Saturday, March 15, 2014

Tonight's Movie: Side Street (1950) at UCLA

Time for another great evening at UCLA's Anthony Mann Festival, a double bill pairing the film noir SIDE STREET (1950) with the classic Western WINCHESTER '73 (1950).

SIDE STREET reteams the young lead couple of Nicholas Ray's RKO film THEY LIVE BY NIGHT (1948), Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell.

Max Alvarez, the author of THE CRIME FILMS OF ANTHONY MANN, spoke before the film and said that while THEY LIVE BY NIGHT had not yet been released when SIDE STREET started production, it was generating positive industry buzz, leading MGM to reunite Granger and O'Donnell for this film.

Alvarez pointed out that thematically, SIDE STREET almost seems as though it could be a continuation of director Mann's own DESPERATE (1947), as it's about a young married couple and there is reference to the husband's gas station business having failed; the characters Steve Brodie and Audrey Long hoped to start a gas station business in DESPERATE.

SIDE STREET is beautifully made but I felt somewhat ambivalent about it, mainly as the Joe, the young husband played by Granger, starts off the movie by doing something stupid -- stealing from an attorney on his mail carrier route.

Joe intends to steal $200 he saw dropped in a file cabinet, wanting to have the money so his pregnant wife Ellen (O'Donnell) can have a private hospital room when she delivers their baby, but the file he grabs turns out to have much, much more -- $30,000 to be exact.

The $30,000 was blackmail money paid by Emil Lorrison (Paul Harvey) to Lucky (Adele Jergens) -- who is promptly murdered by ruthless co-conspirator Georgie (James Craig) so that he and slimy attorney Victor (Edmon Ryan) don't have to cut her in on the take and don't have another witness to the blackmail.

Guilt-stricken Joe tries to return the money, which leads to a whole lot of trouble with Georgie and Victor -- especially when it turns out the money Joe left in a "safe place" wasn't in such a safe place after all.

While I felt sympathy for Joe's love for his wife and desire to provide more for her, I lost sympathy for him the minute he stole the money. It's rather interesting that I actually felt more sympathy toward Granger's far more hard-bitten runaway convict character from THEY LIVE BY NIGHT, I suppose because it's clear Joe knows better.

My lack of sympathy was compounded because Joe simply wasn't very bright, as illustrated when he shows back up at the bar where he's stashed the money and learns the owner (Edwin Max) suddenly "retired" and the package is no longer there. I also wondered, from a logical standpoint, why Joe didn't simply plan to put the money back in the office without talking to the attorney and giving away his identity, but perhaps he needed to feel a sense of absolution by confessing what he'd done.

That aspect aside, I liked the radiant O'Donnell tremendously, although she too has a moment of sheer idiocy. O'Donnell is sweet-natured and lovely, and her loyalty to her husband is admirable.

As I wrote in my review of MAN OR GUN (1958), James Craig was particularly good acting opposite children earlier in his MGM career, as he did in a succession of films including LOST ANGEL (1943), OUR VINES HAVE TENDER GRAPES (1945), BOYS' RANCH (1946), and LITTLE MR. JIM (1947). It was thus quite interesting seeing him as an unrepentant killer at this stage of his career; indeed, Georgie's fixation on strangulation is quite unsettling. Craig's decade-long run at MGM would last until CODE TWO (1953) a few years later.

For me the greatest joy in watching SIDE STREET was the teaming of favorites Paul Kelly and Charles McGraw as the cops whose investigation of Lucky's murder eventually leads them to Joe. When Kelly and McGraw initially appeared on screen together I might have happily exclaimed "Oh, yeah!" Kelly and McGraw are never less than wonderful, and the only thing better than McGraw as a menacing killer (such as in the other night's T-MEN) is McGraw as a cranky cop (as in ARMORED CAR ROBBERY or THE NARROW MARGIN).

Jean Hagen plays Georgie's unfortunate ex, a nightclub singer, and Whit Bissell, who was also in Mann's RAW DEAL (1948), plays a nervous bank teller. Familiar faces dot the cast, including Minerva Urecal, Sarah Selby, James Westerfield, and Herb Vigran.

SIDE STREET was filmed in black and white by Joseph Ruttenberg; some of the film was made on the back lot and some on location in New York City. Ruttenberg hung out of a blimp filming the opening shots of the city! Author Alvarez pointed out that MGM had several other movies filming in New York in the same time frame, including ON THE TOWN (1949) and EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE (1949), and said the location units shared resources.

This 83-minute film was based on a story and screenplay by Sidney Boehm. I agree, incidentally, with Alvarez's comment that the ending would have been stronger if the narration -- which was apparently written after Boehm concluded work on the film -- had been omitted and only focused on the final images of Granger and O'Donnell.

SIDE STREET is available on DVD as part of the Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 4. It can be obtained on a double feature disc with THEY LIVE BY NIGHT (1948).

Earlier films seen in this series: DR. BROADWAY (1942), which was paired with the previously reviewed TWO O'CLOCK COURAGE (1945); THE MAN FROM LARAMIE (1955), shown with the previously reviewed STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT (1944); THE NAKED SPUR (1953), shown with the previously reviewed HE WALKED BY NIGHT (1948); THE LAST FRONTIER (1955), seen with the previously reviewed STRANGE IMPERSONATION (1947); RAILROADED! (1947), shown with the previously seen DESPERATE (1947); and RAW DEAL (1948), shown with the previously reviewed T-MEN (1947).


Blogger barrylane said...

I found James Craig especially fine working with Mickey Rooney and Marsha Hunt in The Human Comedy. An actor superficially similar to Gable but ultimately with a style and personality all his own.

7:58 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

I agree, I think THE HUMAN COMEDY is an excellent film and Craig does a wonderful job, along with the rest of the cast.

One of Craig's later roles which I especially enjoyed was the ultimately likeable villain in the Western MAN OR GUN (1958). In fact it's rather interesting that Craig and another "Gable stand-in" from the war years, John Carroll, did some of their best work in late '50s Westerns, with Carroll really excellent in Budd Boetticher's DECISION AT SUNDOWN (1957).

Best wishes,

12:17 AM  
Blogger Elliot James said...

The best part of Side Street is the opening aerial shot of Manhattan and the closing car chase sandwiched by skyscrapers filmed from a high angle. That chase was expertly choreographed besides being very unusual. That the production team took the time and effort to shoot it was impressive. The noir look of the entire film is just as impressive.

Granger's characters in his late 1940s-early 50s crime movies are twitchy, troubled, hyper-nervous, and prone to panic. In Side Street he can't do a single thing right, let alone intelligent. He's directly responsible for the death of several characters as the story moves along. O'Donnell and McGraw are given little to do and wasted. Hague brings desperation to her stock noir role but gets very little screen time. James Craig could have been directed to play an obvious psychopath. Instead, his coldblooded, matter of fact, homicidal personality makes him a real monster, calmly strangling or shooting anyone in his way. The false-ringing "happy" ending knocks Side Street down a few notches.

8:56 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts on SIDE STREET, I enjoyed your take. I especially agree about James Craig's character. He evolved from leading man (who frequently worked with children) into a really interesting character performer. He's great in the minor but very enjoyable "B" Western FOUR FAST GUNS (1959).

Best wishes,

10:14 AM  

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