rather cruelly to butt out of his business. But now he needs his help – and gets it with compassion to spare; a real pal when the chips are down.
Morgan is eternally grateful for Dix’s help. Alas, when she presses him on the reasons for it, Dix confides in her that his ole man, Sandy, was a common thief who died when Dix was only seventeen; shot while trying to escape from prison. Dix vowed then to preserve the law and rid the world of men like his father. While Morgan has no way of knowing the truth, Dix cannot help but see from within how close to the tree his tiny apple has fallen. Meanwhile, Lt. Thomas apprehends, Steve (Neville Brand) one of the men who roughed up Dix, pressing him hard to learn the reasons. Thomas now has just cause to suspect Scalise behind Paine’s disappearance, especially when Ken’s remains are fished from the Hudson. To seal the deal, Dix turns to Willie Bender; the only stoolie to make Scalise sing to the police, thus cracking the Morrison murder wide open. But before he apprehends Willie, Dix writes his own confession about Paine’s accidental killing, thereby exonerating Jiggs of the crime anyway. The confession is placed in an envelope and sent to Lt. Foley with instructions to be opened in the event of Dix’s death. Now, Dix arranges a showdown with Scalise inside a vacant warehouse. Scalise giving his hired guns strict instructions to shoot Dix, if he so much as throws a single punch. But Dix does just that upon discovering Scalise intends to flee to a country with no extradition, taking a bullet in his shoulder.
One of Scalise’s younger associates lets it be known Steve has since squawked to the police about Scalise’s complicity in the Morrison murder. With little time to waste, Scalise and his goon squad make a harrowing attempt at escape. But it is too late. As sirens begin to blare, Dix throws the switch, cutting off the power and trapping Scalise and his men inside a service elevator.  A short while later, Foley informs Dix he intends not only to restore him to his previous ranking on the force, but also recommend him for a promotion. Foley offers to return Dix’s letter of confession. As Dix did not die, the correspondence has remained unopened. It would be so easy for Dix to simply take back the letter and walk off with Morgan. But Dix cannot live with his deceit any longer. He asks Foley to open the confession and to read it aloud in Morgan’s presence. Foley’s pride turns to chalk as he realizes his golden boy is the real killer all along. Miraculously, Morgan’s feelings for Dixon remain unchanged; strengthened even, as she vows with great sincerity to stand by him, whatever the future may bring.
The ending to Where the Sidewalk Ends is just a little too convenient for most tastes, and I suspect, not altogether satisfying for Preminger either. Indeed, in later years, Preminger would insist he stuck religiously close to Ben Hecht’s screenplay (itself, based on William L. Stuart’s novel), perhaps driven more by his ambition to depart from under the yoke of Zanuck’s autocratic rule. Going into the project, Preminger was well aware his two stars were not of the caliber they had been only a few years earlier. Preminger, a notorious exploiter, one-part Machiavelli to two-parts Svengali, likely considered Where the Sidewalk Ends his last opportunity to exact a credible performance from either Andrews or Tierney, depending on their susceptibility and the magnitude of his brow-beating. In hindsight, Preminger succeeded admirably with both stars; their sad-eyed experiences brought to bear on the material as written. Where the Sidewalk Ends is neither Andrews nor Tierney’s finest hour on the screen – not by a long shot. And yet, there is something genuinely likable about these characters. And Preminger leaves each severely flawed character with their dignity to reconsider; perhaps, a cold companion for Mark Dixon in the many years yet to come, staring from the other side of a set of bars in his jail cell.  But Dixon has been reprieved – restored even, by the love of a good woman who has herself been resurrected from a slip and fall as the archetypal ‘battered wife’ for far too long.     
Conveniences aside, Where the Sidewalk Ends is problematic on several levels; not the least for Ben Hecht’s meandering screenplay. Hecht’s pedigree as a writer needs no introduction or confirmation. But here he seems, if not derailed, then mildly detoured in his efforts – chasing the specter of a brilliant career and, at times becoming too clever for his own good. It is the strange amalgam of conventional typecasting and unexpected grittiness in Where the Sidewalk Ends that is off-putting at times; the enforced, immaculate crisp look of studio-born key lighting at odds with the uglier truths that inhabit this low rent district. Gary Merrill, playing against type as the capricious, decongestant-sniffing gangland puppet master, is a particularly slimy toad. But his Tommy Scalise lacks the maniacal oomph of a truly ominous villain; more, on occasion, a limp-wristed hood than Mafioso kingpin. Scalise’s entire racket is predicated on luring gullible rich patrons to frequent his roving crap game. Murder and dice, however, are decidedly not very convincing bedfellows. After all, how does one collect monies owed from a corpse?  But Scalise’s organization is also unintentionally top-heavy. There is enough thug muscle to stock a bruiser’s convention. But with profits as light as these, exactly how Scalise makes the whole enterprise click as it should – and keep his boys well-tailored and contented at arm’s length (they might just as easily turn on the proverbial hand that feeds, should the trough suddenly run dry) remains a mystery. So we are left with Where the Sidewalk Ends as a star vehicle with two bargain-basement names above the title. The picture is not without its treasures, as no movie made by Otto Preminger ever is; but these are to be unearthed and slickly – perhaps, a little too slickly – packaged by a major studio about to reach the tipping point of its studio-bound era of successes.
Fox Home Video has favored Twilight Time with a flawless 1080p transfer. Pardon me while I pause to rub my eyes and catch my breath. My displeasure with a good many Fox’s deep catalog releases in hi-def is well noted elsewhere in this blog. But on this occasion, I have absolutely nothing but praise to sing. Now, if only we could get Fox to favor us with such stellar work on Wilson, The Dolly Sisters, The Long Hot Summer, Back Home In Indiana, Woman's World, Three Coins in the Fountain, Down Argentine Way, The Keys of the Kingdom, Anna and the King, The House on Telegraph Hill, Dragonwyck...but I digress.
Properly framed in 1.33:1, this remastering effort is a showcase for cinematographer, Joseph LaShelle’s superb B&W imagery, offering exceptional contrast, and gray scale tonality, crisp, velvety deep blacks and exquisite modulation with razor sharp focus and never so much as the hint of age-related artifacts.  I found myself marveling at fine details in skin, fabric and hair. Were that every noir masterpiece from Hollywood’s golden epoch could sustain as rich and satisfying as this. The newly remastered DTS 1.0 offers very fine support; dialogue, effects and score all sounding properly placed. We won’t poo-poo the lack of extras. Apart from TT’s usual commitment to an isolated score, the only other extra is a regurgitated audio commentary from noir historian/author, Eddie Muller – a great listen, if a repeat. Bottom line: enthusiastically recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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