New York Noir
Like THEY LIVE BY NIGHT, SIDE STREET, shown in Film Forum’s Anthony Mann retrospective, stars Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell, and like that earlier and better film, it begins with an aerial shot, but there the resemblance mostly ends. The problem here seems to be MGM’s ideological antipathy to the true noir spirit, with its shades of gray, its sense of doubt and anxiety about society and human nature, and its commitment to sex and greed as persistent driving forces in human nature. All of which is anathema to Louis B Mayer, despite the fact that he was personally a more loathsome figure than many a noir bad guy.
So Granger and O’Donnell’s tendency to overexpressive sentimentality is fully indulged here, in contrast to the way Nick Ray kept them in check and made them earn the audience’s affection. Anthony Mann, no slouch in the noir stakes, compensates somewhat with shrewd casting and violent, percussive cutting and angles — I lost count of the number of faces thrust savagely into the lens. Although the cops, introduced via a NAKED CITY-lite opening VO, are angelic upholders of order, he casts Paul Kelly and Charles McGraw — the first, a doleful stringbean zombie, the second a granite torpedo with ground-glass-rasping vocal cords. Since Granger is meant to be an innocent man on the run, lovable MGM cops represent a minimal menace, but by this casting Mann reclaims some tension.
The set-up — in a moment of weakness, squeaky-clean mailman Farley steals what turns out to be a huge wad of dirty money, proceeds of a blackmail scheme with murder mixed in. The loot gets swiped before he can repentantly return it, and he hares around the city trying to recover it, pursued by cops and crooks as bodies pile up like pretzels (best body award goes to Jean Hagen, typically luckless in her choice of beau). It’s a very basic premise but it does allow for pleasing cameos and a pacy, crisscross narrative rhythm. Mann himself disliked the film save for the climactic pursuit through a weirdly deserted early morning Manhattan, the concrete canyons making a monolith maze for pursuers and pursued.
Honorable mention to James Craig, finding his level as a stupid brute of a bad guy, and to the two audience members who provided relief from a non-smouldering love scene by getting into a wrestling match over a mobile phone that hadn’t been switched off. I think violence does seem a suitable response to somebody taking a call during a movie… Crime Does NOT Pay!