Farley Granger plays Joe Norson, a letter carrier barely getting by, who shares an apartment with his in-laws and pregnant wife Ellen, played by the ultra-cute Cathy O'Donnell. Joe spots some loose money while delivering mail to attorney Victor Backett (Edmond Ryan) and decides to sneak back into Backett's office to swipe the cash. When he tallies his take, Joe realizes that he's stolen $30,000 and not the few hundred bucks he was expecting. The money was extorted from prominent businessman Emil Lorrison (Paul Harvey), blackmailed by Backett for scandalous photos, with help from goon George Garsell (James Craig) and prostitute Lucille (Adele Jergens), who's eliminated after the exchange is made.
The cops find Lucille's body and start their investigation into her murder. This leads them to Backett, but he manages to side-step suspicion for the time being. Meanwhile, Joe hides the loot wrapped like a present with local bar owner Nick (Edwin Max), innocently explaining it away as a nightgown gifted to Ellen. Wracked by fear and regret, Joe naively tries to give the money back to Backett, but Backett doesn't bite, worried he's being set up by the police. Armed with this knowledge, Backett sends Garsell out to track down the cash. Joe returns to the bar and learns that Nick has sold the joint and swapped the gift out with an actual nightie, splitting with the dough and retiring in secrecy. Garsell eventually finds Nick and the dough. Joe discovers Nick's body and is now a suspect. Joe breaks into the hospital to visit Ellen and confesses what he's done. She urges Joe to turn himself in and square it with the police, but Joe can't do this until he's sure to prove the money is with Garsell and Backett. With that, he visits Garsell's lounge-singing girlfriend Harriet Sinton (Jean Hagen) for information on his whereabouts. Harriet acts the part and baits Joe into Garsell's trap. Garsell strangles Harriet and plans to dump her and Joe into the river. A police chase ensues with Harriet's corpse and Joe kept prisoner in Garsell's car. The film ends with Joe crashing the car and the cops killing a fleeing Garsell.
Side Street is a small movie with big ideas. The nuances run from a genre-bending leading man to the film's overall composition. Most of it takes place in daylight. It's not all shadows and pale moon, or foggy exhausts and trailing cigarette smoke. It's traffic jams, pedestrians and park benches under bright sun. It's crisscrossing bleeds of light through the old elevated train track on Manhattan's East Side, flanking clean architecture and vibrant thoroughfare. The lighting schemes are reminiscent of The Stranger (1946), directed by Orson Welles.
The early narration is a mistake and one of the film's few weak spots. It gives no character insight or plot progression, and is particularly distracting when merely describing Joe's state of mind. It's a forced commentary on what we're clearly seeing on screen and a contrived attempt at injecting a traditional noir device into a non-traditional noir. They did well to scrap it the rest of the way.
The film was shot on location and opens with a sweet overhead aerial of Manhattan. The depth of field is impressive. Below the skyscrapers reaching out of the screen, we see cars like tiny dots navigating the asphalt grid. We close in on the building facades, then into the apartments, offices and bars. All of the action unfolds in a small geographical area. This is by design. Even the film's title invokes a peripheral place buried somewhere in the city. Mann breaks down the enormity of the metropolis to tell a simple story, but is sure to show us that the city is too big and too busy to care about Joe and his tiny tale.
Mann cleverly strings together scenes enclosed in boxy interiors and against bits of the city's landscape. After the eye-popping opener, the camera stays tight, detailing the faces and neat interactions between persons and environments. Each scene is framed as a piece of its surroundings. The street corners stretch just out of frame and the actors fill the spaces as if constructed solely for the movie. There's a realism in the stylish construction. The movements in and around the apartments feel free of a film crew. There's no outward obstruction or limitation. And the bar scenes look wonderfully worn-out as an East Village watering hole would look back then. The film's coolest shot involves the morning milkman cheerfully peeking through the rear window of the car while Garsell strangles Harriet to death in the back seat. This reminds us that the rest of world marches on while these two-bit nobodies are up to their waists in it.
Ultimately, Side Street succeeds on the backs of Granger and O'Donnell. They previously played a couple in They Live by Night (1947) and quickly re-ignite their chemistry here. Joe is the every man. A loser only by the measurement of wealth, but a champion of the heart. O'Donnell's Ellen caresses Joe's soul. It's bruised and beaten with the whip of honesty. We believe every second of their relationship and looming parenthood. Every hug, kiss and tear. Mann crafts sappy romance through the lens of crime. Think about it - the kicker to the whole thing is that Joe just wants to buy Ellen things that other people have.