Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Telephone exchange names
on screen: Side Street

[The Moving Finger looks up an address; and, having looked up an address, moves on.]

I sat down to watch Side Street (dir. Anthony Mann, 1949) expecting a so-so thriller and was surprised to discover a great film. The premise is deeply noir: an everyday Joe (literally: letter-carrier Joe Norson, played by Farley Granger) makes a mistake and finds himself in way over his head. The film has strong overtones of The Naked City (dir. Jules Dassin, 1948): aerial views of New York City; a street-level montage of city life; a Tiresias-like narrator meditating on the lives of city dwellers and Joe’s plight; a blackmail racket; brief moments of brutal, intimate violence; a chase through lower Manhattan. There are fine performances by Granger (bruised and sweaty), Harry Bellaver (a cab-driving thug), Whit Bissell (a skinny bank-teller with a fluffy dog), Jean Hagen (an alcoholic nightclub singer), and Paul Kelly (the police-captain narrator, in a performance that is a model of economy and understatement). It was Cathy O’Donnell’s name that made me curious about this film: O’Donnell’s stagey performance as Wilma Cameron (the girl next door) in The Best Years of Our Lives (dir. William Wyler, 1946) has long seemed to me to be the one false note in that film. As Ellen Norson, Joe’s wife, O’Donnell has little to do here, and her New York accent fades in and out. Her finest moment — no spoilers here — comes when she has almost disappeared from the film. It’s entirely unexpected.

The real stars of Side Street are its New York streetscapes and the cinematography of Joseph Ruttenberg. Ruttenberg is said to have disliked fellow cinematographer Gregg Toland's deep-focus effect, but many of the shots in Side Street are strongly evocative of Toland’s work in Citizen Kane: unusual angles, oddly-placed objects, strong contrasts of light and dark. This shot of Farley Granger is my favorite:

The film’s final chase is a marvel of camerawork, alternating between aerial views (tiny cars moving through impossibly narrow streets) and the interior of a cab. One moment you’re watching from on high; the next, you too have a gun at the back of your neck. Thank goodness the narrator steps in one last time to tell us what to make of it all.

Side Street is available on DVD with They Live by Night (dir. Nicholas Ray, 1949), also starring Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell. (Good, but it’s no Side Street.)

[29 W. Eighth Street, the address of the Village Beauty Salon, is now home to Smoke Express and Cafe Underground. Upstairs is L’impasse, selling what one guide to the area calls “quality slutwear.” It’s a pity that the telephone listings in Side Street have only a “BUtterfield 4”: Joseph Ruttenberg was to work on BUtterfield 8 (dir. Daniel Mann, 1960) a decade later. “The Moving Finger” comes from the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, as translated by Edward FitzGerald: “The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, / Moves on.”]

More exchange names on screen
The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse : Baby Face : Born Yesterday : The Dark Corner : Deception : Dream House : The Little Giant : The Man Who Cheated Himself : Nightmare Alley : The Public Enemy

comments: 1

Other Elaine said...

I say we need the next two lines from Omar's poem.

So, now I have to subscribe to NetFlix, and It's All Your Fault!