The kind of silent treatment I can actually get behind…
A semi-homage to Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid and other silent films filmed in glorious black and white, Sidewalk Stories revolves around a homeless street artist who witnesses the murder of a man in an alleyway and takes it upon himself to reunite the man’s young daughter with her mother. Along the way, he forms a special bond with the girl and develops his own unique brand of parenting, all the while falling in love and battling the prejudice faced by the homeless on the streets of New York.
Given a brief theatrical run upon its release and a single airing on PBS, but completely out of circulation since, Sidewalk Stories will finally get some of the attention it deserves with a new 2k restoration by Carlotta Films and a long overdue home video release later this year. At times moving, hilarious, inventive, and insightful, what writer/director/star Charles Lane serves up here is laced with even more social commentary (primarily revolving around the plight of the homeless) than even Chaplin in his heyday generally attempted. After all, the homeless don’t really have a voice within society, so this (almost) silent film seems perfectly fitting for telling their tale.
First and foremost, in order to make material of this nature (that could easily tip the scales into maudlin territory if not careful) work, it’s necessary to cast a lead actor who can balance the pathos with the right amount of humor. Fortunately, Lane found the perfect vessel for his message in, well, himself. He has an incredibly expressive face with just the right amount of bag under his eyes, and puts it to good effect. Equally adept at both garnering the audience’s sympathy and really selling a knockout gag, Lane’s nameless artist (none of the characters here are given proper names) is a great modern (at the time) take on Chaplin’s ubiquitous Tramp character. His very resourceful solutions to various problems he faces on the streets provide most of the film’s biggest laughs and his interactions with the temporarily adopted little girl (impressively played by Nicole Alysia, with all the cuteness, but not a hint of precociousness) provide the heart. He’s matched in his performance by Sandye Wilson as a potential love interest for our hero. She imbibes her role with sweetness and intelligence and forms an incredible chemistry with Lane. The fact that we, as an audience, are able to detect how much she cares for the artist far before he is privy is a true testament to the subtlety that she employs in her portrayal.
Unlike other modern takes on the silent film, Lane wisely ignores the instinct to play with the aesthetics of the silent film genre itself, and, instead, just so happens to place his story within that setting. The silence here is just how he tells the story, rather than being what the film is all about. Interestingly, he even forgoes the use of dialogue cards. But, frankly, you won’t miss them – the actors do a wonderful job getting their intentions across. Unfortunately, this does lead to a few instances of secondary actors trying a bit too hard to ensure what they are trying to convey is understood by the audience (including two separate actors on two separate occasions overacting with a cigarette), but this is a very minor issue and never takes away from the proceedings. This was actually a pretty common practice in the late silent film era – as the talkies began taking over, silent film actors would try extra hard to communicate to audiences wordlessly, knowing that they were now competing with actors who were actually allowed to talk! Ultimately, though, it really serves to add to the fun.
To offset the almost complete lack of dialogue, an excellent score by Marc Marder mixes bluesy rock, jaunty vaudeville, and jazz trumpet that perfectly encapsulates the different situations at hand. Mixed with some very creative, natural sound effects that are far between, but hit at just the right times, the sound mix here really becomes a character in and of itself.
Not all is perfect here, of course. One of the most interesting and entertaining touches that Lane employs is the use of flash forward/dream sequences in which his character assesses a situation and then imagines the consequences of his perceived actions. For the most part, this works brilliantly. In one particular instance, however, a jarring scene of nudity inexplicably takes the film out of family-friendly territory. It feels completely out-of-place and at odds with the rest of the film. It’s a bit of a shame, as this would be a perfect movie for family viewing, but a few brief seconds almost ensure that won’t be a possibility. Some may also feel that, while still relevant and hard-hitting today, the ending (after our hero’s story reaches its own climax) might be a bit tacked on and probably worked better upon its original release, with less cynical eyes. In reality, it’s still quite moving and brings the social commentary full circle with an excellent twist on the format that I won’t reveal here.
JASON’S FINAL THOUGHTS:
Very minor quibbles aside (there must always be at least a little quibble), Sidewalk Stories is a brilliant film that’s both familiar in its style of storytelling and yet wholly unique in its execution. This singular vision of writer/director/star Charles Lane is equal parts funny, sad, joyous, thoughtful, inventive, and original. After being unavailable for viewing in any format for almost 25 years, Carlotta Films is finally giving us a chance to see the film in all it’s glory. Do yourself a favor and help ensure that it doesn’t slip back into obscurity. You’ll be very glad that you watched…
Review by Jason Howard, Film Critic