Dead End (1937)

“Never go back; always go forward!”

Dead End Poster

Synopsis:
In the New York tenements, a woman (Sylvia Sidney) secretly in love with her childhood friend (Joel McCrea) — who in turn pines for the beautiful mistress (Wendy Barrie) of a rich man — tries to protect her brother Tommy (Billy Halop) from being arrested after he injures the father (Minor Watson) of a snobby rich kid (Charles Peck). But the arrival of on-the-lam gangster Baby Face Martin (Humphrey Bogart) — in town to visit his mother (Marjorie Main) and former-girlfriend-turned-prostitute (Claire Trevor) — causes Halop and his friends Dippy (Huntz Hall), Angel (Bobby Jordan), Spit (Leo Gorcey), T.B. (Gabriel Dell), and Milty (Bernard Punsly) to view a life of crime as a lucrative ticket out of poverty.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary points out that this “successful adaptation of Sidney Kingsley’s play” — featuring a “tough script by Lillian Hellman and strong yet sympathetic direction by William Wyler” — led “to a wave of juvenile-delinquent dramas”; indeed, it’s perhaps best known for kicking off a series of films featuring “The Dead End Kids”. Because producer “Sam Goldwyn wouldn’t let Wyler film on location”, we “don’t get a sense of the grit, grime, claustrophobia, and heat of the slums” — but Peary argues that “the clean studio sets with their painted backdrops act much like a Brechtian alienation device that forces us to realize that this story isn’t self-contained but rather is representative of many tragic real-life stories of the urban poor”.

These days, Dead End comes across as an undeniably stage-bound but still compelling drama featuring fine cinematography and potent direction: each scene is expertly crafted, with dramatic black-and-white shadows metaphorically highlighting the abject distance between the river-bound slum and the wealthy tenants who literally look down on its residents. Bogart is well-cast in a role he first inhabited on Broadway, and Sidney is appropriately doe-eyed yet stoic; but the best performance is by Oscar-nominated Claire Trevor, who only appears onscreen for about five minutes yet packs a quietly devastating wallop.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • William Wyler’s direction
    Dead End Direction
    Dead End Direction2
  • Gregg Toland’s cinematography
    Dead End Cinematography4
    Dead End Cinematography
    Dead End Cinematography3
  • Claire Trevor as Francie
    Dead End Trevor

Must See?
Yes, as a strong outing by a master filmmaker and for its historical relevance in introducing the “Dead End Kids” to the silver screen.

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One Response to “Dead End (1937)”

  1. A tentative once-must, for its place in cinema history.

    Those who esp. love classic cinema may find themselves bewildered by how bogged-down this film is in its first half – the reason mainly being the focus on the Dead End Kids. Capturing realistic gang-mentality among the young is a chronic problem in film (see also ‘West Side Story’). Here, the behavior of the young boys comes across as not only unrealistic (as in, a Hollywood idea of what these kids are like) but also unbelievable (would these kids really *talk* in such a verbose manner?; seems unlikely).

    There is such a focus on the young boys in the first half of the film that the result is a dent in the momentum – thus putting pressure on when the film actually takes off. Along the way, though, the most effective sequences are two-character scenes among the adults (i.e., Marjorie Main opposite Bogart, as her son; Trevor with Bogart; Sidney with McCrea).

    The film comes absolutely alive in its last 30 minutes (even though these too are also somewhat hampered by an intrusive reprise of the not-all-that-convincing behavior of the boys).

    Toland’s work as DP, however, is impressive throughout – and especially when the script (again, in the last 30 minutes) gives him a legitimate area to go whole-hog with creativity.

    Essentially, I was rather bored with the first half of this film, as it seems sluggish – but it does pick up,

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