TOP 500 REVIEWERon 5 August 2011
Joe Norson doesn't have the cold toughness it takes to be a criminal.
Side Street is directed by Anthony Mann and written by Sydney Boehm. It stars Farley Granger, Cathy O'Donnell, James Craig, Jean Hagen, Paul Kelly, Paul Harvey, Edmon Ryan and Charles McGraw. Music is by Lennie Hayton (original) and Cole Porter (non original), and cinematography is by Joseph Ruttenberg.
Joe Norson (Granger) is desperate for a full time job so he can support his pregnant wife Ellen (O'Donnell). Ever since he lost the filling station he invested in, Joe has struggled to get on top of things. Working part time as a mail carrier, Joe is tempted to steal what he thinks is $200 dollars from a lawyers office he delivered to earlier on his rounds. However, when he gets time to examine his plunder he finds there is in fact $30,000. This is merely the start of his problems, for the money is crooked and sure to be sorely missed by some very tough people. As he frets on how to get out of this mess, the police and the bad guys begin to draw ever closer.
After the winning chemistry that arose out of Granger and O'Donnell's previous pairing for They Live By Night in 1948 (Nicholas Ray), it was no surprise to see them team up again for another slice of noirish pie. With Anthony Mann in the directing chair, having already established himself with the likes of T-Men and Raw Deal, and a decent budget in place, Side Street was in good hands. While although master cinematographer John Alton wasn't available, 4 time Oscar winner Joseph Ruttenberg was no small fry himself. Shooting in and around real New York locations, Mann and Ruttenberg give the film a real sense of authenticity, yes the plot takes some stretching of the imagination, but visually the picture is most appealing to the film noir fan. Be it aerial shots of the maze like Lower Manhattan setting or the shadowy flecked interiors that cloak the characters, Side Street showcases some strengths of director and photographer alike.
Certainly inferior to They Live By Night, and only mid tier of the noir pictures helmed by Mann, Side Street none the less still functions real well as a taut story that features a classic noir protagonist seemingly doomed by his actions. Even though Joe Norson is wimpy, idiotic even, the narrative spins him into a sequence of events that make for some riveting sweaty panic, and sweaty panic is something that Granger does considerably well here. There's no great fleshing out of the romance between husband and wife, because Joe is on the run around mostly, so O'Donnell is more of a secondary character, but we do feel the love and this helps considerably for the last quarter of the film.
It does at times feel like a hammer is tapping us on the forehead with its "Crime Doesn't Pay" morality, however, the bursts of violence bite hard and with Mann adroit in his action construction (a high speed car pursuit in the finale is top draw), film manages to rise above its flaws to entertain fully. In support it's Kelly (narrating and head investigative copper), Ryan (cagey lawyer) and Hagen (torch singer who likes a drink) who leave the best marks, while McGraw, arguably miscast as a good guy, is still good value for a gruff voiced presence. It does feel like an illegitimate second cousin to The Naked City, and a touch more claustrophobia wouldn't have gone amiss on the atmospheric front, but Side Street is a comfortable recommendation to the crime/film noir fan. 7/10
They Live By Night
Quite a debut from Nicholas Ray.
They Live By Night (AKA: The Twisted Road) is directed by Nicholas Ray and written by Ray and Charles Schnee who adapt from Edward Anderson's novel Thieves Like Us. It stars Cathy O'Donnell, Farley Granger, Howard Da Silva & Jay C. Flippen. Produced by John Houseman out of RKO, it's photographed by George E. Diskant and music is by Leigh Harline.
Ray's debut feature (it was actually wrapped in 1947) is a potent piece of film noir set during the Great Depression. Story follows Bowie (Granger), a naive young man who escapes from prison with two hardened criminals, Chicamaw (Da Silva) & T-Dub (Flippen), and finds unexpected love in the form of the almost saintly Keechie (O'Donnell). However, he finds that no matter what his good intentions are, crime just wont leave him be and with Keechie in tow, goes on the run to hopefully find a better life.
It's a pretty simple story all told, one that has been well represented in film over the years with the likes of You Only Live Once, High Sierra & Gun Crazy. But as simple as the tale is, Ray's film is very much a leading light in the sub-genre of "lovers on the lam" movies. First thing of note is that there's a movement away from the normal characters that had frequented the noir driven crime world up till now. The protagonists here are not gangsters or private investigators, they are thieves, and country folk too. This offers up a different viewing character wise. Admittedly the protagonists are shrouded in classic film noir hopelessness, where the air of desperation hangs heavy throughout, but the characterisation shift gives the simple story a lift.
From the outset it's evident that this is an intriguing, even curious, picture. A shot of our loving couple sharing a kiss is accompanied with a title card telling us that they were never properly introduced to the world we live in. A blast of Harline's music startles them and we then cut to an aerial shot (Ray leading the way for helicopter shots) of the three escapee's in the getaway car. In those 30 seconds Ray has managed to convey that his film will be an energetic, yet doom laden, love story. Quite a feat for a fledgling director to be unique right from the off. It's interesting to note that Ray himself said that he wasn't trying to make a film noir movie, he was merely telling a tragic love story. Just another point of reference as to why the film is so fascinating.
Be that as it may, They Live By Night pulses with noir blood. From its perpetual moody atmospherics, to the romantic narrative being punctured by moments of violence, it deserves its classic film noir status. 8/10