In Anthony Mann’s Side Street (1949), Farley Granger plays a part-time letter-carrier in a tough spot. He is without a career or business– his attempt to run a gas station failed. Now his young wife (Cathy O’Donnell) is pregnant, and they’re forced to share a cramped bedroom in her parents’ apartment. Granger is having trouble fulfilling any of the roles society prescribes for men: have a career, own a home, be a breadwinner. But despite the way things are stacking up against him, he tries to appear outgoing and optimistic, cheerfully telling a neighborhood cop that someday he’ll take his wife to Paris and surprise her with a full length mink. But though this speech probably reflects long-standing hopes, it’s mainly shame-covering bluster. Shortly after the chat with the cop, the panicked Granger seizes an opportunity to lift two-hundred dollars cash from an office where he delivers mail.
The theft is a terrible idea, but it’s a desperate act by a desperate guy. His wife is pregnant and he can’t even find a regular job. Of course, his bad decision is just the beginning; soon he discovers that the envelope he grabbed contains not two-hundred dollars, but thirty thousand. He might have gotten away with two-hundred, but surely someone fierce will come looking for thirty thousand. Worse, it’s eventually revealed that the money is tied up in a murder. So pretty quickly, Granger is trapped on the run in a world of seedy crooks and double-crossers, trying his desperate best to figure out who and where the real murderer is and doing the best he can to survive and evade getting pinned with murder.
What’s both refreshing and painful about this tale is that the hero is so absolutely average. Farley Granger, though handsome and likeable, is leagues away from a typical noir protagonist like Humphrey Bogart. Trapped in a dark, double-crossing world, Bogart is always two steps ahead, the guy whose hat and trench coat we’d want to borrow. Farley Granger is a different type altogether. He’s the guy we know: the friendly kid we went to school with or the shop clerk from around the corner. In over his head, he has none of the tools of the knowing gumshoe or savvy criminal. No slick patter or cute tricks. He doesn’t even smoke cigarettes. He’s just a decent guy whose desperate attempt to improve his lot has made things even worse.
Side Street is Farley Granger’s film. No matter how bleak things get, Granger’s face is gorgeous and full of humanity. It’s a continual pleasure to see the light and shadows of DP Joseph Ruttenberg play against Granger’s openhearted, sensual features. But like Montgomery Clift in a myriad of roles, Granger’s male beauty isn’t offering him any protection from a greasy, self-seeking world. In fact, his looks might be further evidence that he is too tender, too vulnerable. While female beauty typically enriches status, male prettiness can underscore weakness. And though there’s nothing pointedly effeminate about Granger, he’s clearly no uber-potent tough guy— instead he’s sensitive, anxious, frightened, trapped. He embodies a kind of emotionalism more frequently associated with the feminine, but that feels real and refreshing in a male performance. And Granger has the best smile in all of noir- heartbreaking because it’s so grateful, so anxious to please.
Granger’s flailing mailman probably stands for any struggling, sensitive guy trapped in a macho post-war world of strict gender roles. We don’t know a lot about his background- he could be a troubled war vet or simply a gentle, vulnerable guy- but either way, he’s in trouble because his world lacks both opportunity and empathy.
Nearly everyone Granger meets is destructive and grasping: a friendly neighborhood barkeep turns out to be back-stabber, a young boy sells out his uncle’s life for the price of a lollipop, a chanteuse loves a ruthless thug so much she practically invites her own murder. Even the head nurse in his wife’s maternity ward adds to the alienation. She lets Granger know he’s useless and unwanted, brusquely sending him away from his wife and newborn saying, “men bring germs.”
For much of the film, Granger is a welcome contrast to the other characters. Though desperate, he isn’t phony or self-seeking. We want him to succeed and survive because he seems basically good, basically honest. But trapped in a world of crooks and liars, he gradually begins to learn the game. And though he never becomes a deft operator, he does learn to prey on others. Towards the end of the film, the marvelous Jean Hagen shows up as a clip-joint nightclub singer. Hagen is memorable and moving as a prematurely washed-up young woman, clinging to false hopes and cocktails. Without hesitation, Granger plies her with booze and lies, hoping to gain useful information. At the beginning of the film, he wouldn’t have had the heart for such conniving and it’s painful to see the change in him. We easily forgive his stealing some cash, but playing with this woman’s hopes and needs seems a darker sin. We begin to think that he’ll survive his underworld odyssey, but we aren’t sure who he’ll be when he does. Granger’s moral about-face reveals the question at the heart of the movie– how does a regular guy retain his humanity when legitimate society has no use for him ?