Monday, August 1, 2011

Guest Review: Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)

By Philip Schweier

Once again, co-stars and director are reunited in Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), as Otto Preminger directs his leading actors from Laura (1944), Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney in a script from newsie turned playwright turned screen scribe Ben Hecht.

Dana plays Det. Mark Dixon, a tough cop who has no compulsion against beating the occasional suspect in an effort to ferret out information. His superiors know this, unfairly comparing him to his newly-appointed boss, Lt. Thomas (Karl Malden). It seems the two joined the force at the same time, but are currently headed in opposite directions on the promotions ladder.

Dixon especially has it in for local crime boss Scalise (Gary Merrill), so when a dead body shows up at the gangster’s floating crap game, Dixon is only too happy to join the investigation in the hopes of finally getting the goods on his arch-nemesis. Scalise points the finger at Ken Paine (Craig Stevens), who Dixon finds drinking in his tiny run-down apartment. He’s none too eager to talk to cops, but Dixon has a way of dealing with that.


Ooops.

Well, now what does he do? Dixon had been warned to take it easy, now he’s got stiff on his hands. A mountain of mea culpas aren’t going to square THIS with the brass. So he applies all his crime fighting technique to cover up the fact that Paine expired, in the hopes of pinning it on Scalise. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

The search is on for prime suspect Paine, and Dixon is sent to talk to his wife, Morgan Taylor (Gene Tierney), from whom Paine has been separated for three months, but now permanently. She explains that Paine was a good man, until he returned from WWII with a plate in his head. After that, adjusting to civilian life made it hard for him to hold a job, which is how he ended up shilling for a slimeball like Scalise.

Dixon, knowing Paine wouldn’t be returning (well, not vertical, anyhow), decides to ask the yet to be informed widow out for dinner. Geez, Dix, bad enough ya punched a war hero’s ticket, now ya gotta move in on his missus? Well, why not? Her husband’s dead, she’s living with her cab driver father who has delusions of grandeur, and when the police come snooping around asking questions, her employer dumps her like a bad habit. At this point, a potential romance with a guy who enjoys smacking people around must look pretty good.

When Paine’s body turns up, the police are in full force. Lt. Thomas leads the investigation; the circumstantial evidence tells him the murderer is none other than… Morgan’s father, Jiggs Taylor (Tom Tully)!

That’s right. He went to Paine’s apartment that night to confront him about hitting Morgan. Only there was a fight, see, and Paine ended up dead. Taylor loaded him into the trunk of his cab, put on Paine’s coat and hat and bought a ticket to Pittsburgh, making sure his name on the luggage was visible to the ticket agent. Then he picked up a fare, and afterwards he took the body over to the docks and dumped it. It all fits.

Okay, now Dix is really in a jam. He could keep mum and let Jiggs take the fall for his crime, but he’s a cop and somehow letting an okay guy burn for a crime he didn’t commit don’t seem right. Especially when that guy might be his future father-in-law. He tries to punch holes in Lt. Taylor’s scenario, but his superior ain’t buying it.

He now has to choose: keep quiet and let the chips fall where they may, or come clean and fess up that he’s the guy what offed Paine and face the music. Instead, he takes door #3, which is his original plan to try to pin the crime on Scalise.

This film is an interesting little moral drama with a healthy amount of action and intrigue thrown in. Whether that’s due to Hecht’s script, Preminger’s directing or a combination of the two, I couldn’t say. As for Andrews and Tierney, they don’t do much for the movie. Dixon could’ve been played by almost any leading man of the era, and Tierney is reduced to little more than window dressing. Maybe they had chemistry in Laura, but here she seems relegated to a standard love interest. Perhaps if the roles had been played by Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, or Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, the performances might have been stronger. 

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