31 January 2012
When I think of old Hollywood glamour and mystery, I think Gene Tierney. Like Hedy Lamarr and Merle Oberon, she had one of those faces that just seemed to convey so much — more, maybe, than existed in real life. She has an almost Asian face, with those unusually slanted pale eyes; but then there’s her oddly out-of-place mouth, which looks perfect closed but seems pinched when she speaks. Being entranced by her surely dates from my seeing the classic film noir Laura (1944) at a very impressionable age.
In Laura, the other characters talk about her mostly in flashback for an excruciatingly long period of time because she’s presumed dead — and they speak about her with such reverence that the gritty, laconic police detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) starts to fall in love with her in a clumsy way, gazing at her portrait. Maybe it’s easy to idealize a dead woman; no one has any doubts about why McPherson falls so hard. As a kid watching it for the first time I had no idea that she would appear, like a vision, midway through the film, not dead at all, and slightly harder in real life than the idealized version would have had her. It’s a terrific plot twist — and the only problem I ever had with that brilliant film was that I was never sure why Laura fell for him, too.
So imagine my delight to discover Where the Sidewalk Ends, also starring Andrews and Tierney, also directed by the great Otto Preminger. I can’t emphasize enough what a great film this is, and such a great follow-up to Laura. Andrews’ character is even named Mark again, which gives Tierney the chance to pronounce it Mahwk in that same low, refined way. Andrews is a complicated, crooked anti-hero, much more fleshed out and darker than in the earlier film; his mouth is set in an even more unforgiving, hard line, especially in all those bitter close-ups. It’s as if he’s still that other Mark, except more brutal. And Tierney almost seems to be Laura again except a sad six years and an unhappy marriage later. She’s just as beautiful, but a bit haunted and still attracted to the wrong men.
The earlier film Laura haunts Where the Sidewalk Ends just the way the portrait/fantasy of Laura haunted Mark McPherson. But in the latter, their tentative romance plays out against the gritty city streets of New York, filmed beautifully on location, and in an ordinary little café, owned by an older woman Mark helped out of a jam that one time. The two of them banter/bicker back & forth at one another in a practiced way, which delights Tierney — who wouldn’t be charmed by a man whose biggest fan likes to joust with him while serving him bowls of soup?
See this film — it’s streaming on Netflix. Better yet, give yourself a two-night double feature of both films, in order. This is film noir at its best, and tell me whether it makes you fall for Tierney’s mystery as well.