‘Side Street’ runs on bustling energy from start to finish

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Side Street

Directed by Anthony Mann

Screenplay by Charles Schnee

U.S.A., 1950

There is a favourite saying used among film reviewers when espousing the virtues of a film that uses the story’s locale to the full extent: location ‘x’ is a character in of itself. While an admittedly clever term, it has been slightly overused in recent years to the point where it seems that just about any film’s geographical setting can be deemed a figurative character. Rare are the movies for which a director will take that saying to heart to the extent that the location actually feel like its own character, perfectly complementing the overall picture. Anthony Mann is one such director, whose stunningly brings Manhattan, the city that never sleeps, to life in Side Street.

Struggling through life as a part-time mail carrier, Joe Norson (Farley Granger) is not the most accomplished fellow in the world.  That does not, however, prohibit him from imagining some big things for him and his wife Ellen (They Live by Night co-star Cathy O’Donnell). She is deep into her pregnancy, with the baby set to come just about any week now. An opportunity to minimally improve their socio-economic status presents itself one day while delivering mail to the office of attorney Emil Lorrison (Paul Harvey). The latter is absent from office for a few minutes, giving Joe just enough time to do what seemed like the unthinkable any other day: steal a couple hundred dollars from a file desk. Joe hurriedly takes away the small package he believes contains 200 dollars, only to discover shortly thereafter that he has, in fact, taken away 30,000 dollars! After lying to his wife about obtaining a new, lucrative job, guilt begins to eat away at poor Joe, who makes an honest attempt at confessing his crime to the man he believes was the victim, Mr. Lorrison, where in fact the ugly truth of the matter is far more dangerous, involving a a real thug of an ex-convict, George Garsell (James Craig) who desperately wants his money back and is no mood to negotiate.

A curious statement frequently reappeared on a few occasions upon reading up a little bit on the film under review today, that being the reuniting of Cathy O’Donnell and Farley Granger, who just a couple of years earlier were the stars of Nicholas Ray’s debut, They Live by Night, in which they played doomed lovers trying to escape lives of crime. Facts being what they are, both actors do play lovers once again in Mann’s taut thriller, but in reality share precious little screen time together. This is first and foremost Farley Granger’s movie with a starring role he pulls off handsomely, with O’Donnell relegated to a very, very secondary type of role as the pregnant wife who wants nothing more than to be happy and see her Joe earn a steady living so they can plan ahead. As matter of fact, just to get the bad out of the way before this article sinks its teeth into the good, O’Donnell’s performance here is remarkably underwhelming. Part of that has do to with the material she is tasked with (mediocre), but the actress shares some of that blame too. Granted, she only has about 15 minutes among Side’s total of 82, yet she tries to compensate that by desperately overacting. A bitter disappointment after her stellar work in Night.

That unfortunate detail aside, Anthony Mann directs Side Street with brilliant vim and verve. The pacing is borderline relentless, even from the opening minutes which feature the film’s policeman character, Captain Walter Anderson, played Paul Kelly (making the most of his limited screen time in a fantastically charming and smooth role), introducing the viewer to Manhattan itself, with emphasis put on its vast population, his narration hinting at the always possible connections between people and what sort of stories each has. The monologue is accompanied by a series of sharp edits transporting the viewer from place to place around this jungle of a city until finally it concentrates on Joe, the story’s ill-fated protagonist, while on his morning route. From there, the film never lets up, heightening the stakes as Joe makes honourable if ultimately feeble attempts at trying to rectify his mistakes. Mann has an incredible eye for making full use of the locations he shoots for his stories. Just as he effectively utilized the deceptively quaint agricultural countryside in Border Incident, in Side he captures the unstoppable energy of downtown Manhattan, and above all else, its grandeur. Virtually every outdoor scene (filmed on location) bustles with life, just as so many people imagine the city to be like. The director also clearly makes effort have it appear as big as possible. The opening credits appear over helicopter shots of downtown Manhattan. They linger and pan slowly, gently, then subsequently fade in slightly closer to street level, revealing the army of little ant-like entities marching to and fro on and across the maze of streets. Multiple shots include the tallest of buildings in the background, and even when the buildings themselves might not be as as towering, Mann will employ a particular camera angle to make them appear exponentially larger. This fascination in having Manhattan’s physicality and personality play a distinctive role in the film culminates with thrilling car chase between a taxi cab containing the villain George Garsell and the hapless Joe and a platoon of police vehicles. The shots are from high above, making it seem as though the cars are truly racing around in a gigantic maze from which there is apparently no exit.

The role of the city’s effervescence and stature is not limited to adding background detail and mood to the film, but also in developing Joe’s unforgettable misadventure. Danger and temptation take the misguided man from bars, to offices, to dingy apartments, to lounges, to rooftops all over the city. By the film’s end, it seems as though the viewer has been given a pretty decent guided tour. In another way,  the massive amount of activity in a metropolis such as Manhattan can surprise people in how it creates linkages. The very start of the film, there is no indication of how George Garsell and Joe Norsen will become so enemies of sorts, yet one thing leads to another, one person knows another person who knows another…and here George and Joe are, caught in a game of cat and mouse. Joe also represents a classic version of the film noir anti-hero. He is most certainly not a bad guy, but nor his is the most clever or self-disciplined. When the opportunities arises for him to make a quick getaway with the some stolen money, money that will be put to genuinely good use,  he grabs hold despite that his inner self fully knows the slippery ethical slope he traverses in doing so. He had not even expected to take away as much as he did, nor was he aware that the sum belonged to another person altogether, yet once the act is done, the stakes change, the game is completely new, and Joe will simply have to deal with that.

Side Street represents some of the very best of what classic thrillers have to offer. There is an audaciousness to the directing that gives the picture a powerful kinetic energy that does not let up until the final frame. Apart from O’Donnell’s misguided acting, Mann’s film delivers the goods.

-Edgar Chaput

3 Comments
  1. Bill Mesce says

    BORDER INCIDENT — wow, what a gut-puncher that was. I agree: another of his low-budget gems.

  2. Bill Mesce says

    Mann’s is a very curious career. He made any number of impressive movies while toiling in the lower echelons of the industry: tough little noirs — like this one — that impressively integrated setting into the storytelling (HE WALKED BY NIGHT uses the LA storm sewers as well as THE THIRD MAN used the Vienna sewers), then he moved up to a series of equally tough Westerns with James Stewart (my favorite, the elegantly structured WINCHESTER 73 with its multiple, criss-crossing plotlines, and another great use of setting in its brother-against-brother climax), he made one of the best ever war movies in the near-existential MEN IN WAR. But when he graduated to big budget flicks he seemed to lose his way: fired after a few days on SPARTACUS, the ambitious but slack FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, the bland EL CID. Here was a guy who — as you show — seemed to work better when he worked small.

    1. Edgar Chaput says

      Ah, so it was he that got fired from ‘Spartacus’. Some friends and I were debating that issue just the other day and I simply could not recall he was the director before Kubrick came on boards. Thanks for mentioning that bit of trivia.

      If you like his smaller films, have you seen ‘Border Incident’? That’s quite a little gem too. He made it just a few years before this film.

      Also, thanks for commenting!

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