For his last picture at 20th Century Fox, Otto Preminger reteamed his Laura and Whirlpool stars Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney for Where the Sidewalk Ends, an efficient, bleak noir with an Oedipal twist. Investigating a homicide at an illegal craps game run by gangster Tommy Scalise (Gary Merrill), detective Mark Dixon (Andrews), a cop whose renegade streak drives his lieutenant (Karl Malden) to explain that his “job is to detect criminals, not punish them,” accidentally kills a suspect with an uppercut during a scuffle. Fearful of his unintended actions’ consequences, Dixon devises an elaborate scheme to cover up his crime, only to find himself torn between self-interest and decency once the kind, innocent father (Tom Tully) of the dead man’s widow Morgan (Tierney)—who Dixon naturally swoons over—is pinned for the killing. His frame shot full of simmering tension, Preminger visualizes his story’s interpersonal dynamics with fluid camera movements and friction-fraught compositions that stress characters’ antagonistic relationships with one another (as well as their surroundings), just as he employs a prevalent bifurcating shadow on Andrews’s face to emphasize the police officer’s conflicted nature. By alternating between physical confrontations staged in silence and expressionistic close-ups of the stone-faced Andrews set to Cyril Mockridge’s crashing melodramatic score, the director accentuates not only the brutality but also the desperate emotional impact of his story’s bursts of sudden violence.
As was the genre’s custom, the film’s primary struggle exists within Dixon, an archetypal noir anti-hero condemned for attempting to be somebody he fundamentally isn’t. Surprisingly, however, Dixon’s fatal mistake isn’t that he attempts to conceal his accidental murder but rather that he became a cop in the first place, as Ben Hecht’s script (based on William L. Stuart’s novel Night Cry) eventually reveals (spoiler alert!) that Dixon’s father was a notorious criminal who first helped establish Scalise in business, and that he’s spent much of his life trying to escape his dad’s infamous legacy. “I covered it up like a mobster because I couldn’t shake loose from what I was,” Dixon admits about the accidental death in a suicide note, articulating his recognition that, in trying to toe the straight-and-narrow line, he was denying his more shady impulses. Said note ultimately becomes the vehicle by which Dixon, in an act of postmortem patricide, refutes his father-bequeathed corrupt compulsions (and, therefore, Scalise’s belief that “blood will tell”). And yet despite Morgan pledging to stick by her redeemed man as he heads to prison (the shadows now absent from his face), Where the Sidewalk Ends’s optimistic coda is belied by the final sight of a shutting door, a subtle sign that Preminger views such hopeful, redemptive pledges of loyalty and love as denial-fueled fantasies closed off from reality.