Sunday, 14 March 2021

Movie Review: Dead End (1937)

A drama about class tensions between rich and poor, Dead End explores life at the edge with plenty of ambience but only fragments of story.

In Manhattan, new high-rises are encroaching towards traditionally poor riverfront neighbourhoods. At the base of one new swanky building, a group of tenement boys (the Dead End Kids) spend their days coming up with new ways to cause mostly harmless mischief. Painter and aspiring architect Dave (Joel McCrea) keeps an eye on the street, while Drina (Sylvia Sidney), the older sister and sole guardian of one of the boys, pines for Dave's attention.

But Dave is now more interested in Kay (Wendie Barrie), one of the wealthy women occupying an apartment in the new high rise. Gangster Baby Face Martin (Humphrey Bogart) grew up in the neighbourhood and now returns with his henchman Hunk (Allen Jenkins), hoping to reconnect with his estranged mother (Marjorie Main) and former lover Francey (Claire Trevor). The street kids get themselves into trouble when they bully a wealthy kid, while Dave stands up to Martin's intrusion, leading to violence.

An adaptation of the stage play by Sidney Kingsley, Dead End introduces the Dead End Kids to movie audiences and provides Bogart with another stock and poorly defined gangster role. The Lillian Hellman screenplay is notably sympathetic towards the hardscrabble street life of the disadvantaged, the rich folks here presented as uncaring elitists infringing on the turf of the oppressed. William Wyler does his best to add a sense of place, but the film remains a stage-bound spectacle essentially confined to one set.

Wyler does capture tension caused by the expanding footprint of wealth. The poor neighbourhood is now in the literal shadow of a building built by and for the rich. No commonalities exist between the two worlds, and when the curious but clueless Kay tentatively explores the run-down building where Dave lives, she quickly concludes she cannot belong here - or with him.

Hellman's script lacks a singular focus and instead invests an inordinate amount of time with the Dead End Kids and their juvenile street level shenanigans. But it remains unclear whether their lifestyle, consisting of horseplay, bullying, pushing and shoving, tough talk and threats of violence, is being condemned or celebrated as boys-being-boys. 

The children-as-a-product-of-their-environment theme is frail, and a feeble attempt to get away with a bullying-and-stabbing episode falls foul of the Hays Code. The good Dave and bad Martin are supposed to represent the two alternative outcomes for the kids to pursue, but neither man is provided a meaningful opportunity to chart a path or make a case.

Humphrey Bogart as Baby Face Martin generates the best electricity, and he enjoys a partial arc as his encounters with his mother and former lover don't go as planned. Along with Dave, Drina and Kay, the adults are far more interesting than the kids and create the basis for what could have been a more compelling drama. But at this waterfront, the grownups are on the sidelines and the dead end street is overwhelmed by rowdiness.



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