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Joe Norson, a poor letter carrier with a sweet, pregnant wife, yields to momentary temptation and steals $30,000 belonging to a pair of ruthless blackmailers who won't stop at murder. After a few days of soul-searching, Joe offers to return the money, only to find that the "friend" he left it with has absconded. Now every move Joe makes plunges him deeper into trouble, as he's pursued and pursuing through the shadowy, sinister side of New York. Written by
Rod Crawford <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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Capt. Walter Anderson:
New York City: an architectural jungle where fabulous wealth and the deepest squalor live side by side. New York is the busiest, the loneliest, the kindest, and the cruelest of cities - a murder a day, every day of the year and each murder will wind up on my deak.
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Imagine a Hitchcockian thriller, but heavier, more humorless; rather good.
Although not as dynamic or inventive as his earlier DESPERATE, this is a very good film noir from Western maestro Anthony Mann. Where DESPERATE was actually a Western in modern thriller form, SIDE STREET is more of a Hitchcockian innocent-in-peril film, although much heavier.
The film's brilliance is mainly stylistic, but it's clever too. It starts off worryingly as one of those ghastly Fox March-Of-Time pseudo-documentary thrillers (e.g. CALL NORTHSIDE 477). A Voice Of God narrator booms out information about New York, statistics about births, weddings, deaths, crimes, murders. He reveals himself to be an important cop; it is alarming that the film's authoritive voice should literally be The Law.
This Law refuses loose ends - the statistics are there to show that everything is in control: the cops are on top of all crises. And indeed they seem to be - we get a montage of petty criminals being stopped by the ubiquitous police. Frighteningly, as the story proper is introduced, the narrator suggests that it would be a good and useful thing for the police (and by extension us) to know what ordinary people are thinking, as it is often here we find the root of crime; the story is set up as a test case of this.
This glorification of police power is dangerously fascist, although it was probably seen as reassurance for a post-war audience. But Mann subverts this cosy panopticon. Although the story is set up as a detached cop's clear-eyed dissection, it soon becomes a typically dense film noir, where desire and fear make a mockery of authority and order.
This is mainly done by moving the film's point of view away from the narrator to the protagonist. Joe Norson is an innocent, as I suggested, but not in the legal sense - he is a thief. This is 'explained' by Joe's poverty and his essential decency in caring for his pregnant wife - this is a view endorsed by the cop-narrator right through to the end. But the film's visuals suggest otherwise - Joe is profoundly changed by his experiences.
The film starts brightly as a seemingly happy Joe goes on his mail route: this is filmed with an unassuming normality. But, once he conceives of theft, the film's style changes drastically, before he has even entered any kind of underworld. The film's darkness is therefore psychic rather than metaphoric. The camera angles distort madly, shadows loom ominously, lighting and air is sucked form the frame. Although the script tries to keep up the Jean Valjean myth of Joe's essential goodness, it is clear that he becomes damaged: he will never be able to return to his old, naive certainties. He learns both what evil is, that he has it within himself, and how it can be used, even if it's just to save himself. The brilliant final shot bleakly mocks the hollow paternalism of the cop-narrator's words.
As a thriller, the film is tremendously exciting - with the criminal, as in Hitchcock's films, becoming a detective to clear his own name, blurring certainties of law and crime. The final car-chase is justly admired. The heroine is a drip (Granger and O'Donnell's roles lack their romantic intensity in Ray's THEY LIVE BY NIGHT), and the villains, though individually anonymous, provide a disturbing combination of evil. Granger's stiffness is perfect - his outward awkwardness makes the mise-en-scene's emotional dramatisation all the more effective.
The irony of the film is in the title - the actions of the characters in pursuing the American dream are perfectly commensurate with the ideals of Official America (the 'main' street): they take a paralell, less noticeable route ('side' street).
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