This week on TCM Underground: Vanishing Point (1971) and Greased Lightning (1977). Cleavon Little Double Feature!

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It’s appropriate that TCM Underground is showing VANISHING POINT (1970) this week, as vanish is what TCMU is about to do… to make room for Summer Under the Stars. Hey, we love Summer Under the Stars and full days devoted to our favorite actors… but no weirdo movies for over a month hurts. It hurts!

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The success of EASY RIDER (1969) kicked wider the door in Hollywood for opportunities for young filmmakers, particularly those willing to work for scale and to shoot their pictures out in the real world beyond the studio gates. Road movies were nothing new in the early Seventies but cinematic wandering took on a fresh aspect when location shooting became the rule rather than the exception and storylines began to reflect the concerns and preoccupations of a generation that valued authenticity over appearance. In a bid to profit from Columbia’s good fortune with EASY RIDER (which returned better than $60,000,000 from an investment of $400,000), a slew of like-minded, open-ended road films were given the green light by the majors: TWO LANE BLACKTOP (1971) from Universal, SLITHER (1973) from Metro, BADLANDS (1973), ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE (1974), and RAFFERTY AND THE GOLD DUST TWINS (1975) from Warner Bros. – even Disney’s THE ARISTOCATS (1970) was a road picture – and VANISHING POINT (1971) from 20th Century-Fox. VANISHING POINT‘s plot was simplicity in and of itself: a professional driver attempts to race the 1,300 miles from Denver to San Francisco in only 15 hours, eluding and thwarting state police efforts to stop him along the way and aided in his increasingly existential quest by a blind disc jockey and a growing legion of devoted followers.

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While many of the early 70s road films reflected the personal visions of their makers-certainly true for Dennis Hopper’s EASY RIDER and Monte Hellman’s TWO LANE BLACKTOP (written by Rudy Wurlitzer), VANISHING POINT had a patchwork genesis. The logline came from an unlikely source: not a Hollywood insider or even a film school hopeful but rather a British fashion photographer. Malcolm Hart (pictured above, center) had drifted from early work in the South African advertising business to Manhattan, where an assignment photographing French fashions brought him to Paris in the mid-Sixties. While staying in a rundown hotel in the Latin Quarter where William Burroughs had completed his novel Naked Lunch, Hart learned about the Beat Generation, members of an American literary movement whose principals also included poet Allen Ginsberg and On the Road author Jack Kerouac, both of whom had passed through the so-called “Beat Hotel.” The 1969 death of Beat icon Neal Cassady, as well as a newspaper account of a speeding motorist who chose death over surrendering to the California Highway Patrol, inspired Hart to pen a screenplay treatment, which he titled PICK A CARD, ANY CARD. The property was purchased by the London-based Cupid Productions, who had financed SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL (aka ONE PLUS ONE, 1968), a collaboration between nouvelle vague auteur Jean-Luc Godard and the Rolling Stones. Cupid Productions was run by David Lean’s fiftyish former production manager Norman Spencer, rich kid Michael Pearson (the 26 year-old son of the 3rd Viscount Cowdray), and a Canadian expatriate named Iain Quarrier.

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Having migrated to London, Quarrier acted as Roman Polanski’s ambassador when the Polish filmmaker emigrated to the United Kingdom after making his first feature film, KNIFE IN THE WATER (1962); Polanski rewarded Quarrier with roles in CUL-DE-SAC (1966) and THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS (1967, pictured above). Possessed with Byronic good looks and a languid demeanor bespoke for the times, Quarrier had a starring role in Joe Massot’s WONDERWALL (1968), a trippy British head film that boasted Beatle George Harrison’s first music composed specifically for the movies. WONDERWALL was co-written by yet another expatriate, Cuban refugee Guillermo Cabrera Infante. The son of Castro Communists, Cabrera Infante had been a journalist and critic but was forced to flee Havana when his writing angered the Castro regime. It was likely Quarrier’s influence that brought Cabrera Infante to the project that would ultimately carry the title VANISHING POINT. The writer reimagined Malcolm Hart’s treatment as a mystical vision quest, the story of a man who grows weary of his mortality and seeks transcendence in velocity.

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When 20th Century-Fox acquired the property in 1970, Cabrera Infante (pictured above) was flown to Los Angeles to meet the studio brass. Interviewed in 1982 for The Paris Review, the writer recalled:

“The only thing like a story conference that happened to me took place when I met (20th Century Fox president) Richard Zanuck. He asked me what the title VANISHING POINT meant, and I told him all about linear perspective and the end of a man as convergence of life lines. He thanked me and that was that.”

With Cabrera Infante assisting in scouting locations, principal photography for VANISHING POINT began in May 1970.

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Assigned to direct VANISHING POINT was Richard C. Sarafian (pictured above), a TV veteran and a former protégé of Robert Altman, who had broken with his mentor when Altman attempted to seize control of Sarafian’s feature film directorial debut, ANDY (1965), the drama of a mentally-challenged adult. Sarafian had turned down the opportunity to helm Paramount’s Robert Redford vehicle DOWNHILL RACER (1969) but latched onto the idea of building a film around the dynamic of speed, a concept he considered to be fully realized in Cabrera Infante’s screenplay for VANISHING POINT. Sarafian had wanted to cast DOWNHILL RACER‘s second male lead Gene Hackman as Kowalski, the driver protagonist of VANISHING POINT, but Fox nixed the notion; the studio further vetoed the idea of using George C. Scott, fresh from his success in PATTON (1970) but a notoriously difficult actor.

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Interestingly, Hackman went on to star in Fox’s THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971), which featured a now famous car chase beneath Brooklyn’s elevated subway tracks, while Scott starred as a wheelman in THE LAST RUN (1971), both released only months behind VANISHING POINT.

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Fox’s choice for Sarafian’s lead was non-negotiable: Barry Newman, who had made an impression as a firebrand attorney in Paramount’s THE LAWYER (1970), a fictionalized spin of the infamous Dr. Sam Sheppard murder trial that had been the inspiration for the CBS television series THE FUGITIVE. Though he balked at the requirement of using a much younger actor than he had envisioned, Sarafian accepted the decision and hit the road. Though the original script had called for Kowalski’s disc jockey spirit guide to be a Mexican known as Super Spade, Sarafian reworked the character to make him black, rechristened him Super Soul, and cast New York theatre actor Cleavon Little (who had played bits in such New York-based films as JOHN AND MARY and COTTON COMES TO HARLEM) in his first significant movie role. Sarafian also found room in the film for Hollywood veterans Dean Jagger, Severn Darden, and Karl Swenson and small army of emerging American character actors: Paul Koslo, Robert Donner, Tom Reese, and John Amos.   

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Despite a reputation for being an efficient director, Sarafian allowed a healthy measure of improvisation to shape VANISHING POINT‘s tight shooting schedule, to the point of recruiting amateurs to play background roles and working in unexpected bits of real life business (e.g., a road crew painting a center line along the highway, whom Kowalski causes to veer comically off course) encountered en route. When the costs of transporting cast and crew (and a fleet of identical ’70 Dodge Challengers to play Kowalski’s souped up car, all but one of which were totaled during principal photography) across several state lines began to eat into the film’s profit margin, a fretful Richard Zanuck begged Sarafian to cut costs-with the result being that the director tore twenty pages out of the script, which he then had to script doctor to patch up the holes.

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Lost in the restructuring was the entire performance of British actress Charlotte Rampling, who appeared only in the film’s European cut as a beguiling pick-up who may very well be the Angel of Death herself.

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The director also gave free reign to his actors, allowing bit players Anthony James and Arthur Malet (as larcenous gay hitchhikers who thumb a very short ride with Kowalski) to provide their own accessories (while James chose a pair of pink sunglasses, Malet shaved off his eyebrows) and scuttling a subplot about Kowalski’s encounter with a snake-worshipping religious cult when featured singers Rita Coolidge and Delaney & Bonnie and Friends objected.

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Though Cabrera Infante’s shooting script had left Kowalski’s ultimate fate somewhat ambiguous, inferring that he passes on to another plane of being, Zanuck demanded that the movie end with the character’s death, precipitating VANISHING POINT‘s now iconic denouement. After Sarafian delivered his footage to Fox, it was Richard Zanuck himself who pushed the project over budget as he ordered the film’s soundtrack to be remixed and enhanced to beef up the engine roar of Kowalski’s Dodge Challenger. (Sarafian would later complain that Zanuck’s overages had an adverse effect on his net point profits, prompting him to re-title the film VANISHING POINTS). Zanuck was ultimately removed from his position of power by his own father but VANISHING POINT went on to earn back $12,000,000 from a budget of $1.5 million. (With partner David Brown, Zanuck would return to Universal as an independent producer and score big time with Steven Spielberg’s JAWS in 1975.) Forty years down the road, VANISHING POINT remains a true cult classic, with Kowalski’s trademark Challenger recycled for use in Quentin Tarantino’s DEATH PROOF half of the Tarantino-Robert Rodriguez two-fer GRINDHOUSE (2007) and Malcolm Hart’s logline repurposed, albeit liberally, for a 1997 TV movie.

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Starring Viggo Mortensen as a character racing across the desert to reunite with his pregnant wife with the assistance of libertarian shock jock Jason Priestley and intervention on both a state and federal level, Fox Television’s VANISHING POINT channeled the paranoiac vibe of post-Waco/Ruby Ridge America, offered instead of Barry Newman’s laconic speed freak a chaste, drug-free Kowalski who becomes a martyr for the Sovereign Citizen movement and conspiracy culture.

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After making his feature film debut in 1967, it took Richard Pryor a decade to be given a star vehicle of his own–mostly due to the comedian’s profanity laden shtick. Pryor had scored big as Gene Wilder’s costar in Paramount’s SILVER STREAK (1976), prompting Universal to feature him prominently in ads for CAR WASH (1976) despite the fact that his cameo appearance was limited to eight minutes. Seeing his potential as a headliner, producer Steve Krantz persuaded CAR WASH director Michael Schultz to adapt Lina Wertmüller’s political satire THE SEDUCTION OF MIMI (1972) for Pryor, relocating the action from the vineyards of Sicily to the citrus groves of California under the title WHICH WAY IS UP? (1977). During preproduction of that film, Pryor agreed to star for Melvyn Van Peebles in GREASED LIGHTNING (1977), a Warner Bros. biopic of Wendell Scott, a World War II veteran and moonshine runner who overcame racism as a stock car racer on the Dixie Circuit to become NASCAR’s first African-American competitor.

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Artistic differences with his producers led to Van Peebles’ departure from the production, compelling Pryor to ask Schultz to fill the void. The cast and crew of GREASED LIGHTNING (whose number also included Blaxploitation icon Pam Grier, folksinger Richie Havens, and Cleavon Little, who had been cast as Black Bart in Mel Brooks’ BLAZING SADDLES when Pryor proved too controversial) encountered more than their share of racial prejudice on location in rural Georgia, with locals sabotaging scenes by making noise whenever they heard Schultz call “Action!” Schultz’ workaround was to begin a take by calling “Cut!” and finish with “Action!” so that distractions would begin only after he had the scene in the can.

TCM Underground will return on September 5th for a road-rippin’ two-fer of THE BORN LOSERS (1967) and THE GLORY STOMPERS (1968). All the losing and all the stomping that your heart can handle!

 

Gone Fishin’

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At the moment I am enjoying a scenic vacation in Portland, Maine, so won’t be able to contribute my usual film-related gibberish. Instead I’ll be spending time in John Ford’s hometown, where, though they snubbed him when he lit West for Hollywood, they have now erected a statue to him. In my absence watch a Ford film and you can thank me later. Young Mr. Lincoln and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance are streaming on Netflix, while Hulu Plus subscribers can watch Stagecoach, The Long Voyage Home or The Plough and the Stars. Happy Fording!

Hollywood Geography

geogpassportA Lady Without Passport, which aired last Friday on TCM as part of the Summer of Darkness series, takes place in Havana during the postwar era. Hedy Lamarr stars as a Viennese woman adrift in Cuba after WWII, hoping to immigrate to the United States. Believe it or not, the original idea for the film was to make a documentary about “a poor immigrant in Cuba struggling to come into this country,” according to biographer Ruth Barton in Hedy Lamarr: The Most Beautiful Woman in Film. As MGM grappled with the politics of legal and illegal immigration, it was decided that a crime drama centering on a Cuban woman’s desperate efforts to immigrate was safer. Safer yet was to make the hopeful immigrant a European victim of WWII.

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Famous, Favorite, Best: My Personal Picks

Tonight on TCM, Metropolis airs, the 1926 science fiction classic from world-renowned director Fritz Lang.  It’s probably his single most famous film.  It’s been released so many times, with so many different soundtracks, it’s practically an industry unto itself.  As such, it’s also the favorite movie by Fritz Lang of a great many people and even more might consider it his best.  However, I am of the opinion that this is a result of it being the only Fritz Lang movie many people have seen.  No, no, not you, of course, but the average movie goer who may have seen a handful of pre-1970 movies and ranks Metropolis near the top.   When the title comes up, more than any other movie, I think about how one movie can represent a director to a lot of people and not terribly accurately.  Do I think Metropolis is Lang’s best? No. Is it my favorite of his? No. Is it his most famous? Absolutely, with M running a close second.  But that’s how it is for a lot of directors and I often find myself, for the sake of my own amusement, picking out for each director which is the most famous, the favorite, and the best.  Let’s start with Lang.

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July 18, 2015
David Kalat
Posted by:

Guest post: How to Solve a Problem Like Maria

In case you missed the listings, TCM is screening Fritz Lang’s Metropolis this week—and users of the splendid TCM smartphone app can stream it at their leisure. I have a very fond spot for this film, beyond its significance as a masterwork of world cinema. I was a student at the University of Michigan’s Film and Video Studies program in the early 1990s when a previous restorations effort was unveiled at the Michigan Theater. In 2010 I was asked by Eureka’s Masters of Cinema to contribute to the UK Blu-Ray edition of the newest restoration, and got the special privilege of being one of the first people to see it.

Earlier this summer, the Chicago Symphony’s CSO at the Movies program screened the film with live accompaniment by the symphony, and I had the pleasure of taking my daughter Ann to see it with me. She had not seen the film before, and came out of the screening full of energy and enthusiasm for what she’d just experienced. It occurred to me that given that she’s blogged here before in my place, I should once again hand the keyboard to her to let her share her perspective. Click the fold below and I’ll let Ann take over from there—

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KEYWORDS: Fritz Lang, Metropolis
COMMENTS: 5
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Double the Fun, Double the Murder, Double the Indemnity!

This Sunday, if you haven’t already seen it on the big screen, TCM and Fathom Events will be partnering yet again to show Double Indemnity on the big screen around the country (check this page from Fathom to find out where).  I highly recommend it.  Having seen it on the big screen, as well as multitudes of other classics, I can assure you that there is something quite special to seeing a classic movie presented the way it was supposed to be presented: Big.  Don’t listen to that jibber-jab about how only certain movies “must be seen” on the big screen because they have great special effects, as if that’s the only reason to see a movie on the big screen.  No, the reason to see a movie on the big screen is because of the nuance you pick up in the expressions, the details you see around the edges, and the atmosphere of a darkened space that you may or may not be sharing with more than a few strangers.  Movies work great on a big screen at home, too, don’t get me wrong but there’s something primal about seeing them in a theater on the big screen.  Something about seeing them in their native environment that means more.  But all that aside, there are plenty of other reasons to see Double Indemnity, big screen or not.  Here are just a few.

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Midsummer Reading Suggestions

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It’s that time again. Time for my semi-annual list of summer reading suggestions! If you’re a film fan looking for something interesting to read during a long flight, while you’re lounging on the beach or just waiting for the barbeque to heat up, you’ve come to the right place. What follows is a list of the best non-fiction books I’ve read in the last six months and I hope my eclectic taste will encourage film fans of all strips to do some reading this summer.

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This week on TCM Underground: Equinox (1970) plus Bloody Birthday (1980)

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Blame the Brothers Grimm (go ahead — blame them! They’re German!) but for my money you just can’t put a foot wrong by sending teenagers or young adults or even thirtyish people cast as twentysomethings out into the woods to meet the Devil or sundry agents of Big Evil. I’m hard-pressed to think of any movie that employs that logline from which I cannot derive some joy. Think THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999). Think THE EVIL DEAD (1981). Think THE CURSE OF BIGFOOT (1976). Think EQUINOX (1970).

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The long and short of EQUINOX, a perennial late night favorite that a lot of us old cats first heard about via Famous Monsters of Filmland, is that it was a pet project-cum-demo reel cooked up by future Hollywood special effects man Dennis Murren (whose career trajectory led from here to grunt work on WILLIE WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY and STAR WARS to more lucrative and rewarding gigs as an effects cameraman and, later, visual effects supervisor on THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, E.T. – THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, JURASSIC PARK and many a juggernauty franchise sequel and lots of Academy Awards) and his Simi Valley wingman Mark Thomas McGee (later screenwriter of SORORITY HOUSE MASSACRE II, BAD GIRLS FROM MARS, and Jim Wynorski’s kind of sublime SORCERESS). Friends and family (among them CONJURE WIFE author Fritz Leiber, Jr. — whose services were donated through the intercession of Famous Monsters editor Forrest J. Ackerman — former Rose Bowl Queen Barbara Hewett, budding animation specialists Jim Danforth and David Allen, and future WKRP IN CINCINNATI star Frank Bonner) helped complete the film — about a youthful foursome who encounter demonic forces while on a picnicking excursion — at the expense of two years of lost weekends and a payout of $6,000 and change.

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The impressive, if occasionally naive, stop motion effects of EQUINOX… A JOURNEY INTO THE SUPERNATURAL (1967) impressed independent producer Jack H. Harris, who offered Murren and McGee a deal to recut and rework their material into something he could sell to the drive-in circuit. Years earlier, Harris, who had made his bones in the industry as a film distributor, had cobbled together church funds from various Pennsylvania ministries to make THE BLOB (1958), about a group of teens who encounter a predatory alien entity; as he had once taken a chance on an up-and-coming actor named Steve McQueen, so Harris rolled the dice on Murren-McGee. (Harris would only a few years later put his weight behind John Carpenter’s first film, DARK STAR.) Bringing on board film editor and John Cassavetes associate Jack Woods as a new director, Harris ordered new footage shot for what would be released as EQUINOX that included, but was not limited to, wraparound footage set in a psychiatric facility (shades of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, INVASION OF THE MUSHROOM PEOPLE and, to my eyes anyway, THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE) and a subplot involving a demonic park ranger named Mr. Asmodeus (played by Woods himself). In the bargain, the young filmmakers made a $150,000 sale and Harris banked a cool million. Ultimately, though, the greatest thing one can say about EQUINOX is not that it broke the bank or that it was acclaimed as the new face of terror… but merely that it was remembered.

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EQUINOX is perfect viewing for TCM Underground, as it has a full complement of the occult, practical special effects, amateur acting, post-synch hollowness, and an obvious love for its chosen genre. Of course, you are more than welcome to laugh from end to end, to do your own MST3K takedown for your own amusement and/or that of your friends, but I’m able to enjoy the movie on its own merits, warts and all, and to slot it in my mind alongside such worth company of — in addition to the movies I’ve already mentioned — 70s occult stuff like THE WITCHMAKER (1970), THE BROTHERHOOD OF SATAN (1971), THE DEVIL’S RAIN (1974), and RACE WITH THE DEVIL (1975). Having been a pre-teen and teen through the years when these movies were released and played on late night TV, I can tell you that this was a hell of a time to grow up. These movies were my church and I continue to worship them; I don’t ask that you share my belief system, but I trust you will remove your hat and show some damned respect.

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In the overnight slot we have BLOODY BIRTHDAY (1980), a Glendale-shot killer kid movie making its return to TCM:U. I wrote about this when it premiered in November. My favorite thing about this movie is spotting ADAM-12‘s Bill Boyett standing about among the supporting players and wondering “What the hell is he doing in this?”

Martial Art: Pedicab Driver and the Golden Harvest Library on Warner Archive Instant

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Last week Warner Archive snuck out a minor announcement with major implications. Six martial arts films from Golden Harvest studios were made available in HD on their Instant streaming service, in their original language and aspect ratios. Golden Harvest was the proving ground for Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan,  Sammo Hung and Jet Li, producing some of the most enduring kung fu films from the 1970s through the ’90s. These days Golden Harvest has segued from production to exhibition, and their classic titles remain frustratingly hard to see in decent transfers. Warner Brothers owns the U.S. rights to part of their catalog, and the initial six titles are only the beginning. On their Twitter feed Warner Archive promised, “we’re just starting to tackle the domestically unreleased Golden Harvest library”.  Available now to stream on Warner Archive Instant are: Downtown Torpedoes (1997), Big Bullet (1996) , The Blade (1995), Blade of Fury (1993), Pedicab Driver (1989)  & Terracotta Warrior (1989). While many of these titles are far overdue for release on DVD and Blu-ray, the fact that WB is preparing HD masters of these films is reason for optimism. I started the month-long free trial of their Instant service to check out Sammo Hung’s Pedicab Driver, an irresistible showcase for his knockabout acrobatics that packs in a public transit war, human trafficking, and Triad gangs into its 90-odd minutes. 

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In Film Noir, Never Take the Stairs

stairssidestreetIn watching Side Street (left) last Friday as part of TCM’s Summer of Darkness, I noticed how cleverly the locations were integrated into this story of an average guy stepping into a web of intrigue out of his control. As a matter of fact, he was such a “regular Joe,” that the character’s name was actually Joe!

The typically convoluted plotline had Joe chasing all over New York looking for a cache of stolen money. Each new clue led him to a specific address in a different part of the city—Central Park West, Belleview Hospital, W. 8th Street, Wall Street, etc. The streets were located all over Manhattan in a variety of neighborhoods, as though the impact of this particular crime was spreading out across the city map, like spilled ink. Side Street was directed by Anthony Mann and shot on location by Joseph Ruttenberg; the locations gave the narrative authenticity.

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