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You know what wouldn’t be much fun? Life as a lovable tramp, dodging railroad dicks, getting caught up in antic chases, and never being able to eat that pie you’ve filched from the widow’s windowsill because it’s got to be smashed into the face of that cop who’s harassed you since the first reel. In his warm, surprisingly sharp-elbowed, not-really-for-kids Sidewalk Stories, just barely released back in 1989, writer-director-star Charles Lane honors the traditions of silent-film comedy, especially of the wistful Chaplin sort rather than the firetrucks-a-go-go Mack Sennett school. He also honors the reality of actual on-the-streets homelessness in the hard years of the Reagan–Bush–Koch era.
In the sweet, brisk film, which is mostly silent in the sense that we don’t hear the characters speaking, Lane plays a spry and plucky caricature artist working a grim patch of Sixth Avenue sidewalk. (The location shooting is a joy, all authentic street life, long-gone businesses, and richly wistful bustle.) Unlike Chaplin’s tramp, the caricaturist doesn’t luck into a swank department store to bunk down in; by the film’s middle, the abandoned building he flops in has been razed, and he’s schlepping from mission to shelter, desperate for a bed. The rubble and boarded-up doorways around him on the Bowery reveal an alien lower Manhattan just two decades distant: one with no-man’s-lands, with dark lots not yet monetized by developers. At times, the film feels like a peek at the prolonged, painful birth of the money-mad city of today. When he’s working, the caricaturist sits on a milk crate at an easel in front of a block-long protest sign demanding that local piers be preserved — and not made into condos.
For all that, laughs, romance, and even something of an adventure flower in Lane’s New York. After some slapstick (execs fighting over a cab!) and some melodrama (a genuinely disturbing stabbing!), the caricaturist winds up caring for a darling lost toddler (Nicole Alysia, Lane’s own daughter). There’s great joy in early scenes of Lane dancing her broke-ass stroller about the city, or of him lugging her about without it. Of course, a homeless man always worried about his next meal isn’t especially equipped to care for a two-year-old. In a scene as comic as it is heartrending, the caricaturist takes the kid into a baby-wear boutique and immediately starts stuffing onesies into his own shirt.
That shop is owned by a beautiful young woman (Sandye Wilson) with heart enough to let the shoplifter go. Her path crosses the caricaturist’s again and again, usually by her own design, and a gentle attraction develops, building to a funny, gentle dinner scene at her apartment. As she cooks, caretaker and kid sneak in rapid, much-needed baths; afterward, the caricaturist is tempted to steal some of her knickknacks to pawn.
Before the powerful dual endings, one bittersweet and traditional and the other a conceptual attack upon the artifice we’ve been enjoying, Lane’s character often ducks the cops and gets into silent-comedy scraps with thugs and swells, most notably the doorman at the woman’s building. When Chaplin’s tramp meets hostile authority, we laugh at the romantic sight of a salt-of-the-earth everyman triumphing over petty tyrants. When Lane’s homeless man does the same, the laughter has a harsh edge: Here are white folks pushing around a black guy in modern New York, the confrontations still staged for comedy but cutting smartly — queasily — close to life itself. Remember that kid who got stopped-and-frisked for dropping a wad on a belt at Barneys last month? That kind of nastiness can’t be settled with a pie fight, and Lane and his Sidewalk Stories know it.