Sunday, April 10, 2011

WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS | Otto Preminger | 1950

This is a noir that hits me in the same way that The Big Heat hits me. it has a surface layer of film noir tropes and moods that immediately wins it over to me. The photography is dark and gloomy, the taxicabs stop right in front of the camera lens, that parking garage goes on forever, those big-city backdrops fill the eyes with luminous wonder. The title is immediately gripping, especially when matched to the illustrative opening credits. From the get-go you can tell you're in for a good noir in every superficial way that matters, and when it comes to this genre, those are often the aspects that I take most seriously.

But there's so much more going on here. Dana Andrews is a notoriously tough cop with daddy issues, out to prove that he's the reverse of his criminal father by relentlessly going after Scalise, a mob boss the old man had helped set up. But we only get this information after Andrews has accidentally killed a suspect by knocking him out, fracturing the steel-plated skull the man had obtained during the war. From this point onward, it's impossible to see the man as a hero, and Preminger tackles the issue of whether there really is a line between 'cop and killer,' the phrase that Scalise uses in the film's harrowing climax. This isn't simply an internal morality play; the lieutenant played by Karl Malden seems equally despicable in his eagerness to close the case by pinning the murder on Gene Tierney's affable father, and while Scalise is responsible for the murder of a gambling associate, there is otherwise nothing tangible outside of his snarling charisma that gives us grounds to judge him. This latter point makes Andrews' resolution to pin him for the murder he himself committed particularly damning.

The moment that Andrews does murder the suspect is an important one. Unlike in Anatomy of a Murder, another Preminger film in which the consequences of a single act of violence proliferate out and color multiple people who elude definitive moral judgment, the murder is definitively depicted, and all queries about it afterward hold little mystery for us. However, the dramatic irony and the suspense it generates are often unbearable, and it is never possible to know how things will end up. I can't think of a similar Hollywood film in which the protagonist is so clearly doomed from the start, and not because of any external or cosmic force, but because of his own fault. Preminger treats the event with such moral seriousness, that you know that there will be no Hollywood loopholes that allow everyone to get out unscathed, and so the remainder of the film had me transfixed on the screen, probing Andrews' character for damning or redemptive traits that would help guide me to some sort of opinion on how I hoped the story would end up. To the very end, not only could I not expect what would happen, but I could not determine what I wanted to happen either.

After the murder, Preminger spends his time establishing a web of characters who have been affected by Andrews in some way. Tierney's father idolizes him; it turns out the friendly old cab driver assisted him in a case several years back. The man is endearing but overzealous in his love for his daughter and a spinner of exaggerated yarns. Andrews looks down on him for his enthusiasm and blatant fabrications, but when the man is booked for the murder, it is Andrews and not the cabbie who is withholding the truth. The owner of a shoddy restaurant who recalls Thelma Ritter's character from Pickup on South Street has a playfully antagonistic relationship to Andrews, who sent her husband away for wife-beating. In fact, everyone who resorts to unnecessary violence ends up getting punished, either by the law or by the mob, and Andrews is no exception.

And finally, moral ambiguity seeps out of every crevice of the story. Does Andrews feel genuine remorse for killing the suspect, or is it simply a feeling of distaste for acting so much like the father he has a deep-seated hatred for? Is his valiant assault on Scalise, conducted as a self-sacrificial means of extricating Tierney's father, not also a cowardly and irrational way for him to settle all of his psychological issues? The ending, in which he finally confesses, even after everything has been settled, is a moment of moral transformation. His motive for doing so can no longer be linked to the demons the story has propped up to complicate our attitude towards him, and Tierney's assurance that she will give him all the chances in the world is so lovely it makes me want to cry.

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