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Monday, January 18, 2016

DEAD END -- Movie Review by Porfle

Director William Wyler's 1937 drama DEAD END opens with a beautiful model vista of the city and its tenements and then dissolves to a vast soundstage set in which most of the story will unfold.  It takes place on the edge of the East River, where (as the opening text tells us) every street in New York ends, and where the rich live in lofty apartments whose terraces overlook the poverty and hopelessness of the slum dwellers below.

These include the famed "Dead End Kids", led by Billy Halop, Leo Gorcey, and Huntz Hall when they were barely in their teens but already first-rate actors.  They would go on to various incarnations as the East Side Kids and the Bowery Boys, but here, they're just a bunch of impressionable neighborhood punks who think they want to be big-time thugs like "Baby Face" Martin (Humphrey Bogart), a former Dead-Ender on the lam who has returned to see his mother and former girlfriend. 

The kids are pretty much the main attraction here as they strut and act tough, huddled around a fire in an old barrel or swimming in the filthy water of the East River.  They come from broken homes, often bragging about their stints in reform school or the beatings they got from the old man the night before.  They're funny--especially Gorcey as "Spit" and Hall as "Dippy"--but are vicious when they prey on the pampered rich kid who must pass by them every day with his fine clothes and superior air.

Their leader, Tommy (Halop), lives with his older sister Drina (a luminous Sylvia Sidney) who struggles to support them even as she and her coworkers strike for higher wages.  Drina loves local boy Dave (Joel McCrea), a struggling architect getting by painting signs, but his eyes are drawn to the wealthy playgirl Kay (Wendy Barrie), who likes him while finding his lifestyle distasteful. 

Throughout DEAD END we see the gap between rich and poor as the rich are portrayed as pampered and privileged, the poor as downtrodden and exploited.  Even Drina sports a bruise on her forehead which she got from a cop on the picket line.  The more noble and strong-willed, like Dave (whom we know will eventually realize Drina's true worth in the end), hold on to their scruples while the weak turn to crime. 

Meanwhile, a younger Bogart, still getting "with" billing after McCrae and Sidney, hones his tough-guy persona while also managing to bring some sympathy to his character when he's coldly rejected by his despairing mother (Marjorie Main) and finds that Francey (Claire Trevor), the neighborhood girl he was always sweet on, has fallen into prostitution.  Main is light years from her "Ma Kettle" character here, while Trevor, always stunningly talented, gives a brief but heartbreaking performance.

These various factions naturally clash when forced to inhabit the same concrete jungle day after day, leading to a dramatic finale that sees Bogart and McCrae trading hot lead while Drina tries to keep her brother Tommy from being arrested after one of the gang squeals on him.  The story ends as it began, with the Dead End Kids resolving their own external and internal conflicts the only way they know how, while hopefully learning something positive from it all. 

Wyler's inventive direction explores that awesome soundstage in inventive ways while making the most of his actors' faces in tight, dramatic closeups.  Gregg Toland's lush black-and-white cinematography is shadowy and noirish, especially in the climactic scenes with Bogart and McCrae stalking each other through back alleys and across the rooftops.  The supporting cast includes Allen Jenkins as Martin's crony "Hunk" and Ward Bond as a burly doorman who doesn't get along with the gang.  

While the message may get a bit heavy-handed at times, DEAD END is a treat for lovers of classic film drama and the great actors and filmmakers of yesteryear.  And the Dead End Kids themselves have never been more fascinating, natural, and bursting with energy and talent.


1 comment:

Daniel Stumpf said...

I as impressed by the Bogart sub-plot of a man returning to find his dreams turned to ashes, a dramatic note that he handled quite well.

As an interesting side-light, Joel McCrae, the leading man of this film, inherited the Bogart part in COLORADO TERRITORY, a remake of HIGH SIERRA.