Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950) is a largely forgotten classic of the film noir. Director Otto Preminger reunited the stars of his 1944 production of Laura. Based on Vera Casparys 1943 novel, Laura (1944) is an excellent film but Where the Sidewalk Ends is the more deeply meaningful of the two.
Preminger uses this story of a rogue cop, adapted by Ben Hecht from William L. Stuarts 1948 novel Night Cry, to comment on the corruption and desperation he saw as characterizing America in the aftermath of World War II. The story unfolds with ferocious intensity, painting a dark vision of New York City as a squalid and anomic city inhabited by insecure and disillusioned loners. Even in the indoor scenes, this jungle of a city remains a constant presence, often visible through a window, looming in the background.
Dana Andrews gives a solid, convincing performance as the ruthless but vulnerable character of Mark Dixon, a tough cop torn between his past as the son of a criminal and his duty as a policeman. Dixon is the noir hero who walks the thin line between good and evil. In the course of this film he crosses the line and finds that he is not very different from the criminals that he has been pursuing all his life. His conflict is summed up by Tommy Scalise (Gary Merrill), the gangster who is Dixons bete noire, who calls him, "half-cop and half-killer. The man who hates crooks. The law that works by itself. The cop who cant stand to see a killer loose. So what is he? A hood and a mobster, like his old man."
At the beginning of the story, Dixon is already in trouble for roughing up suspects. The intensity of his pursuit of Scalise, the crook his father was involved with, suggests an Oedipal quest -- Preminger was apparently a devotee of Freud and his silly theories but it makes sense without any psychoanalytic interpretation. Investigating a murder he believes Scalise is responsible for, Dixon roughs up and accidentally kills war veteran Ken Paine (played by Craig Stevens). He conceals the crime through the elaborate creation of a false alibi and continues the investigation. As part of the team investigating Paines death he allows a case to be built against an innocent taxi driver named Jiggs Taylor. When Dixon meets and falls in love with Taylors daughter, Morgan (Gene Tierney), he has to confront what he has become. This leads to a nearly suicidal confrontation with Scalise and an ultimate decision to confess his guilt in Paines death.
In one way or another, all of the characters in this movie are casualties of the problems Preminger clearly attributes to postwar urban decline and apathy. Dixon's partner Steve (Neville Brand) has a dismal marriage, full of conflict and dragged down by poverty. Martha, the owner of the restaurant Dixon frequents, is recovering from a marriage to an abusive husband. Even Dixon's lover Morgan is trying to forget a failed marrage to a depressed war veteran. Caught between their dysfunctional family lives and a normless and destructive community, they are all struggling to find meaningful relationships.
This is a powerful film -- a gripping story of how a cop with the best of intentions can become a menace to society when he substitutes his moral judgement for the principles of justice in a free society. Dixon is the sort of cop that conservatives would like to see policing our society. This film shows why society must always find some way to "guard against the guardians" to borrow from a classical Latin motto.
Preminger's picture of postwar society in general, and of New York City in particular, is grossly exagerated but it is a view that many at the time believed was true. Today, the generation depicted in this film as normless and degraded is lauded as "the greatest generation." This film may serve as a useful reminder that things are seldomn as bad as the prophets of gloom would have us believe. The world didn't "go to hell in a handbasket" in 1950 and it most likely isnt going there now.