The Sidewalk Vs. The Penthouse: which is more Noir?

ROGUE’S GALLERY – Where three dedicated Noirheads discuss, argue and bat around topics

on all things Film Noir.

With Jake Hinkson, Cullen Gallagher and Eric Beetner.

Eric: Let’s compare apples to apples, shall we? I like Laura (1944). I do. It’s a fine mystery. I love Where The Sidewalk Ends (1950). That is pure noir, baby.
Apples to apples because, obviously, we have two films with the same director and same core cast.

Now, me, I like my noir in the gutter, not in the penthouse, so that’s a point for Sidewalk right there. Laura is too stiff. I know Laura gets all the press and accolades and again, I like it, I just think Where The Sidewalk Ends is a better film.
It doesn’t rely on such a wild leap of faith. Sure, in movies of that time people fell in love in impossibly short amounts of time. Take out the 48-hour courtship and there’d be almost no movies made between 1930 and 1960. But to fall in love with a painting? You lost me. And then she just shows up? Seems like a comedy of errors, not noir.
I also think Sidewalk has the definitive Noir moment in it. When Mark Dixon (Dana Andrews) is about to go see a suspect after he’s been warned time and again to lay off and stop it with the fisticuffs, he stands in the creep’s doorway, deciding whether or not to go in. He stands – literally – on the threshold of a decision that will spiral his life out of control. A mistake of his own making. Otto Preminger shoots the scene from a low carpet-level angle, Mark looms over us with the towering power of his decision.
That shot, that moment – it just IS Noir. Make this choice one way and everything is okay, make it the other way and it all goes to hell. Any wild guesses which way he chose?
Laura is, again, a fine mystery. But it isn’t sleazy enough to be noir.

Jake:
First off, Eric, I can’t resist pointing out that you talk about both apples and a “core cast” in the same sentence. Apple…core…
Just thought I’d start this entry by providing an example of the quick wit which has left me friendless and alone all these years. My whole life is noir, damn it.
On to the point, though—Is Laura noir? I say absolutely, and for two reasons:

1.      Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) doesn’t fall in love with a painting, he falls in love with a dead woman. More to the point, he falls in the love with the idea of a dead woman created by sick bastard Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb). Surely necrophilia counts as sleazy enough for noir.
2.      Lydecker is the main character of the film. He narrates the proceedings, so it’s his POV we’re in most of the time (though the film cheats on this point to give us the romance between McPherson and Laura). So, when you get right down to it, the main character of this flick is (spoiler alert) a psycho killer destroyed by his own obsession to control a woman. Pretty noir, I think.
Now, I’ll grant that Where The Sidewalk Ends is a great flick. I love it. But the differences between the two films are telling. Where The Sidewalk Ends is about the Andrews character and his moral quandary. It is also, I think, maybe Andrews’s best screen performance. Lovely Gene Tierney, however, is pretty much just window dressing in this movie. The film’s resolution is a bit of a letdown, as well. It’s the same, tacked-on happy ending we see in a lot of crime flicks of the time. Tonally, it’s a little more down than usual (this is Otto Preminger, after all), but I think we still have to dock points for the everything-will-be-okay-on-down-the-line vibe. I like my noir endings splattered with blood and stinking of gun powder.
Like, for instance, the ending of Laura which ends with our demented protagonist gunned down, the object of his affection in the arms of his hated rival, and his own voice wafting in from a radio broadcast in the next room. It’s a haunting ending, a great ending I’d argue, and more memorable than the expository, loose-end tying that closes out Where The Sidewalk Ends.
I agree that in some ways Where The Sidewalk Ends is the more unified film, but the sheer undercurrent of freakiness coursing below the surface of Laura gives it it’s noir bona fides.

Eric:
Jake, I agree that Laura is indeed Noir, and I agree with you on the ending. I still prefer Sidewalk maybe because the protagonist is more desperate. Lydecker is so aloof and sure of himself and convinced of the fact that he will get away with his crime, the film is a little cold to me. Dixon in Sidewalk is always a little sweaty and waiting for the other shoe to drop.
I guess I figure if I ever bump someone off that’s how I’ll be, always looking over my shoulder.

Cullen:
I’d agree with Eric that my tastes for noir usually run more towards the gutter than the penthouse, but I wouldn’t discount Laura as noir based on class issues. As Jake pointed out, the central love story is definitely on the far side of vanilla. The only thing I’d add is that not only does he fall in love with a corpse, it is a corpse whose face has been blown off by a shotgun so badly it can’t even be identified. It’s played off very subtly in both the book and the movie, but once you put the pieces together, you gotta admit that McPherson has some sexual problems going on.

I think one of the more noir aspects of the story that is often over looked is Diane Redfern, the model who was murdered by accident. Hers is the classic story of a young, pretty girl going to the big city, getting mixed up with a total sleazebag (who takes her to another woman’s apartment, no less) and whose life gets flushed down the toilet – or, in this case, blown away by two loaded barrels. To add insult to injury, even though she’s the motivating force in the whole plot, she’s completely overlooked by everyone in the story. Mark and Laura get to live happily ever after, but Diane gets left in the gutter.

As for Where the Sidewalk Ends, one of the aspects of that movie that I like is how we’re with Dixon when he makes the pivotal decision that leads him on that downward spiral. It is just personal preference, but I prefer that deep connection to the character and the crime.

Eric:
Damn, Cullen, thanks for pointing out Diane in Laura. That is stone cold. My respect for Laura just increased.
Still like Sidewalk better though…

Jake Hinkson is the author of Hell On Church Street. He blogs at thenighteditor.blogspot.com
Cullen Gallagher writes about all things pulp at www.pulpserenade.com/
Eric Beetner is author of Dig Two Graves, Split Decision and co-author (with JB Kohl) of One Too Many Blows To The Head and Borrowed Trouble as well as appearing in the anthologies D*cked, Pulp Ink, Grimm Tales, Off The Record and Discount Noir. For more visit ericbeetner.blogspot.com

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5 Replies to “The Sidewalk Vs. The Penthouse: which is more Noir?”

  1. I just went and watched a YouTube compilation for Where the Sidewalk Ends. BOY does Diane Lane look like the young Gene Tierny. I had no idea. Thanks for putting these titles on my radar.
    Anonymous-9

  2. Okay, so I’ve watched both Sidewalk and Laura and even Angel Face, a Preminger movie with Robert Mitchum and Jean Simmons, this week and I think Sidewalk was the most successful for me. The dialogue, the look, the fact that the story is about a corrupt cop trying to hide a murder he committed – of course I liked that more than the much more stodgy Laura and Angel Face.

    But that said, though Angel Face and Laura aren’t as instantly entertaining as Sidewalk, they are both very ballsy films with ridiculously good endings. (Sidewalk’s ending is no slouch either!) Though the mystery is a bit blah in Laura, the fact that we get scenes of the cop creepily hanging out in Laura’s digs, generally obsessing over her was very cool for its day. And Angel Face is a real wonder, a movie that stars Robert Mitchum yet never has him really do anything but waiver between the alluring but clearly fucking nuts Simmons and his dependable nurse girlfriend – that’s interesting shit right there. And especially in Angel Face I had no idea where the hell the story was going. The only thing I predicted was the ending, but I wasn’t positive they would actually go for it. God was I happy when they went through with it! (Yes, this is all very vague but I’m assuming you guys’ve seen the film.)

    And though Laura wraps up fairly predictably, the way they stage the final action sequence was ridiculously well-done, just as good as the pre-1950’s Hitchcock stuff. So while my Sidewalk held my attention the most (Ben Hecht script, how could I not be wrapped up in it!) I think that Laura and especially Angel Face are probably the films I would show if I was teaching a course about film noir. They may be wonky, kinda stilted entertainments, but their ambition and ballsiness is really something to see.