Preminger Hits the Pavement
While working on the bruising film noir Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), producer/director Otto Preminger was breaking free of the patterns of his life as a prominent studio filmmaker. The protagonist of this new thriller would be a police lieutenant, the son of a mobster, with a violent streak that drives him to kill a suspect in a murder case he’s investigating and pin the slaying on someone else – only to see that gambit backfire. This was set in a down-and-dirty New York City, a street-level caper that would not take a tour through the upper-crust salons of the Manhattan elite like the previous tale that starred his same lead actors Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney, Laura (1944). And in real life, the workaholic and romantically roving director was negotiating final divorce terms from his roller-coaster “open” marriage with wife Marion. Also, Preminger apparently got along well with Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck, but was a bit chafed that he was more valued, as Preminger biographer Foster Hirsch observed, as a “rescue man” (for stepping in to rework what other filmmakers had started on Laura, Forever Amber and That Lady in Ermine) than as an upper-echelon auteur in the ranks of Elia Kazan and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, pondering whether he should renew his contract with the studio. Any wonder where the ferocity and grit of Where the Sidewalk Ends came from? Some is due to screenwriter Ben Hecht who, working from an adaptation by Frank Rosenberg, Victor Trivas and Robert E. Kent of William L. Stuart’s novel Night Cry, was a master of snappy hard-boiled dialogue and a cynical worldview, serving up the situation of a corrupt cop trying to pervert justice with a frankness new to movie audiences. The juicy text would also give supporting actors Gary Merrill, Karl Malden, Bert Freed, Tom Tully and Craig Stevens a chance to shine. Another contributor to the atmosphere of coiled anger and ever-present menace was Laura’s Academy Award®-winning cinematographer Joseph LaShelle, whose skillful blend of shooting on actual locations and studio recreations enhanced the chill of the policeman hero’s alienation and instilled a nightmarish sense of imminent doom. But firmly in control of a masterwork about a compromised detective not in control is Preminger, who channeled the turbulence of his project’s mis-en-scene as well as his personal life into one of his signature achievements. Derived from a recent 4K restoration, Twilight Time’s hi-def Blu-ray of Where the Sidewalk Ends (featuring an Audio Commentary by noir historian Eddie Mueller) busts out February 16. Preorders open February 3.