Side Street

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An overwrought civics lesson done as film noir, Side Street sees Farley Granger’s humble postman making one tiny mistake and finding himself in deep trouble. One minute he’s trading small talk with a cop in the bright daylight, the next he’s mixing with murderers, femmes fatales and other unsavoury sorts and has become a creature of the night. In Side Street, when you fall, you fall.

No wonder it flopped – it’s overcooked. And it did flop, badly. So much so that its director, Anthony Mann, abandoned film noir for good and headed off into the hills where a career making highly regarded westerns beckoned.

But all that was in the future. First Mann had to get Side Street out of the way, a reteaming of Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell, stars of They Live by Night, for a cautionary tale of a decent guy named Joe, his lovely pregnant wife, and how the hopes they have for the future get thrown on the scrapheap when Joe, wishing to buy his wife a fur coat and take her to Paris – can’t a postman dream? – goes crazy one day and lifts what he thinks is $200 from the filing cabinet of an office where he’s delivering.

It turns out it’s more than $200 – $30,000 in fact – and this means Joe is in a massive heap of trouble. The money is hot and connected to prostitution, extortion and murder. Joe at first tries to stash it somewhere safe, then decides to put the money back, then discovers it’s gone walkabout, then realises both the bad guys and the police are on his tail.

Having crossed the line, having left the metaphorical main street for the side street, Joe leaves behind the world of virtue and a humble postman’s duties and becomes something of an unlikely detective, at least partly investigating himself as he trawls the night-time streets of New York looking for the money and trying to avoid death.

Joe and bad guy Victor
Joe and bad guy Victor

Granger is good at looking sweaty, and we get plenty of him boggle-eyed (as well Joe might be) as the postman attempts what is surely an impossible task of un-delivery, while back at base the increasingly irrelevant Cathy O’Donnell does her best to stay in the picture as good wife Ellen has her baby, all the while wondering what’s got into her husband. O’Donnell, so alive, alluring and vital to the plot in They Live by Night, can do nothing with an underwritten and largely mechanical role – Ellen is there merely to make Joe’s predicament the more precarious.

This is one of those movies proudly proclaiming its New York-ness. Anthony Mann gives us a long montage-plus-voiceover intro establishing time and place – New York, the big city, mighty with 8 million people. Here, this number of people are born every day and this number die. There are this number of murders. And so on. Statistics. It’s a newspaperman’s intro but it’s spoken by a cop, Captain Walter Anderson (Paul Harvey).

And while Harvey intones Sydney Boehm’s dialogue, Mann delivers a catalogue of streetlife-in-the-Big-Apple shots, New York in all its architectural splendour and teeming humanity.

Through the film Mann returns repeatedly to the streets, diners and nightclubs for these vérité scene-setters, giving the whole enterprise a ripped-from-reality grounding which the overheated story cannot back up. But what gorgeous, often sepulchrally shadowy visuals – DP is the great John Ruttenberg, who did everything from Gaslight to Gigi and won four Oscars (and was nominated seven times more).

The money shot is the fantastic car-chase finale – rare in those days – through the streets and down to the docks, which Mann shoots high up, presumably hanging out the windows of skyscrapers, so we get a God’s eye view of the mortals below. Joe and the bad guys in one car, the cops closing in behind and coming from various directions, visual manifestations of bad luck, once unleashed, doing its worst. The message: obey the rules, stick with talking to the cop when you’re on your break; and understand your dreams of fur coats and Paris are just dreams.

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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