Thursday, February 23, 2006

Where the Sidewalk Ends

I've been having my own little Otto Preminger film series on DVD over the last several months. In a college survey course (long ago) we were taught that Preminger helped sweep away the remains of the puritanical Production Code and were shown clips of films like Carmen Jones. That planted a seed of interest for me. Over the years I saw and enjoyed Laura, Bonjour Tristesse, Anatomy of a Murder and Bunny Lake is Missing on the big screen. And last year, during the first Bush Supreme Court nomination, Frank Rich wrote about the DVD release of Advise & Consent, and Fox started releasing its noir box sets, which included Whirlpool. A series was inspired. Unfortunately I was disappointed by the latter two films (esp. Whirlpool), as I also was by River of No Return, a so-so Marilyn Monroe picture. Carmen Jones proved to be somewhat better--Dandridge and Belafonte are certainly good, as is Pearl Bailey, and there's a great little jazzy number about taking the train to the great city of Chicago, but the dubbed operatic singing grates after a while, and the film doesn't breathe enough. (Gossipy trivia: apparently Preminger and Dandridge were having an affair at this time.)

This week I caught up with another recent Preminger DVD release, Where the Sidewalk Ends, and I loved it. Of course, I think Dana Andrews is one of the most handsome actors in Hollywood history--I've developed quite a crush on him. I wouldn't say his acting was exceptional, but it's usually solid. (Put it this way. I prefer him to 3-time Oscar nominee Russell Crowe.) He has a doe-eyed sweetness and a melancholy streak that, balanced with a tough everyman quality, suits him really well to noir films such as Laura and Sidewalk. He was outstanding (and at his most handsome) in The Ox-Bow Incident, but the best performance I've seen him give so far is in The Best Years of Our Lives. In Sidewalk, he plays a rogue police detective who's got a history of taking the law into his own hands and getting violent with criminals. For once in a pulpy noir, the plot makes a solid amount of sense, and it's a doozy of a plot. The protaganist gets increasingly caught in a trap of his own making, and as complications ratchet up the stakes, the character's choices matter more and more. Preminger was clearly drawn to high-profile social issues in the scripts he chose (like a smart, tasteful Oliver Stone), and sometimes those "issues" get in the way of the story. Here, though, the balance is right. I was impressed by the way the film spoke to me today, with the timeless theme of ends and means, the necessity of fighting the good fight the right way. I have to say Gene Tierney is also growing on me as an actress. Some say she is the most beautiful actress of classic Hollywood, with her delicate features (perfect cheekbones, an overbite), but the more I watch her, the more I'm fascinated by the streak of soulful sadness in her work. She worked with Preminger on many occasions, and I'm looking forward to reviewing her most famous role, Laura, soon.

Still to come in my Preminger series: The Man with the Golden Arm was finally released in a good DVD version, and Fallen Angel will be issued in March. I hope Angel Face won't be far behind.

Song: "Moviekiss" by YOU

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