Men at Work, by Scott Nye
Where the Sidewalk Ends is one of those perfect films noir, about a tough detective constantly at odds with his superiors about procedure, surrounded by a pretty dame on one side and slick gangsters on the other. Dana Andrews plays the detective, Mark Dixon, and Gene Tierney plays the dame, Morgan Taylor. They’re both essentially born into rotten circumstances – he the son of a hood, she the kind of girl who can’t help falling for the wrong guy. They’re both trying to be good people. If there’s one dependable dramatic conflict, it’s bad people who want desperately to be good.
If you don’t want to know anything about what happens in the film, I suggest you tune out here, hop on Netflix streaming, and get this film playing. I will say that I don’t spoil anything major.
Dixon’s upbringing and determination to rid himself of his father’s legacy makes him go a little rough on hoods, so right away the police department’s leaning on him – if he gets one more legitimate complaint of roughing up a citizen, he’ll go back to walking the beat. So when, in self-defense he knocks a murder suspect to the ground, unknowingly shifting a steel plate in his head and killing him instantly, we know this is not something that will be treated as a mere accident. Besides…it’s written all over his face.
That’s the not the only time we’ll ever see into his soul. Dana Andrews’ face is our only window into knowing this guy – he never discusses his predicament with anyone, but begins to slowly build a plan to cover it up, a plan we only understand by watching him carry it out. Everything from there falls to Andrews, so when Morgan’s father becomes the prime suspect in the case, we have to understand by his expression that him trying to direct the police’s attention away from him has nothing to do with his feelings towards Morgan – it’s really because her father’s the only totally innocent man in the room, who put his life on the line to help Dixon six years previous. Dixon cannot seem to change who he is, but maybe he can do this one thing right. It’s not the kind of acting that wins Academy Awards, admittedly, but this is really tricky stuff to pull off.
Eyes play an important role later in the picture, when Dixon is inevitably told to take a week off and “pull yourself together, man!” (Okay, they don’t use those exact words this time, but still). Preminger moves in to a two-shot, putting Dixon and the chief inspector at opposite sides of the frame – the inspector holds his gaze, certain of his position as both a moral and occupational authority. Dixon, meanwhile, tries to hold his ground, but his eyes betray him. Their oppositional stances highlight not only their comfort level in the situation – Dixon is obviously embarrassed and made to feel lesser – but also their moral certitude in the landscape of the film.
This is another aspect of police work that’s highlighted in this film, too rarely left out in others – the work itself. The police station is treated more as an office than a government institution. The other detectives are fellow employees. There is more talk here about shifts and the nuts-and-bolts process of police work than most detective films of the era.
In one of the first scenes of the film, a new lieutenant is named, and the chief inspector pulls Dixon aside to discuss why Thomas was, in my respects, a better employee. It’s a discussion not unlike what you’d hear in any other office. These elements are important so that when Dixon does make his crusade personal, it doesn’t feel like the usual story of the detective going outside the law for his own justice. Too often those stories make it seem expected of an officer. Dixon isn’t just putting in extra hours, however; he’s truly become something apart from the rest of the force.
And again, we don’t know about this process because he tells Morgan that he’ll do anything to prove her father’s innocent, or that sort of racket. We see his behavior change, we watch him adjust his limits, and we are shocked when he bursts into violence once again.
I was sort of surprised to learn this film didn’t receive huge praise upon its release, but I guess you never know with this sort of thing. It was compared unfavorably to Laura, which also featured Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney, and is quite a good film, but I honestly feel that this stands a little taller. In Laura, Andrews merely played a spectator in the thematic terrain – here, everything he does is an extension of the film’s fundamentals. I suppose it does have some plot contrivances, but few crime films skate away without this issue. More importantly, it plumbs some fascinating depths and keeps you hooked. That, plus being a helluva picture to look at, are about all I need from a great film noir.