Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Trap (2007)

AKA Klopka

Isolation and Murder in The Trap

“I’m trying to do at least something right in the end.”

The Trap (Klopka) a Serbian noir film from director Srdan Golubovic asks the question: what’s a life worth? Main character Mladen (Nebojsa Glogovac) finds out the hard way that some lives come with a huge price tag while others are worth nothing at all. This excellent noir examines one man trapped by circumstance who accepts his fate but cannot live with the consequences. The Trap is set in modern Serbia--a society in flux, struggling to heal after years of communism, the raw open wounds of civil war, and a period of insane hyperinflation. A nation no longer a dominant component of the former Yugoslav state, Serbia’s new burgeoning economy includes the sale of state-owned companies to privately owned businesses, creating monopolies and huge profits for those lucky enough to be on the receiving end. Hard-working, honest people fight to survive while the Serbian Mafia prospers. Money appears to flow like water for some, and this is evidenced by the flashy mansions that are springing up all over Belgrade. At the same time, street urchins pester people for money by washing cars at stoplights, and this contrast in circumstances emphasizes both the upheaval of the new society and the transience of life.

The film, a frame story, opens with Mladen staring out over the vast city from his apartment balcony. He then makes a short phone call, takes a gun from the table and leaves his home. The next scene shows Mladen ringing a doorbell. Once inside, a badly bruised, jittery Mladen smokes and talks directly to the camera and an unseen audience as he attempts to explain his actions. “None of this should’ve happened,” he says as he begins his story...

The film quickly shifts to the recent past. Mladen and his wife, teacher Marija (Natasa Ninkovic) and their 8-year-old son Nemanja (Marko Djurovic) live in a tiny, modestly furnished flat in Belgrade, they drive a tatty old car, the state-owned company Mladen works for is going through a painful privatization process, and in spite of the fact that Marija and Mladen are professionals, they don’t have much money. But these problems operate at an acceptable level, and overall Marija and Mladen are happy.

Life abruptly changes when Nemanja is rushed to the hospital, and his anxious parents are told that their son needs an operation to correct a heart muscle problem. To complicate matters, they are told that the operation cannot be performed in Belgrade, and that they will need to travel to Germany for the procedure. Bottom line, they need 26,000 Euros for the operation plus travel expenses. Desperately, Mladen and Marija hit up friends and relatives for a loan, but no one in their circle has money to help.

The child’s physician, Dr Lukic (Bogdan Dicklic) suggests placing an advertisement in the paper explaining Nemanja’s story and begging for help. In one of the film’s many quiet, deceptively simple scenes hinting of the desperation of daily life in Belgrade, the paper is shown full of similar adverts--all from people hoping for the kindness and generosity of strangers to make miracles happen. But the miracle doesn’t happen for Mladen and Marija. This flush of advertising reinforces the idea of two Belgrades: the Belgrade of poverty and deprivation that Mladen, now in adversity, understands, and the Belgrade of the newly-rich with their decadent “hideous villas” who fund their lives with money wrung from suspicious circumstances. Marija pins all her hopes on the advert, and by placing the ad and checking their bank account balance, she has the false sensation that she’s ‘doing’ something about getting the money. At the same time, she berates Mladen for his inaction.

In one of the film’s clever scenes emphasizing the idea that money flows in Belgrade--just not to the right things, Marija has begun privately tutoring one of her spoiled, wealthy students. At first Marija refused due to the questionable ethics of the situation, but then agreed, bowing under the desperate pressure for money. While this becomes the extent of Marija’s moral dilemma (how far she will go to get money for her son), the scene is yet another glimpse of two Belgrades. When she visits the student, Marija spots a huge, ostentatious frame hanging empty and useless, and she discovers that the girl’s father bought the frame on a whim for 30,000 Euros--the exact sum they seek for their son.

In another scene, Mladen is turned down for a bank loan by a lowly, grinning bank teller. Mladen initially assumes the teller is insensitive since he grins while he explains that the loan has been declined. But the clerk is not unsympathetic; he whispers that this is an American-owned bank and that he’s monitored to ensure that he smiles at all the customers. If he fails to smile, he’s fired. The clerk’s explanation diffuses Mladen’s anger as he realizes that the clerk is just another working stiff like him, trapped by his humiliating need for money.

In the meantime, Nemanja’s condition is progressing. Feeling helpless and frustrated, Mladen and Marija begin fighting. And then, finally, there’s a response to the advert. Marija is sure they have a benefactor. Mladen, while more cautious than his wife, still hopes that they’ve stumbled across someone wealthy enough to help. He goes to meet the caller, a weathered, well-dressed businessman in a spacious, upscale restaurant. This is the sort of plush restaurant that Mladen and Marija could never afford, but it’s obviously a bustling business frequented by those with money to burn. The man, Kosta Antic (Miki Manojlovic) offers to give Mladen 30,000 Euros plus tickets to Germany. The catch? Mladen has to kill someone. Kosta reassures Mladen that the target is ‘bad’ for the country and that “He’ll be missed by no one.” As it turns out, the target, Ivkovic (Dejan Cukic), a man connected to organized crime, is married to Jelena (Anica Dobra) a young woman whose daughter plays with Nemanja.

Mladen at first refuses but then agrees to the murder-for-hire scheme as he witnesses Nemanja’s rapidly deteriorating physical condition and Marija’s inability to cope. While Marija comes unglued because there are no options, Mladen, who is already a quiet, introverted man, sinks deeper into himself; he has an option, a choice, but that choice is to kill another human being in order to save his son. Marija interprets Mladen’s depression incorrectly, and she sees him as indifferent. There’s one moment when he reaches out to explain, but she cuts off any exchange of confidences, and soon the two are at each other’s throats….

Taking the life of another human being is the ultimate moral decision, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that it’s one of these sneaky questions that pops up for discussion in Philosophy 101 classes. The professor asks: would you kill someone? And the answer, at first a resounding “NO!” becomes gradually shaped by extenuating circumstances and reasoning. In film, we’ve seen these plot elements a thousand times but rarely has ‘the trap’ been captured so exquisitely through the utter bleakness and isolation of the moral choice facing Mladen. The film presents Mladen’s dilemma to create maximum viewer identification. Mladen is a quiet, hard-working stiff who minds his own business and who puts in a decent day’s work, thinking that there will be a payoff for good behaviour. But there isn’t. His son is dying; his wife hates him for his inability to ‘do something,’ and meanwhile here’s this perfect stranger offering to fix Mladen’s problems with one little bullet. Perhaps some people wouldn’t quibble at murder, but Mladen does, and Mladen’s moral struggle--admirable under the circumstances--signals one man’s descent to hell.

Any moral decision of magnitude demands a certain isolation of thought and judgment, but whereas some moral decisions can be discussed, others cannot. Marija, the only person Mladen could discuss his dilemma with, cuts off any possibility of discussion, and effectively strands Mladen in an agonizing moral wasteland. Ultimately, his desire to save his son supercedes any other moral consideration, and left in isolation to make his decision, Mladen chooses to commit murder. The film captures and underscores Mladen’s bleak isolation through beautifully realized high-angled shots that emphasize Mladen’s space within the urban landscape, his insignificance in society, and his irrevocable descent into hell. Mladen becomes the sort of person who can commit murder, but it’s what happens after the crime, and not the murder itself, that makes The Trap such an incredibly good noir film.

Written by Guy Savage


Sunday, December 20, 2009

Lady in the Lake (1947)

To really enjoy the 1947 MGM film noir Lady in the Lake, it's crucial to accept the subjective camera angle Robert Montgomery uses, and fully give yourself to seeing things via this artificial first person lens. Allow some room for deviation, too, from the expected portrayal of Raymond Chandler's Phillip Marlowe character. It's worth leaving such preconceptions behind as the film pulls off the rare trick of being nasty and cynical while still maintaining its studio gloss as first rate entertainment wrapped in a decidedly noir package, Christmas bow and all.

In his first directing gig (aside from some uncredited work on the set of They Were Expendable when John Ford was sidelined), Montgomery let the camera act as the audience's eyes. The advertising promised an interactive experience of solving the case alongside Montgomery, who also played Marlowe. It was perhaps questionable to use both this odd perspective and to adapt a Chandler story using a different sort of interpretation of Marlowe than what's on the page or the way he'd been played earlier by Dick Powell and Humphrey Bogart. Nonetheless, there's little reason to be particularly beholden to the rigid limitations of what a character can be. Montgomery increased the sarcasm and distrust while muting most any of Marlowe's half-buried good qualities. But, importantly, his Marlowe exists only within the confines of the film Lady in the Lake. Those who prefer their Marlowe as a hard-bitten but ultimately still safe creature can watch Dick Powell and those who enjoy Bogart's smart, cynical and movie star glistening turn will always have The Big Sleep. This isn't a competition.

As director, Montgomery skews ironic from the start. Using a Christmas carol medley across the opening title cards, images of snowy evergreens and bells and reindeer tease a warm holiday story until the final reveal of a handgun. There's also a completely made-up actress listed in the credits, a nice touch probably unrealized until at least the second viewing of the picture. Director/actor then greets the viewer in an odd introduction that again plays with expectations since we're really being addressed by the character of Marlowe, and after the events about to be seen have already taken place. Similar scenes pop up a couple of times throughout the film to add bits of information which might have been said in a voiceover had that device been used. Despite this being a 1947 release, the interruptions now play sort of like a television program returning from a commercial break. They take us out of the first person perspective, if not quite the film as a whole, but it's difficult to quibble with Montgomery's use of these brief interludes. Each time he's seen is like a small refresh, a reminder that we're seeing things through the eyes of a movie star.

It's reasonable to wonder what MGM must have thought about Montgomery, ideally the main draw of the picture, not showing his face for the vast majority of the running time. A similar, perhaps even more daring trick considering the discrepancy in stardom was adopted for Humphrey Bogart in the Delmer Daves film Dark Passage, also from 1947, though the subjective angles are ditched about halfway through that picture. There's a mirror here and there plus those direct resets, but Montgomery remains committed to showing the action through Marlowe's eyes during the entirety of Lady in the Lake. When Marlowe gets slapped around, the camera jerks, and when Audrey Totter's character Adrienne Fromsett leans in to kiss him, we vicariously experience that too, at least visually. The main complaint some have with this effect seems to be that it's a "gimmick" unneeded by the narrative, but that reaction seems a bit hasty. If used with any frequency (and it really hasn't been outside of video games) the first person point of view angle would indeed become a chore to watch. In Lady in the Lake, though, it increases the suspense and paranoia and disorientation - all of which are hallmarks of film noir. The device also makes every scene an interrogation. The viewer looks directly at who's speaking while that actor is typically alone on camera. Something accusatory arises in most all of Marlowe's conversations.

Several of these feature Totter. Her performance is very much in the femme fatale mold, albeit straddling the line nicely as a love interest so that we can't be sure until the very end which side she's actually on. Marlowe first encounters her after submitting a detective story to a magazine which she more or less runs for publisher Derace Kingsby (Leon Ames). Having Marlowe wearily and, in Montgomery's shoes, bitterly resort to writing about his past cases rather than pursuing new ones gives the entire proceeding a self-reflexive, even post-modernist spin. So, again, Lady in the Lake seems to buck tradition in favor of a knowing, though no less serious wink. Montgomery's Marlowe comes across as trapped in a cycle of getting his feet dirty despite realizing the limitations of the profession. He can't help himself because these things keep falling in his lap, even, apparently, when he's looking into other options. The calamity this time, for what it's worth, involves Kingsby's wife in some capacity. Details emerge piece by piece, with Chandler's usual complexity.

Those who frequent the world of noir rarely do so for the plots. After all, there can only be so much interest in missing persons, dead bodies, and the wrongly accused. Sure we all enjoy those things but they simply aren't the exclusive draw. Lady in the Lake seems to get this idea while still offering up a rather twisty narrative that never becomes unnecessarily convoluted. Marlowe's client initially is Fromsett but transitions into being Kingsby. He gets beaten up over and over again, left for dead once by the cop (Lloyd Nolan) who's also his chief tormentor. One woman isn't who she first claims to be while another's mostly on the level but difficult to trust and a third is little more than a ghost. Montgomery has to juggle the story enough to keep interest without completely giving way to it. That's not an easy task and it's worth praising the film for successfully balancing the plot against the dual characterizations of Marlowe and Fromsett, all the while still letting the noir elements flourish in a cynical but nonetheless playful way.

For all of the causticity shown by Marlowe, his scenes with Fromsett gradually reveal the desire to be vulnerable and start anew, with her, in a loving relationship. Again, maybe this isn't the Marlowe we're accustomed to elsewhere but Montgomery plays him as weary and stubborn and not terribly bright yet always, almost painfully, guarded. His actions indicate that he wants to believe Fromsett's not involved with any of the unsavory parts of this case but he can't give himself to her until everything's been settled. Their many encounters really strengthen the film as we see the gears of romance turn much slower and more deliberately than is the norm in Hollywood. The sequence where Marlowe seems to come around involves a very domestic situation, at Fromsett's apartment. She's given him an uncharacteristically flashy robe as a Christmas gift, but Marlowe finds a card in the pocket addressed to Kingsby, indicating the robe was bought for her boss. But before Marlowe even has a chance to mention the card, Fromsett casually admits the whole thing and tells him she left it there on purpose, that she wants a fresh start where they're honest with each other.

Part of the frustration with Montgomery's performance is that he's unable to react to most anything. We obviously can't see his face, but even Marlowe's voice and dialogue rarely allows for any change in mood. This isn't necessarily a deficiency in Montgomery's acting. It just makes the viewer approach things from a different angle, one where the lead character neglects his usual duties as a guide of the film's emotion. Totter's performance, then, has to subtly shift along the way to greet the hardened Marlowe. Where Montgomery can rely on Marlowe's actions to fill in the blanks of his behavioral arc, Totter must, with the added difficulty of looking at the camera while acting, express the growing trust Fromsett feels for such a closed man without it seeming too ridiculous. That Totter pulls this off so well as to make the entire film emotionally hinge more on the dynamic between these two rather than the central mystery is a real triumph of noir acting. There's a complexity that exists within this romance that might not be immediately recognizable, but it ends up as one of the most adult and fully developed pairings in all of film noir.

And, still, Lady in the Lake remains mostly unloved by devotees of Chandler and Marlowe and film noir. That's probably to be expected considering the liberties Montgomery takes with both the story and the portrayal of its protagonist, but it simply shouldn't be an accepted truth that Lady in the Lake is minor anything. The film is noteworthy in its adherence to noir stylistic and narrative conventions without ever really emphasizing any sense of danger or overwhelming darkness. It's an oddity full of misconceptions, assured enough to gently torture the viewer through an elaborate mystery filmed in the first person for absolutely no reason yet still so accommodating as to periodically provide entry level updates on the plot and offer up the promise of a happy ending.Those looking for a strict noir fix are better off watching Montgomery's next effort Ride the Pink Horse (which isn't easy to find), as it's far more prototypical and probably the superior film overall. Lady in the Lake, though, seems to get dismissed too quickly and partly because of the things that make it special.

Written by clydefro.
Editor's note: Make sure you check out his excellent film blog.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Outfit (1973)

Editor's note: This week's article is written by hard-boiled writer Wallace Stroby. The Barbed-Wire Kiss was one of my favorite reads a few years ago. His new novel, Gone 'til November is coming out in January. This week, Wallace tackles one of the best "Richard Stark" movies: The Outfit.

In the 1970s, revenge was sweet. At least on movie screens.

Take a look at the decade’s crime films and you’ll see a butcher’s bill of vengeance and rough justice - Death Wish, Dirty Harry, Walking Tall, Rage, Framed, Fighting Mad. And that’s not counting the blaxploitation genre or low-budget horrors like Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave. Whatever cultural influences were aswirl back then, audiences were apparently mad as hell, and eager to put their money down to watch a little vicarious payback.

John Flynn’s The Outfit has the trappings of a ‘70s revenge film, but it has a noir heart. Released in 1973, it’s based on the third of Donald E. Westlake’s “Parker” novels, written under the pseudonym Richard Stark. Both book and film pit a ruthless professional thief against the nationwide crime syndicate of the title. The first book in the series, 1962’s The Hunter, became the 1967 Lee Marvin film Point Blank, and Parker would return to the screen a half dozen more times, albeit under different aliases.

Of all the films based on the Stark books, The Outfit might be the most faithful (a close second is director Brian Helgeland’s cut of 1999’s Payback, also based on The Hunter, and starring Mel Gibson). In Flynn’s film, the Parker character is played by Robert Duvall, here named Earl Macklin, a professional heister just out of prison and eager to avenge the murder of his brother Eddie by mob hitmen. Macklin joins up with his former partner Cody, played by ‘70s icon Joe Don Baker, and the two cut a wide swathe through the California underworld, knocking over mob fronts, poker games and illegal casinos. Macklin ostensibly wants revenge for his brother’s death, but he also wants “$250,000 to make things right. I hit you until you pay me. What I take in-between is extra.”

As in Don Siegel’s Charley Varrick, released that same year, the mob is angry at Macklin, Eddie and Cody for having robbed one of its banks in Wichita, Kansas (only in ‘70s films do gangsters actually own entire banks). Their payback killing of Eddie then becomes the impetus for Macklin and Cody’s war of attrition, as the pair move from heist to heist, accompanied by Macklin’s girlfriend, Bett Harrow (Karen Black).

The novel had simpler motivations. The mob is after Parker because he beat them out of $45,000 in The Hunter. Parker is after the mob because they’re after him. And unlike Macklin, the single-named Parker has little backstory - he’s an existential loner battling institutional evil.

Despite these plot and character variations, Flynn’s film (he also scripted) lifts whole scenes and set pieces intact from the book, in particular an interlude in which Macklin and Cody buy a hot car from two redneck brothers, played by Richard Jaeckel and Bill (Deliverance) McKinney. Cody is based on Handy McKay, a recurring character from the Parker novels (both own diners, Handy’s in Maine, Cody’s in Oregon). Bett Harrow appears in the book as well, though only briefly (she returns as a major character in the next Stark novel, The Mourner.)

There’s a lot of Parker in Macklin, and Flynn’s screenplay often approximates Westlake’s staccato, adverb-free prose. During his robberies, Macklin, like Parker, takes the time to ask his victims their names, so as to better control and calm them. He’s cool and collected enough to disarm a gunman, beat him senseless and then send him on his way with a dismissive “Die someplace else” (a line taken directly from the book). And during the climactic attack on the mob boss’s mansion, he wards off late-responding bodyguards with a terse “Stay out of it. He’s dead. You’re unemployed” - and a silenced automatic.

Over the years, Westlake often praised Duvall’s performance. “That’s the guy I wrote,” he said more than once. In contrast to Marvin in Point Blank, Duvall’s Macklin actually feels like a living, breathing human being, with a sense of humor to boot (he and Cody laugh giddily after narrowly escaping with their lives during a shootout). Early on, Macklin fondles an antique pocket watch handed down from his grandfather. “A Justice of the Peace,” he proudly says. “Greenville, Kentucky, 1882.” At another point, he claims St. Louis as his home, and makes reference to a wife and child he never sees.

Shot in sun-bleached Los Angeles and Bakersfield locations, The Outfit sometimes feels like a slightly downmarket Sam Peckinpah film. The opening titles play over a prison sequence (not in the book) that recalls Peckinpah’s The Getaway, released the previous year. The score is by Peckinpah regular Jerry Fielding (The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs), and the cinematography by another ‘70s icon, Bruce Surtees, the DP on almost all of Clint Eastwood’s films until the mid-’80s. In its set design and costumes, The Outfit also harkens back to the Depression-era-outlaw genre, accented by Black’s pseudo-Faye Dunaway/Bonnie Parker wardrobe.

Cast-wise, The Outfit sports a full house of noir icons. Marie Windsor (The Narrow Margin), Jane Greer (Out of the Past), Timothy Carey (The Killing), Emile Meyer (Riot in Cell Block 11), and Elisha Cook Jr. (you name it) all make appearances. Jazz singer Anita O’Day is briefly glimpsed in a nightclub scene, and former world boxing champion Archie Moore shows up as well (look quick for longtime Hollywood gossip columnist Army Archerd as a butler).

But the ace in the hole is Robert Ryan, in one of his final roles. As Mailer, the boss of bosses, Ryan spends most of his screen time seething in barely controlled anger, and snarling at his trophy wife (“Shut up! Get in the car!”), played by a very fit-looking Joanna Cassidy in her first billed film role. Mailer seems disgusted by himself, everyone around him and everything he’s obtained. He almost admires Macklin, even though he knows the freelancer will more than likely be the instrument of his doom.

Westlake’s Parker went on for 21 more novels, the final being 2008’s Dirty Money. Though Westlake died last year, all the Parker books are making their way back into print via the University of Chicago Press. The film version of The Outfit is less easily found. Its only home video appearance was in a grainy, speckled fullscreen VHS print released by MGM/UA in 1996. It remains unavailable on DVD, as does Flynn’s other iconic ‘70s revenge film, the Paul Schrader-scripted Rolling Thunder.

The Outfit is not a hidden masterpiece by any means. The editing is sometimes choppy, and the pace lags a bit in spots. Black has a lot of screen time, but little chemistry with Duvall. She seems to be merely along for the ride, to provide some cliched tender moments and help humanize Macklin. “Money won’t do you any good,” his brother’s widow, played by Greer, warns him. “What do you want it for? You got a woman. You got time.”

At its best, The Outfit captures the noir universe of the Stark books, where cool professionals ply their trade in an amoral world. It proved too amoral for network television though. When NBC aired the TV version, they lopped off the final minutes of the film, and ended it with a freeze-frame of Macklin and Cody stopping to catch their breath on a stairwell after the final shootout. With sirens swelling on the soundtrack, the TV print suggests they’re willingly lingering there, knowing they’ll be caught. The VHS version (and recent TCM screenings) restored the original ending, in which the pair make their getaway in an ambulance during the resulting chaos. The film does end with a classic ‘70s freeze-frame, but not before Baker gets to deliver the ironic final line, “Hey, Earl. The good guys always win.”

Written by Wallace Stroby


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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