13 July 2006 | imogensara_smith
Dana Andrews: Noir's haunted conscience
We're a long way from LAURA. Once again Otto Preminger directs, Dana Andrews stars as a police detective named Mark, and Gene Tierney is the beautiful woman who haunts him, but nothing else about WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS resembles everyone's favorite sophisticated murder mystery. Instead of deliciously quotable dialogue we get gritty, harrowing realism. While the earlier film took place in the ritzy upper echelons of New York society, here we're in the low-rent district of dark streets, hoodlums, cheap restaurants and crummy flats. Tierney, gorgeous as ever, now works as a department-store mannequin and lives in Washington Heights (the neighborhood of the "doll" who once got a fox fur out of LAURA's Mark McPherson). This time Andrews is Mark Dixon, an older, sadder, more troubled version of the cool cop in a trench coat.
WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS belongs to a sub-genre of noir, movies about police brutality focusing on cops who can't control their violent impulses. Like Kirk Douglas's character in DETECTIVE STORY, Dixon owes his seething contempt for crooks to his father's criminal past. Where Douglas is self-righteous and blind to his own faults, Andrews is burdened by repressed guilt and self-loathing. He accidentally kills a suspect and covers up his actions with an attempt to throw suspicion on a slimy gangster (Gary Merrill) whom he has been vainly pursuing for years. Instead, a kindly cab driver is suspected because he's the father of the dead man's estranged and mistreated wife Morgan (Gene Tierney). Dixon, falling in love with the wife of the man he killed, tries desperately to save her father without giving himself away.
Among noir protagonists, Dana Andrews had this distinction: he was incapable of appearing unintelligent. Even when playing an average Joe, as he usually did, he always comes across as unusually sensitive and perceptive; more than that, his air of being too thoughtful for his own comfort gives him that haunted--and haunting--quality that was his essence as an actor. He played ordinary guys, cops and soldiers, but always with a tragic undercurrent of seeing and knowing too much. His conscientious heroes are marked by exhaustion, guilt, the inability ever to "lighten up." No other actor could have expressed so well the bottled-up anger, the slow-burning pain, the agonized intelligence of Mark Dixon. He also has a muted tenderness, a muffled warmth and even wry humor that make him heartbreaking. This comes out when he takes Morgan to a restaurant where he's a regular, and for the first time we see this cold, brutal man trading mock insults with the waitress, whose sarcasm can't hide her affection and concern for him. When Dixon asks his partner for money to get a lawyer for Morgan's father, he supplies it even though they recently argued and Dixon threw a punch at him. There are no words about loyalty or knowing he's a good guy deep down, but we see it all in the man's anguished silence and his wife's resignation as she hands over some jewelry to pawn. Dixon's goodness comes across through other people's reactions to him as much as through Andrews's deeply moving performance.
Though Dana Andrews was a minor star, he may be the quintessential forties man. He goes through some movies hardly ever taking off his overcoat; with that boxy, mid-century silhouette, further fortified by the fedora, the glass of bourbon, the cigarette he doesn't take out of his mouth when he talks, he looks imprisoned in the masculine ideal of toughness and impassivity. While many noirs romanticize the two-fisted tough guy, WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS offers an unflinching portrait of the reality behind the façade, a gripping and melancholy exploration of the roots and consequences of violence.
Andrews was sadly underrated in his own time (he was the only one of the three protagonists in THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES not nominated for an Academy Award, though his low-key performance is far more compelling than Frederic March's hammy, Oscar-winning drunk). Fortunately, Andrews appeared in some films that ensured his immortality, and now at last this little-known film, which contains his best performance, can be seen as part of the marvelous Fox Film Noir set. This series, including a number of never before released titles (such as NIGHTMARE ALLEY and THIEVES' HIGHWAY), suggests that Twentieth-Century-Fox may have had the finest record of all the major studios when it came to film noir.