Satisfying One's Violent Instincts

Satisfying One's Violent Instincts

Posted by Mike Finnegan on Jul 7th 2018

Film historian Chris Fujiwara included the following telling tidbit in his 2008 The World and Its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger: “‘A cop is basically a criminal,’ Preminger remarked to writer Doran William Cannon during the story conferences for Skidoo [1968]. ‘Why do cops like to hit people? Because when they became cops, they satisfy an instinct for violence, only it becomes legalized violence.’” That assessment harkened back to the director’s terrific noir thriller Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), which opened 68 years ago today starring the never-better Dana Andrews as cynical NYPD detective Mark Dixon, whose simmering hatred of his late gangster father and all criminals drives him to use excessive force on suspects and, one fateful night, kill a murder suspect he’s interrogating after his rage boils to the surface. The rest of this gripping Ben Hecht screenplay, adapted from William L. Stuart’s 1948 novel Night Cry and directed by Preminger on 22 locations in and around New York and wrapping production at Twentieth Century Fox’s Los Angeles studios, concerns Dixon’s attempts, after he’s assigned to investigate the murder and falls in love with the victim’s physically abused widow (fellow Laura (1944) star Gene Tierney), to frame the predatory underworld boss (Gary Merrill) responsible for his father’s downfall as the guilty party. 

For a film made in the shadow of personal turbulence in the lives of its director (Preminger was going through a laborious divorce and edgily renegotiating what he felt was a constricting Fox studio contract) and its leading man (Andrews going through an upswing period of his lifelong struggle with alcoholism), Dana Andrews: The Face of Noir biographer James McKay notes: “Preminger may well have been a tyrant on set, but he certainly knew how to tap into Andrews’ raw energy to enable the actor to deliver easily the most anguished performance in his career.” For a film that largely impressed contemporaneous reviewers and yet fell short of recovering its $1.5-million cost at the box office, it has proved an influential forerunner of hard-charging, violence-prone rogue cops constricted by the law enforcement system in subsequent, more heralded films incarnated by Kirk Douglas (Detective Story, 1951), Robert Ryan (On Dangerous Ground, 1952), Glenn Ford (The Big Heat, 1953, a Twilight Time title available here: http://screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/30898/THE-BIG-HEAT-1953-ENCORE-EDITION/), Richard Widmark (Madigan, 1968), Clint Eastwood (Dirty Harry, 1971) and Denzel Washington (Training Day, 2001). For a film that Preminger didn’t profess much recall of when potential biographers would interview him, it has generated a considerable amount of critical reappraisal for the diamond-hard entertainment and film noir exemplar it is. Two noteworthy online examples are David Kalat’s TCM.com production recap essay (here: http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/333842%7C0/Where-the-Sidewalk-Ends.html) and Mark Fertig’s Where Danger Lives detailed evaluation (here:http://wheredangerlives.blogspot.com/2013/05/where-sidewalk-ends-1950.html). Featuring Bert Freed, Karl Malden, Tom Tully, Ruth Donnelly, Craig Stevens and Neville Brand, Where the Sidewalk Ends is a destination TT hi-def Blu-ray, with genre guru Eddie Mueller as an optional tour guide on a terrific optional Audio Commentary track.