Detective Mark Dixon (Dana Andrews) and his partner Paul Klein (Bert Freed) arrive typically late for a staff meeting at their precinct, preferring to be out on the street busting the heads of bad guys. Or at least Dixon busts their heads, and that is a problem as he finds out when he is called into the office of is superior (Robert F. Simon) and told in no uncertain terms that now he has gathered so many complaints against him, the violence must stop. To emphasise that fact, Dixon will be demoted to a lower rank detective, and if he slips up once more then he will be back in uniform and facing further discipline. Suitably chastened, he leaves to contemplate his future, but soon those feelings of hate return when he sets his sights on mobster Scalise (Gary Merrill)…
So where does the sidewalk end? As the lightly offbeat opening titles show us within seconds of the film’s beginning, it’s in the gutter, and if you go too far off that patch you will be consigned to the place where the garbage collects and the rain flows down into the drain, a rather heavy-handed metaphor for where Dixon is headed if he’s not able to control that temper. This was one of the last movies Otto Preminger made as a so-called director for hire, though as with many of his projects he produced it nevertheless; once the nineteen-fifties were truly underway he could order his own efforts around to his heart’s content, making enemies along the way yet so intent on breaking the rules, often the censorship rules, that he couldn’t avoid making waves at the box office.
This saw him reunite the stars of his Hollywood breakout hit Laura with Dana Andrews back with Gene Tierney; although not long before this was released, a lot had happened in those stars' lives which offered their performances a more lived in tone than they might otherwise have provided, Andrews especially (Tierney was the “good girl” in a film noir that lacked a femme fatale). His features had long set into their granite appearance by now, which could give the impression he was an actor with a limited range, yet watch him here and you could perceive a lot of his emoting was done below the surface, if you can imagine him as a swan on the surface of a pond, that sort of thing, though we could see Dixon was raging inside his mind.
And not simply because of what Ben Hecht’s script brought to the character; Hecht was a fearsomely intelligent man who you would like to think worked with Preminger because he had the force of personality to stand up to him. He was dismissive of the movies in general apparently because it took him so little effort to pen scripts almost immediately thought of as classics, as they are to this day, but the fact remained he was an excellent writer with great wit and perception, and while this work was too dour to be really laughter-inducing, its insights into the Dixon character with his severe guilt born from having a criminal father who he wished to set himself as far apart from as possible made for a rich noir, richer perhaps than many more conventional ones adhering to what might be termed clichés.
Dixon lands up to his neck in trouble when he investigates a murder he feels he can finally pin on Scalise; on heading over to the main suspect’s apartment, he finds the man drunk and gets into a scuffle with him, instigated by the suspect himself. The man falls as a result, bangs his head and what bad luck, dies leaving Dixon in a panic – no one will believe him if he says it’s an accident after what his boss has called him out on, so he devises a complex plan to make it look as if his nemesis had orchestrated the man’s assassination. Alas, the blame then is pinned on taxi driver Jiggs (Tom Tully), who happens to be the father of model Tierney’s Morgan, who was going out with the man who was murdered in the first place. Got that? As often with Preminger, the support could be as entertaining as the leads, with Karl Malden as a self-righteous tec who arrests Jiggs and an early role for Neville Brand as a heavy, though Merrill surprises by essaying an excellent villain (frequently sniffing a nasal inhaler full of… some substance). Maybe the ending spoke to the censors Preminger struggled against, but for the most part this was very well played. Music by Cyril J. Mockridge.
[The BFI have released this on an excellent-looking Blu-ray box set entitled The Otto Preminger Film Noir Collection (Region B only). It is accompanied by Fallen Angel and Whirlpool, as well as a detailed booklet, trailers and commentaries for each title and a career interview with Preminger from the early seventies. Click here for the box set on Amazon.]