MGM’s Side Street, an above-average film noir that was shot in New York City, screens in Berkeley on Friday Feb. 28

The American film industry was born on the Atlantic Seaboard. From Biograph’s lower Manhattan studio to the film factory that was Fort Lee, New Jersey (a city now infamous, of course, for an entirely different reason), the first American movies were primarily an East Coast affair.

That changed in 1911 when the advantages offered by the sunshine and vast open spaces of Southern California convinced New Jersey’s Nestor Studios (later to merge with Universal) to relocate to Hollywood. The secret was out: land and good weather were plentiful out west, and the industry moved en masse. By the 1920s, the East Coast film boom had quickly turned to bust.

And so it would remain for the next few decades: during the ‘20s and ‘30s, New York City locations were recreated hundreds of times on the Hollywood back lot, and no one complained. In the post-war years, however, audiences wanted something a little less artificial and a bit more realistic, and studios realized they needed to offer something to counter the growing threat of television. Second units began to pop up around The Big Apple — especially for crime pictures.

One of those pictures was MGM’s Side Street, an above average noir screening at 7:00 p.m. on Friday Feb. 28 at Pacific Film Archive as part of the series ‘Against the Law: The Crime Films of Anthony Mann’.

Though Metro weren’t known for their crime dramas, Mann gave them one of the genre’s grittiest entries in Side Street – and also (and in spite of its ‘Made in Hollywood, U.S.A.’ credit card) one of the first post-war flicks to take full advantage of the real New York City.

Side Street establishes its bona fides from the beginning, with overheard shots of Manhattan accompanied by the narration of actor Paul Kelly, already in character as Police Captain Walter Anderson. Anderson’s introductory monologue puts things in context: he’s one of 20,000 cops in this kind but cruel city of 8 million; he works the homicide beat; and in 1949, he was busy: there was a murder a day in The Big Apple.*

Yes, there are 8 million stories in the naked city, and Side Street’s soon comes into focus. Joe Norson (Farley Granger) is a part-time mail carrier looking to improve his lot in life (he’s got a kid on the way), and temptation gets the best of him when he espies an envelope of cash in the office of Attorney Victor Backett (Edmon Ryan). When Joe finds the door open and the office empty, he snatches the cash, only to discover after the fact it’s the ill-gotten gains of a blackmail scheme hatched by the crooked Backett and his psychopathic muscle George (James Craig).

Penned by Sydney Boehm, Side Street is truly one of nastiest of noirs, only topped in the 1940s by Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death.

Boehm would outdo himself in 1955 with Violent Saturday (a film in which Lee Marvin intentionally steps on a child’s hand), but, for 1949, this was strong stuff. And then, of course, there’s Joseph Ruttenberg’s cinematography, showing off the canyons and back alleys of lower Manhattan to finest effect.

Don’t miss’ Too Much Johnson’

Unless you were a close associate of Orson Welles back in the day (or spent last October in Pordenone, Italy,) you’ve never experienced Too Much Johnson. Long considered lost, a print of this Welles-helmed comedy was discovered in 2008, and after extensive restoration work premiered at last year’s Pordenone Silent Film Festival. Now it screens at Pacific Film Archive on Monday, March 3 at 7:00 p.m.. Be the first on your block to see it!

*Today, New York City’s total population is only slightly larger, but the police force has almost doubled to 36,000. In 2012, there were 414 murders in the city, suggesting that the murder wave of the 1970s and ‘80s was an unusual aberration.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. 

To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, visit Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. We also encourage you to submit your own events. 

Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...