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"I remember nothing about it," Preminger would say when asked about his 1950 film noir Where the Sidewalk Ends. In fact, Preminger frustrated his biographers in this way about the majority of films he directed during this period: Daisy Kenyon (1947), The Fan (1949), Whirlpool (1949)... He became so evasive about this stretch of his past that when Peter Bogdanovich asked him a question about Where the Sidewalk Ends, Preminger pouted, "You know me so well now-you can always answer for me." Perhaps this is what Preminger meant when he said, "If you're interested in me, too bad for you." The irony is that any other filmmaker would gladly claim the accomplishment of Where the Sidewalk Ends, and many other directors did indeed build reputations on the basis of much lesser works. It was practically a joke: Preminger had forgotten more about filmmaking than most people knew!
Preminger's faulty memory is easy to understand, however. The Austrian director immigrated to Hollywood in 1935, not long after Fritz Lang. Like Lang, he was widely seen as a cruel dictator given to berating his co-workers-yet unlike Lang he seemed to have no personal charm with which to offset this stereotype. He was groomed as a protg to Ernst Lubitsch, and took over Lubitsch's last film A Royal Scandal (1945) when the comedy genius passed away - yet he was widely seen as a poor substitute for Lubitsch, and his Lubitschean films were critical and popular flops. He struck gold in 1944 with Laura, one of Hollywood's most esteemed classics, and then became so intent on not being typecast by its success he turned down similar projects, and gradually squandered that goodwill and found himself trapped in a B-movie quagmire. By 1950 he was stuck making routine potboilers for which he had no particular affinity for a studio that seemed to devalue his talent.
But wait-it gets worse: Otto's wife Marion was divorcing him to serve as "ambassador-at-large" for fabled humanitarian Dr. Albert Schweitzer (as if Hollywood's "man you love to hate" could possibly hope to compete with the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize). Where the Sidewalk Ends was filmed while Otto was in negotiation with Marion's attorneys, a circumstance all but certain to blot out any happy associations he might otherwise have had from the experience. When the movie opened on July 7, 1950, it was to exceptionally poor ticket sales. Where the Sidewalk Ends was the lowest grossing film 20th Century Fox released that entire year, and its box office performance was the lowest the studio had seen since 1947. Earning back a meager $1 Million but costing $1.475 Million to produce, it lost money.
There's one other thing: just a week before the film premiered and began its box office tailspin, Preminger negotiated a new contract with Fox that bought him his creative freedom. In exchange for a lower salary, he greatly reduced his workload and acquired the opportunity to establish himself as an independent producer. The days of taking whatever assignment Darryl Zanuck felt like tossing him were over-from now on, Preminger would be master of his own destiny. And with that freedom he would do great things, such as all but single-handedly break the Blacklist, end the censorial regime of the Breen Office, and of course make the movies he wanted.
In other words, Where the Sidewalk Ends was made at the end of a dark, fallow period for Preminger, a time overshadowed by private troubles, and quickly eclipsed by the dawning of a new direction in his life. The public did not embrace the film itself in such a way as to champion it against his bitter memories, and so it faded into the distance... for him. We, however, are luckier, because whatever Preminger may have thought, Where the Sidewalk Ends is in fact a memorable film rife with angry energy.
It had its roots in a novel by William L. Stuart, called Night Cry. Independent producer Frank Rosenberg, Jr. bought the movie rights in March of 1948 and assigned writers Karl Kamb, Bernard Gordon, and Julian Zimet (Ring Lardner, Jr. also took a stab at it, but none of his ideas were ever incorporated into an actual draft). Rosenberg signed Howard Duff to star, and arranged for the finished product to be distributed through United Artists. That film was never made, though, because the following things happened: Rosenberg's agent was Ingo Preminger, Otto's brother. Evidently Ingo told Otto about the project, Otto told Zanuck, and so Fox jumped in and bought out Rosenberg, handing it over to Preminger as director and associate producer. So much for taking Zanuck's leftovers, this would seem to have been Otto's chosen baby from the start.
Exactly what drew Preminger's attention we cannot say for sure, especially with his cagey gaps in memory. It is interesting that he mounted the production as a sort of Laura reunion, after spending so long trying to escape the shadow of that film. It reunited stars Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews along with cinematographer Joseph LaShelle, art director Lyle Wheeler, and editor Louis Loeffler on a film noir-romance. Then again, Whirlpool the previous year was also a Laura get-together, minus Gene Tierney. Perhaps what caught Preminger's eye was the theme of a cop whose natural instincts for police brutality backfire on him viciously. "A cop is basically a criminal," Preminger later opined, "Why do cops hit people? Because when they become cops, they satisfy an instinct for violence, only it becomes legalized violence." Dana Andrews' Detective Dixon can pummel suspects with impunity, because he's chosen social outcasts as his victims. Things go wrong when he punches the wrong man, and his life spins horribly out of control. The once self-righteous lawman kills an innocent war hero and frames another innocent man for the crime.
As it turned out, how this theme was expressed in the finished film went through an evolution. As originally scripted by Ben Hecht, Dixon was the son of a slain traffic cop, driven to avenge his father's memory by punishing criminals, not unlike Batman. In his zeal, he turned into a man who was not so far removed from a criminal himself, just one who knew how to choose his victims so that his particular brand of sadism would be socially sanctioned. It was this version that Preminger filmed on location in New York over three weeks in spring 1950. The finale was staged at an amusement park, where Dixon squared off against his underworld enemy Tommy Scalise (Gary Merrill). Preminger then returned to the studio for a final round of soundstage shots, and assembled a rough cut of the picture for Zanuck, who had been uncharacteristically uninvolved up to that point. Zanuck demanded substantial reshoots, and called Hecht back to rewrite the finale and a handful of scenes leading up to it. The new material created a different backstory for Dixon. Now, he was the son of a former gangster, struggling to avoid fulfilling that criminal legacy. Determined not to follow destiny, he overcompensates to the point that he does.
Screenwriter Ben Hecht was at least as vital a creator of Where the Sidewalk Ends as the more famous Mr. Preminger. Over the course of fifty years he proved himself a master of every conceivable genre, from screwball comedy to Westerns to science fiction to film noir to musicals to thrillers. He had a hand in writing over 100 films and directed seven of them himself. Some biographers make the dubious and unsupported claim that he started writing for D.W. Griffith in 1915, but even setting that spurious credit aside he racked up a jaw-dropping CV writing for Lewis Milestone, Josef von Sternberg, Howard Hawks, George Cukor, Rouben Mamoulian, Ernst Lubitsch, Clyde Bruckman, Michael Curtiz, John Ford, the Marx Brothers, Frank Tashlin, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Edward Dmytryk, King Vidor, Robert Siodmak, John Sturges, George Pal, and Billy Wilder. His credits include Queen Christina (1933), Design for Living (1933), Twentieth Century (1934), Stagecoach (1939), His Girl Friday (1940), The Shop Around the Corner (1940), Foreign Correspondent (1940), Journey Into Fear (1943), Cornered (1945), Notorious (1946), The Inspector General (1949), The Thing from Another World (1951), A Farewell to Arms (1957), and let's not overlook Gone with the Wind (1939). Pauline Kael once said, with only slight exaggeration, that he wrote half of the most entertaining films made in Hollywood. He died in 1964, but his writing was so prolific and powerful it continued to be used for decades more.
However, the man was blacklisted in England. He wasn't blacklisted the way that, say, his pal Dalton Trumbo was. Hecht's politics were too idiosyncratic to be captured by the Hollywood Blacklist so easily. Nevertheless, he had distinguished himself as an outspoken advocate for a Jewish homeland in British-controlled Palestine. From WWII onwards he took to writing ever more forceful and provocative pieces in favor of Israeli statehood. It got so noisy that FDR himself asked Hecht to shut up, before he made any more diplomatic crises. Hecht did not shut up, and so the Brits retaliated by announcing that no picture that bore his name would be distributed in England. Where the Sidewalk Ends was shown in England after all, but with Hecht's controversial contribution now credited to "Rex Connor." He was proud of the script, and looked back on it with fondness as his life took a new turn. Aside from his run of self-produced features in the mid-1950s it was one of the last few scripts he would write alone before spending most of the remaining two decades as an uncredited script doctor.
Eventually Preminger did admit to remembering some of Where the Sidewalk Ends, prodded by journalist Rui Nogueira in 1970. Preminger's "memories" included the claim that Karl Malden was so green, Otto had to remind him "there was an enormous difference between theater and film, and that in film you don't shout your lines." Malden remembered their collaboration very differently. Malden had already made several films by that point and was well familiar with the more subtle approach to acting before a camera prior to Preminger casting him as the straight-as-nails Lt. Thomas, whose by-the-book manner threatens Dixon's way of life. Indeed it was one of Malden's most restrained and naturalistic performances. Moreover, Malden remembers Preminger constantly shouting contradictory criticisms at him right from the first take. "Cut! Karl, you are wrong!" Humiliated, Malden recalls, "All I wanted to do was get out of there."
Gary Merrill, as underworld kingpin Scalise, similarly recalls Preminger's prickly unhelpfulness. Merrill felt miscast as a gangster, and struggled to understand what was expected of him. Finally working up the courage to ask the famously rude director, "I've never played a gangster. I'm having trouble getting into the part." "Don't tell me," barked Otto, "Tell your psychiatrist."
Possibly some of Merrill's uncertainty stemmed from the ambiguity built into his role as it was written. Hecht had intended the character to be a drug addict, but the Breen Office censored any direct reference to drugs. However, they permitted the external characterization to remain the same, so Merrill was instructed to speak in a lilting, dreamy voice. Many commentators also see Scalise as being coded "gay" using the stereotypes of the day-a suggestion that would have been as taboo as drug use.
Although Preminger never made this argument himself, it could be said that his tyrannical treatment of actors was a considered technique to coax more psychologically complicated performances from his cast. Preminger's cinema is populated by uncertain souls with cracked psyches. Both Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney were old hands at Preminger's style, and maybe escaped some of his cruelty because at the time they came ready-packaged with their own demons: alcoholism and mental illness, respectively.
Although the coming decade would prove to be horribly taxing for Tierney, culminating in divorce and commitment to a mental hospital, the actual experience of Where the Sidewalk Ends was unusually pleasant. On too many film shoots, she was separated from her husband, fashion designer Oleg Cassini. On this production however they not only remained together, but Cassini even appeared in the film, in his "acting" debut as the designer of the clothes Tierney's character wears. It's a gloriously meta-textual joke, since Oleg genuinely did design Gene's fabulous gowns. When he saw himself on screen, though, Oleg slouched in his seat and grumbled, "As an actor I am a good designer!"
In such paradoxical misfits lies the film's power. The cop who becomes his own worst enemy, the honest detective whose thoughtfulness leads him to prosecute the wrong man, the gentle and unthreatening gangster, the wounded woman who remains paradoxically supportive of the many men in her life who spectacularly fail her. Where the Sidewalk Ends is a study in opposites, whose ambiguity is a strength. It is a film that defies expectations and surprises to the end. Preminger may have wishes to disown it, for the circumstances under which it was made, but we are free from such prejudice and can enjoy this gem of mid-century film noir for what it is.
Producer: Otto Preminger
Director: Otto Preminger
Screenplay: Ben Hecht; Victor Trivas, Frank P. Rosenberg, Robert E. Kent (adaptation); William L. Stuart (novel)
Cinematography: Joseph LaShelle
Art Direction: J. Russell Spencer, Lyle Wheeler
Music: Cyril Mockridge
Film Editing: Louis Loeffler
Cast: Dana Andrews (Det. Mark Dixon), Gene Tierney (Morgan Taylor), Gary Merrill (Tommy Scalise), Bert Freed (Det. Paul Klein), Tom Tully (Jiggs Taylor), Karl Malden (Lt. Thomas), Ruth Donnelly (Martha), Craig Stevens (Ken Paine).
By David Kalat
Peter Bogdanovich, Who the Devil Made It
Chris Fujiwara, The World and Its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger
Foster Hirsch, Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King
William McAdams, Ben Hecht: The Man Behind the Legend
Gerald Pratley, The Cinema of Otto Preminger
Aubrey Solomon, Twentieth Century-Fox: A Corporate and Financial History
Michelle Vogel, Gene Tierney: A Biography