Side Street (1949)

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*. We get started with a striking series of opening helicopter shots, but are they being used to say anything? I think they are. The camera takes the POV of the omniscient narrator commenting on the action. This high up, it must be the voice of God.
*. But it’s not really the voice of God. No, it’s the voice of Captain Anderson, a character in the story who speaks with all the authority and understanding of God. And there’s a point to this I want to come back to.
*. Anthony Mann was finally off poverty row and working for a studio. It’s a great looking movie (beautifully shot by Joseph Ruttenberg), but MGM couldn’t have been too happy with the results. It did crap box office for its budget.
*. Did Mann like low-angle shots? Did he! As if all those tin ceilings weren’t enough, even in the cab scenes he’s looking up so you can see right out the sun roof! I wonder if anyone had ever done that before.

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*. It’s a tight little screenplay (by jack-of-all genres Sydney Boehm, who also wrote the similar police procedural Mystery Street), but the timeline doesn’t make sense to me. Nick has sold the bar, cleared all his stuff out, and the new owners are already moved in and setting up shop, in . . . what? A day? Two days? And at the end when Harriet’s body is found the cop says it looks like she’s been dead “quite a while.” But surely it’s been less than an hour.
*. Richard Schickel’s DVD commentary brings up a couple of familiar points about noir that are still worth considering.
*. In the first place he goes off on a mini-rant about why black-and-white films should be appreciated more by younger moviegoers. It’s a point no cineaste would dispute, and it’s given an interesting if not entirely convincing gloss by Schickel (he argues that art is about limitations, not limitlessness). For me, it just seems self-evident that this movie, like most noirs, wouldn’t work in colour. But why is that? I think it may have something to do with the way black-and-white gives the impression of being both clinical and mysterious. Even the darkness has a hard substance to it. And the tonal value of sunlight would be all wrong in such a world. Here the sky is a bright, blank surface — just another background, like all the ceilings in the interiors.
*. Schickel also brings up an interesting point about how in noir people are always falling for the wrong guy/girl. This is obvious in cases involving a femme fatale. Guys should be crossing the street to avoid them, but they are, alas, as irresistible as they are destructive. However, it’s also the case that innocent or naïve women fall for guys who are no good, as is the case with Harriet’s love for Garsell here.
*. Garsell is a bad dude, isn’t he? I’m still not sure why he kills Harriet. I guess he’s just sick of her.

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*. There are a couple of nice little touches. First there’s the business of Garsell shaving in Backett’s office, which is funny enough as it is but also makes for a nice shot as the two men balance each other out, one with an electric razor and the other with a phone to his head. The other bit I like is the milkman smiling at Garsell kissing Harriet in the back of the cab, unaware that she is being strangled.
*. A lot of noir heroes are weak men. Most often this is expressed through their naivety with regard to women: it’s what makes them putty in the hands of a femme fatale. But here Joe (Farley Granger) is really lightweight. For a moment, when he’s hunting down Harriet, you think he’s going to toughen up (he is a vet, after all, not some college kid) and that the ex-part-time letter carrier is about to go postal. But it doesn’t happen. He’s not very smart, and is in way over his head against the bad guys.

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 *. At times his innocence is unbelievable. Giving all his money to Nick the bartender (Ed Max, an actor who doesn’t look remotely trustworthy) is bad enough. But confessing his crime to Backett? That scene was almost too painful to watch.
*. It’s interesting how Joe gets into trouble because doors keep opening up for him. The door to Backett’s office pops open when he’s delivering mail, which is very odd given that we don’t think of Backett as the kind of guy to leave his door unlocked. Then later the door of the apartment Nick has been hiding out in swings open because Garsell has presumably left it unlocked (again for no good reason since the key seems to still be in the door on the inside). I guess the point is that it’s a slippery slope getting into this kind of trouble: easy the descent into hell, hard the climb back out. But there’s also a sense that there is some power at work leading Joe along. Fate plays a big role in a lot of noir, leading people along to their destruction or redemption.

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*. I think all of this (Joe’s weakness, the sense that he is being controlled by fate) underlines another point, which goes back to the narrative voice I mentioned earlier. The movie wants to illustrate how helpless and naïve the average citizen is when dealing with the criminal element. The same could be said of Harriet, still carrying a torch for the gorilla who slaps her around for reciting poetry, or Cathy O’Donnell’s Ellen, telling Joe to run from the police. They should be placing themselves in the hands of the professionals, like Paul Kelly’s Captain Anderson. They’re the only ones who can handle these guys.
*. This comes together in the great final chase scene, with the cars appearing like toys at the bottom of lower Manhattan’s canyonesque streets. As Schickel notes, this gives the proceedings a rat-in-a-maze effect. The final voiceover draws the naturalistic conclusion, with poor Joe saved but at the same time brushed off as human, all too human. There’s less the feeling of a moral lesson being drawn than an experiment being concluded, with the men in the white coats, or blue, looking down from above and making notes on their clipboards.

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