By Philip Schweier
Thanks to his break-out role as Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest (1936), Humphrey Bogart toiled in the trenches playing carbon-copy criminals and getting gunned down in nearly every one of them until his starring turn in The Maltese Falcon (1941). Dead End is no different, in which Bogart plays Baby Face Martin, a career criminal from
Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
The film opens with a title card explaining how all streets in
Manhattan dead end at the river, and as neighborhoods become increasingly gentrified due to the picturesque scenery of the river and neighboring skylines, the poorer tenements are pushed out by high-rise, dee-luxe apartments in the sky. This often leads a clash between the haves and have-nots, as we are about to see.
It seems the front entrance of one of these high-rises is undergoing maintenance, requiring the building’s well-to-do occupants to use the service entrance. This brings them into contact with the poor, the tired, the homeless yearning to be clean. Among these are the local street toughs, many of whom would later achieve fame as the Bowery Boys – Billy Halop, Huntz Hall, Bobby Jordan, Leo Gorcey, Gabriel Dell and Bernard Punsly. But I’m getting ahead of the story; here, they’re just referred to as the Dead End Kids.
Tommy (Billy Halop) lives with his sister
Drina (Sylvia Sydney), who supports him with her meager job at a local department store that is currently on strike. Unfortunately, Tommy is too uneducated to recognize the sacrifices his sister makes on his behalf, and is constantly in trouble. Meanwhile, Drina has a struggling relationship with Dave (Joel McCrea), who managed to climb out of the slum and put himself through architecture school, intending to tear down the slums and rebuild them as decent apartments for the poor.
However, because it is the Great Depression and jobs are hard to come by, Dave is working whatever jobs he can to make ends meet, which is how he meets Kay (Wendy Barrie), one of the occupants of the aforementioned dee-luxe apartment in the sky. She’s smitten with Dave, and makes it clear that she’s easy picking for him if he wants her.
Unfortunately, another occupant, Philip Griswald (Charles Peck) draws the ire of the local hoodlums. He’s their age, and ripe for taunting because he wears braces and dresses in clean clothes. When they beat him up and steal his watch, his father insists the boys responsible be held accountable, and Tommy, as leader of the gang, be arrested.
But Tommy won’t have it, and uses his recently acquired pen-knife to cut the man. This sends Tommy on the run from the law, with big sis
Drina willing to hide him after suffering a beating from the cops for being on strike.
Thanks to plastic surgery and the faulty intel placing him out West, Baby Face Martin (remember him?) is enjoying a visit in the old neighborhood. He tries to visit his mother (Marjorie Main), but she disowns him, and then tries to rekindle a romance with former girlfriend Francie (Claire Trevor). This goes horribly, horribly wrong when he learns A.) she’s a woman of negotiable affection; and B.) she’s got a touch of the syph.
Dismayed and disillusioned, Martin is determined to leave his neighborhood behind, with young Philip Griswald in tow. After all, his uncle’s a judge; he’d pay plenty to get the boy back. When Dave learns of Martin’s plans, he’s prepared to stop him, building to the showdown the audience has been longing to see.
The film, directed by William Wyler, is ably made, and the production spared no expense at recreating a
New York City slum on a Hollywood soundstage. Where it fails – and your mileage may vary – is the incredibly slow build to its climax. The story returns full circle, as the cycle of poverty and crime starts to repeat itself.
The film, based on a play by Sidney Kingsley, depicts life in a
New York slum. Allegedly, its locale was based on East 53rd Street, in which an early high-rise was built abutting slums, and the occupants looked down – literally and figuratively – on the slums below. In the late 1940s, the tenements were torn down to make way for the United Nations campus.
The boys who played the Dead End Kids were brought from
New York to reprise their roles when the play was made into a movie. They were featured in subsequent films Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) and The Angels Wash their Faces (1939). However, legend has it they ran amuck on the backlot of MGM, and their contract was later sold to Warner Brothers, then to Monogram.
Bogart of course would go on to future stardom, and though Trevor’s only in a single scene, she earned herself an Oscar nomination. Despite such stellar performances, it moves a little slow for my tastes.