Just in case you missed the title's meaning, Where the Sidewalk Ends delivers a brief title sequence that makes things clear: we see a pair of feet reaching the end of a sidewalk and then stepping into the gutter. That's where this story takes place. In the gutter. That's where the sidewalk ends. It's a metaphor, you see.
It's an amusingly melodramatic flourish, but it oversells just how seedy the film we're about to watch really is. Yes, this is a film swarming with low-rent crooks of all sorts (not to mention some low-rent cops), but it seems pretty old-fashioned and square in contrast to a lot of the more cynical noir dramas of the era. This is a movie that flirts with darkness but never really embraces it; that hints at tackling big themes but never really has the nerve to go for it. Somehow, it still manages to be pretty decent.
Police Detective Mark Dixon (Dana Andrews, The Best Years of Our Lives) is smart cop with a bad habit of beating up suspects. Every month, a new set of civilian complaints are filed against Dixon, and they'd probably be enough to get him fired if he weren't so good at his job. Even so, his tactics have held him back professionally, and he's forced to watch in dismay as brown-nosing peers like Detective Thomas (Karl Malden, On the Waterfront) get promotions and pay raises.
One day, Dixon goes out to interrogate murder suspect Ken Paine (Craig Stevens, Killer Bees), and ends up goading the irritable suspect into a fistfight. Dixon doesn't throw a punch until after Paine has already taken a swing at him, but when he does, he connects a little too well: Paine crumples over and dies. Dixon starts to panic. Rather than confessing and attempting an explanation, he decides to toss the body in the river and claim that he never found Paine.
This is a pretty standard noir starting point, as a man makes a big mistake and then attempts to navigate his way through an increasingly tangled web of lies. Things get really complicated when the body turns up and innocent men are accused of committing the crime, which forces Dixon to start asking himself how far he's willing to go with his deception. Would he really let an innocent man get a life sentence to cover up his crime? What if the innocent man is the father of the woman (Gene Tierney, Laura) he's in love with? Would the woman is the estranged wife of the man he killed?
Though it's clear that Dixon isn't a good guy, Andrews makes him a surprisingly sympathetic, soulful protagonist. As the consequences of his actions start to pile up and the situation spirals further out of control, his guilt begins eating away at him. Andrews successfully conveys this man's inner misery, which makes an awfully interesting shade when paired with the self-righteous violence that defines him early on. He's particularly good in his scenes with Tierney, who brings a beautifully conflicted blend of warmth and sadness to her part. Her character is coping with grief and experiencing the initial spark of a new romance simultaneously, and Tierney hits every note with precision.
Andrews and Tierney had previously collaborated on Preminger's great Laura, a noir drama of an entirely different sort. While Laura largely unfolded within the homes of wealthy eccentrics, Where the Sidewalk Ends spends most of its time in back alleys, cheap apartments and grubby hotel rooms. The story certainly isn't as rich or unpredictable as the one Laura served up, but Preminger's direction is comparably stylish: he makes tremendous use of shadows and smoke, and consistently serves up visually dynamic imagery that genre aficionados will adore.
Where the Sidewalk Ends is perhaps the least memorable of Preminger's noir flicks (aside from Laura, he also helmed Whirlpool and the enigmatic Fallen Angel), but the performances and direction bring a bruised beauty to a fairly conventional script. The film's ending has a touching ambiguity, too: it goes exactly where you expect it to go, but adds an element that feels tenderly surprising.
Where the Sidewalk Ends
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 95 minutes
Release Year: 1950