Otto Preminger, 1950
Starring: Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney
Notorious for being violent towards criminals, Detective Dixon is warned by his superiors that he has to get control of himself or he’ll be sent back to the beat. During an investigation, he accidentally kills a crooked gambler, Ken Paine, and hides the body in a panic – he dumps Paine in the river. Though Dixon tries to put the blame on another gangster, suspicion quickly falls on Jiggs Taylor, the cab driver father of the beautiful Morgan, Paine’s estranged wife. Before his death, Morgan had moved in with her father because of Paine’s penchant for domestic violence. Dixon comes to realize that though he has nearly committed the perfect crime, the kindly Jiggs will be found guilty of murder, a matter further complicated by the fact that Dixon is falling in love with Morgan…
1950 was an important year for film noir, probably the most important next to 1944, and included the release of Sunset Boulevard, Night and the City, The Asphalt Jungle, and several more. After Laura (1944) and Fallen Angel (1945), this is director Otto Preminger’s third film to star Dana Andrews and Where the Sidewalk Ends provides an interesting contrast to both of these earlier works, particularly Laura. While Laura depicted the inherent sickness and corruption hiding behind the attractive veneer of upper class New York society and Fallen Angel exposed the violence and greed lurking in supposedly wholesome, small-town America, While the City Sleeps was his darkest film to date. Shot primarily in New York, the city is a cesspool, a place of ruin and despair.
Laura’s cinematographer, Joseph LaShelle, returned to capture some of the urban realism directors like Jules Dassin were using at that time. LaShelle captures a morally gray universe in a city choked with shadows, despair, and trash, a place forever marred by WWII. Fate and unhappy circumstance plague even the best of men, and many of the characters have little to live for, while others are forced by necessity to turn to lives of crime or violence. Dixon is essentially the genesis of the violent cop who considers himself above – or below – the law, a man who acts as a solitary force of vigilante justice. Dana Andrews is incredible in the role – certainly one of his best – and he manages to impart a mixture of crippling guilt, sadomasochistic violence, moral transgression, and the fundamental sleaziness of the city without over acting and sometimes without raising more than an eyebrow. His detective in Laura was reserved, middle class, and plagued by sexual fantasies. Here he is indisputably blue collar, forever running from an abusive childhood and criminal father, both delivering and seeking out endless beatings at the hands of other men.
Both Andrews and Gene Tierney worked with Preminger several times, together on Laura, and then Andrews starred in Fallen Angel and Tierney in Whirlpool. They lack the magnetic, hot tension of onscreen couples like Bogart and Bacall, which oddly serves the interest of their characters – coming together, but always moving apart. Like so many other noir personalities, both Tierney and Andrews had difficult lives off screen, with Andrews suffering from alcoholism and Tierney struggling with mental illness. While Andrews excellently portrays the fundamental noir antihero – lonely, repressed, guilt-ridden, and filled with a quiet, pervasive rage – Tierney’s character is an unusual noir heroine. She is not a femme fatale, though the script seems to beg for the degree of duplicity normally seen in such characters. Instead, she is surrounded by damaged men – her father lives a life of fantasy and delusion, weaving stories to cover up his empty life; her husband is a war hero who has turned to a life of crime and violence, presumably because he couldn’t make the transition back into normal life. He tries to press his wife into schemes and beats her when she refuses. Dixon is not much better: he murdered her husband, courts her while her father is in prison on his account, and his greatest romantic gesture towards her (confessing) will likely land him in prison.
Andrews and Tierney are accompanied by some strong supporting performances from Gary Merrill (All About Eve), Karl Malden (On the Waterfront), Ruth Donnelly (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), and Neville Brand (Stalag 17). Nothing about this film is black and white, including the cops, criminals, and other side characters, making it a more complex work than it is usually given credit for. Of course, there are some plot holes, like nearly all of Preminger’s other noir efforts, but the script from Ben Hecht is still excellent. Based on the novel Night Cry by William L. Stuart, I’d argue that this film is just as important as Laura, but lacks any of the earlier film’s charm, wit, or panache; it is a much darker work. It comes highly recommended and is available on DVD.