There's a hole as big as Carlsbad Caverns right in the middle of the plot. What is so surprising is that, thanks to Otto Preminger's skill and that of his cinematographer, Joseph LaShelle, how the story is told more than makes up for it. Here's the set-up. A police detective with a well-earned reputation for beating up low-lifes tracks down a suspect in a murder. The guy is drunk and the cop is impatient. One thing leads to another and the guy stands up and smacks the cop on the chin. While the cop is picking himself up, the guy reaches for a whiskey bottle and starts to bring it down on the cop's head. The cop blocks that swing, then punches the guy hard, and I mean hard, right in the chest, then connects just as hard with the guy's chin. The guy goes down and doesn't get up. He's dead. So now we're off on a plot-line where the cop's hatred of crooks, which is based on some family issues, suddenly has him hiding the corpse. Wouldn't you know it, the corpse is found...and an aggressive young precinct head decides that the man responsible is the father of a girl the detective starts to fall for. And while this is going on, the detective hasn't stopped his obsessive search for the crook he thinks is really behind the original murder, a sneering mobster with a fondness for nasal inhalers.
Wait, now. Any cop who hit and accidently killed a guy in self defense would instantly have a wall of blue thrown protectively around him, no matter how hard a case he might be. Every resource would be used to see that the cop was exonerated. I know, I know, this is a movie, but Detective Mark Dixon's (Dana Andrews) reaction is so excessive that it becomes nothing more than a glaring plot device. And, in my view, that undermines the tension of the movie.
Another thing that doesn't help is that both Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney (as Margaret Taylor, who becomes Dixon's love interest) are, in my opinion, not compelling actors. Andrews had a great voice but, to my way of thinking, a somewhat wooden face and a stolid acting style. Sometimes he was effective, sometimes not. Tierney is, as usual, gorgeous to look at, but she is no actress. She seems to spend all her time in this movie either being noble toward the man Dixon accidently killed, or noble and loving toward her father, or noble and loving toward Dixon. I'm fairly well convinced that her performance in Leave Her to Heaven, a first-rate acting job, was some mysterious and happy accident.
Some critics have made much of the apparent moral ambiguity in Mark Dixon's character. I don't quite see it that way. Yes, he hates crooks for reasons a psychoanalyst could help him deal with. When given a semi-legal chance to rough them up, he does. But there is no moral ambiguity in his character. He may be an angry man, but he has friends. He doesn't need to agonize about spending his savings to help another person; he just does it. Dixon is a man with problems, but moral ambiguity isn't one of them.
Because of all this, what's important in this movie is how Preminger and LaShelle go about telling the story, not the story itself. They do terrific jobs. The feel of the movie captures Dixon's anger, his short fuse, his loneliness. The movie looks gritty, dark and authentic. Small details add a lot to the sense of reality. When we walk into Dixon's small apartment we can see just a quick glimpse of an icebox behind a screen. Even in 1950 there were a lot of iceboxes still around. The bar where Dixon's partner orders a scotch and water looks like any number of old, dark downtown bars. Margaret Taylor's apartment is tiny. There's no bedroom, just a single bed next to the wall as you walk in. And the movie has faces, actors you sort of recognize who look right for their parts...Tom Tully as Margaret's father, Bert Freed as his partner, Ruth Donnelly as Gladys, the owner of a small Italian restaurant, Karl Malden as the new precinct captain, Neville Brand as one of the goons; even Gary Merrill who overacts a little looks the part as Tommy Scalise, the mobster. Brand, in particular, looks like a man you never want to irritate.
I enjoyed the movie because it was so well put together. That hole in the plot, however, kept me from getting very involved with the story-line. The DVD transfer looks just fine. The major extra is a commentary by Eddie Muller, identified as a film noir historian. I didn't listen to the commentary but Muller has gotten good notices for his noir work.