Sunday, December 06, 2009

Side Street (1950)

In the opening voiceover of Anthony Mann's Side Street, New York is described as an "architectural jungle," and "the busiest, the loneliest, the kindest and the cruelest of cities." With its realistic on-location setting, and Mann's particular brand of visual genius, Side Street is, above all else, about the isolation, and the beauty of New York City. The film opens with a spectacular aerial view of the Empire State Building, with Broadway careening down on the diagonal, creating geometric shapes between, buildings seeming foreshortened and strange from that view. Helicopter shots of this kind were new at the time, Nicholas Ray had used them in They Live By Night which, like Side Street starred Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell. The helicopter shots in the beginning of Side Street are vast, impressive, showing the city, its waterfront, its grids of organized streets, from far above. From the start, we can sense the attitude of the picture: man is small, insignificant, helpless against the giant forces working against him. Indistinct.

Farley Granger plays Joe Norson, a mailman, married to a woman named Ellen (played by Cathy O'Donnell), and they are expecting a baby. After a series of financial hardships, Joe and Ellen have moved in with her parents. Ellen is due to have her baby any day, but they can't afford a proper doctor, and instead she has to go to free clinics to get her checkups. Granger doesn't play Joe as a man desperate and at the end of his rope; not in the beginning anyway. He does what he has to do to maintain his job, he suffers in silence under the nosy presence of his in-laws, and he hopes that maybe... someday... he can save up enough money so that he and Ellen can have their own place.

However, when temptation arises... in the form of $200 dropped on the floor of an attorney's office where Joe delivers the mail, he finds it hard to resist. He returns to the office later, discovers the lawyer is absent, opens the filing cabinet where he saw the money put away, and takes the envelope. Once he is alone and opens the envelope, he doesn't find only $200. He finds piles of bills, $30,000 to be exact.

So begins Joe Norson's long dark descent into trouble. The money he has stolen is part of a blackmail scheme, worked up between the corrupt lawyer (played with steely aplomb by Edmon Ryan) and a goonish ex-con named George Garsell (played by James Craig).

Joe, unaware of any of the circumstances surrounding the money, immediately becomes haunted with guilt at what he has done. Side Street depicts a deeply moral world. The impact on Joe's conscience from his theft is immediate. He can't look his in-laws in the eye, he can't confide in his wife, he doesn't know what to do. Granger, as always, plays the perfect everyday guy, not all that bright, perhaps a bit gullible, and panicked like a wolf in a trap, as he tries to find a way out of the mess.

Bodies start to pile up. The criminals are looking for Joe, and Joe is looking for them because he wants to return the money. He must return the money, if he is to have any chance at all to live a normal life again. Unfortunately, he has stashed the wad of cash with a bartender he trusts (big mistake), and when he returns to the bar he finds it under new ownership. Side Street becomes a race to the finish, as the cops and Joe, separately, try to put together the pieces of the crime. Joe's wife has her baby, and Joe confesses to her, finally, what he has done, and she begs him to turn himself in. If he could just explain what had happened ... surely they would believe him?

There is an inevitability to events here, a fatalistic sense that no matter what one does, it will not make a difference. Joe's attempts to track down the blackmailers and their co-horts, in order to return the money, only looks like guilt by association to the cops who are following him, and so the more Joe tries to do right, the worse it looks. A truly harrowing experience, if you try to imagine it. Innocent until proven guilty is only a catchphrase in this dark world, and besides, didn't Joe steal the money in the first place? His entire trauma began with an immoral action on his part.

One of the things that really struck me about Side Street was its overt awareness of financial realities and how these things operate on the characters. It exists at all levels of the film. Joe's father-in-law was just demoted at his job, forced into a lower-level position; it was either that or be fired. A cop on the beat confesses to Joe early on in the film that he is retiring the next week and hopes to move to Florida. He should be able to make do "on half pay." Even one of the blackmailers gushes excitedly that with the money they have stolen he will be able to "pay for my kid's college education." Granger's character is not alone in his desire for a better life, for some ease and comfort. He says to his wife, when he confesses:

"I had this stupid notion that a couple hundred dollars could cure everything. You wouldn't have to have the baby in a charity ward. I'd built up a feeling of shame because everywhere I turned people had things I wanted you to have. I hated to admit, I was a flop."


The final showdown of the film goes down in front of the famously recognizable Subtreasury Building in lower Manhattan, a potent evocation of the financial stresses evident in the world of Side Street. Of course it would all end there.

Granger turns in a fine performance, and his increasing guilt and panic are palpable. He spends much of the film clammy with sweat, as he tries to undo his own wrong, going deeper and deeper into the vortex. He has a beautiful closeup when he first sees his baby son, in the bassinet at the hospital, and he is in awe of the baby's tiny fingers, his beauty, the miracle of him, all of that is on Granger's face, but immediately on its heels comes guilt, loss, grief. What has he done? It's a tough closeup, and could have gone over the edge into cheeseball emoting, but Granger breathes real life and real feeling into it.

Jean Hagen has a terrific cameo as a tired drunk nightclub singer named Harriet, an old girlfriend of the goonish ex-con. Joe tracks her down, in his search to find the blackmailers. When he meets her, she sits in the restaurant where she sings, throwing back shots, alone at her table, suspicious of everyone. She is seemingly a tough dame and yet, when she realizes she has a chance to get back together with the goon, she leaps at it, even if it means betraying Joe. "We can sit around my place like we used to, can't we?" she pleads to her criminal lover, in a display of need that made me ache for her. Harriet is not a bad girl, just sour with disappointment, emptily promiscuous, full of strange memories and bizarre dialogue ("He hit me when I recited Robert Burns," she confesses, in one of the best lines in the film) and willing to do anything to get back into the charmed circle. It's a touching portrait of what it means to be forgotten in the "architectural jungle" of Manhattan. How easy it is to be lost.

Mann's style here shows the larger budget that Side Street had, the aerial shots, for example, but then there is a spectacular car chase that closes out the film. It is a masterpiece. Filmed on location in New York, in the area of what used to be Fulton Fish Market on Manhattan's far west side, it shows Mann's strength as a director, his visual style. He switches from low angles to high, creating a radical disorienting effect. The camera is low on the cobblestones, as the cars go careening by, and then, suddenly, the camera is high above, 30 stories up, looking down on the events from afar, a symmetrical depiction of New York from the first shot of the film. Only now New York does not seem grandiose and welcoming, the Empire State Building gleaming up into the air ... Now it seems claustrophobic, a huge maze, the narrow streets closing in. In Mann's shots (the cinematographer was multiple Oscar-winner Joseph Ruttenberg), the buildings fold in upon other buildings, creating an almost Escher-like effect of negative space, white buildings collapsing visually into shadowed buildings, layered over one another as far as the eye can see. Those streets in lower Manhattan are so narrow that they become veritable wind tunnels, as anyone who has strolled around down there can tell you, and Side Street captures that feeling of vast and narrow corridors. When Mann suddenly decides to change the angle, going from low to high, it's so effective (visually, as well as editorially, it highlights Granger's ultimate desperation in being so anonymous and small) that I am surprised it is not imitated more often. It's one of the best car chases I've ever seen.

In a moving scene between Joe and his wife, before she knows the truth about him, she rhapsodizes about someday getting their own place, and how nice that will be. She says, "It's so nice to know you can plan ahead a little bit ..."

Ultimately, that is Joe Norson's tragedy, combined with terrible bad luck. He didn't want to steal $30,000. As he says, "What do I want with $30,000?" But $200 would have been just perfect, a perfect amount to get his wife a good doctor, and pay for a private room in the maternity ward. Although he dreams, early on in the picture, of going to Paris and buying his wife a fur coat ("the long fluffy kind"), his dreams are modest, like most people's. He would like a house of his own, he would like to be his own man, he would like to provide for his family. Everyone else in the movie, cops, criminals, and nightclub singers, have the same modest American-dream goals. However, one step wrong on that very human road to a better life, can lead you, inexorably, into the underworld, where New York stops seeming like a gleaming place of promise, cut across by wide expansive sunny avenues like Park, or 6th. It instead becomes a dark cramped world, of windy concrete canyons, and nothing but side streets. Side streets that could, if you take the right one, lead you to escape and freedom. But which one? In that maze, how can you tell?

Written by Sheila O'Malley

Editor's note: Check out her fantastic blog, The Sheila Variations

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5 comments:

  1. Terrific post, hope I can see this one soon.

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  2. This one slipped by me. I read only a paragraph cause I want to see it. DP Joseph Ruttenberg wow.

    Still would like to find out how you put on post per page for your blog.

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  3. the posting 1 per page is a setting in Blogger...

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  4. As always, a well-written and insightful movie review posted on NOTW. Sheila O'Malley gets noir. I'm really surprised that this movie isn't as popular as it should be.

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  5. Just saw this one, the overhead shots of the Empire State Bldg and lower Manhattan were a real highlight.

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