My Encyclopedia of Film Noir says that Where the Sidewalk Ends is an underrated movie. I can understand why. I found myself hoping it would get up and go somewhere as I watched the tedious efforts of Dixon (Dana Andrews) to dig himself out of the hole he got himself into. It has a great beginning, where the credits are chalked onto a gritty urban sidewalk, and a man steps carefully over a drain in the gutter – stepping off the sidewalk. Then we get a long credit sequence showing two detectives cruising the streets with the squawk box on, and no music at all. It sets a dark mood, but tedium catches up to us.
Dixon’s a detective with a habit of beating up suspects, which makes him popular in the press, but not with his superiors. He’s also the son of mobster trying to follow a different path. When he goes to question a thug about a murder of a high roller in an illicit gambling joint, the guy attacks him. He defends himself with his fists, and the guy drops dead. How was Dixon supposed to know the guy was a decorated war hero gone bad, with a plate in his fractured skull? Dixon’s career is washed up, it’s fate, unless he can find a way to hide the body and make it look like the guy skipped town.
Turns out, the dead man was married to Miss Morgan (Gene Tierney) of otherworldly beauty. They were estranged – she wanted a divorce, but he kept calling her. She obliged him by going out with him, but he just wanted her as bait to get the rich guy to the gaming table he helped run.
She works as a model for a high-class coutier, played by Oleg Cassini, later her husband. Her friend tells her to leave that jerk before he beats her up again.
Dixon and Morgan get friendly. He takes her out to dinner. I was amazed at how they ate their soup. She’s the daughter of a cabbie, he a mobster’s scion, yet they both sip from the side of the spoon, careful not to take it into their mouths. Does anyone eat soup that way? So middle class! The gangster is pretty sophisticated too, but not with his manners. He dresses sharp and has a good mind for divining peoples’ characters. Karl Malden plays the wunderkind cop on the rise in the department, all brains and no brute, but he railroads an innocent man, Morgan’s father, on the basis of weak circumstantial evidence and his passionately held theory.
Then the movie rights itself, and gets going for real. Dixon is in a mess. Unless he comes clean, his girlfriend’s father will be convicted for killing the war hero. (Motive? The guy beat his daughter!) He resolves on a desperate course that will clear the father but likely end in his death. He writes a letter explaining it all while she sleeps on the couch, her troubled movements reflecting the moral vise they are in.
His plan works, and he doesn’t even end up dead! But there’s that letter he wrote to the chief, to be opened only if he dies. The chief has the letter and offers it back. But no! Dixon tells the chief to read the letter! He has to come clean; he will redeem his mobster soul and cleanse it! He asks that she be allowed to read the letter – he is under arrest, but she will stand by him. He killed by accident – his core is good.