Today, instead of enjoying the sun, I continued my hermit ways by watching another nominee from the Best Picture contest of 1937...
(based on the play by Sidney Kingsley)
Sylvia Sidney, Joel McCrea, Humphrey Bogart, Wendy Barrie, Claire Trevor
The dead end of the title literally refers to the cul-de-sac on the East Side of New York City where all of the film's action takes place. Metaphorically, the dead end is representative of the lack of opportunity provided to the poor inhabitants of this neighbourhood, especially in the wake of the high-rise apartment block built over their tenements. As the upper-class residents host their upper-class dinner parties with their upper-class friends, the slums below are rife with crime. Two of the poverty-stricken locals, Drina (Sidney) and Dave (McCrea) try their best to forge a way out of their hopeless futures, while a gang of good-for-nothing kids, led by Drina's younger brother Tommy, constantly cause trouble. Meanwhile, big-time gangster Baby Face Martin (Bogart), a former Dead End kid himself, returns to his old neighbourhood with disappointing results.
As a crime drama, Dead End is relatively bland, shadowed by plenty of finer entries in the genre. But this may be due to its self-imposed restrictions. The entire story takes place over the course of just one day and evening, in and around the small dead end street. While this approach has the potential for great suspense and excitement - remember Die Hard? - it only succeeds occasionally. I imagine, however, that it must have seemed a lot more effective in the stage version.
The message behind the film is fairly clear, yet the conclusion seems a tad confused. Obviously, the picture addresses the issue of social inequality, in particular, the way in which the oppressed stand little chance of avoiding a life of crime. Somehow, though, I felt little sympathy for the juvenile delinquents. They were just cruel and nasty bullies with few signs of remorse. It didn't help, of course, that they were a bunch of the most overacting, stereotypical thirties thugs you can imagine. And considering that the child actors who played them were troublemakers themselves, causing all sorts of mayhem around the studio, you'd think they'd be able to be more genuine.
There is still a lot to like in Dead End, though. William Wyler is a fine director, to say the least, with 3 Best Director Oscars ahead of him after this film. His inspired decision to eliminate any use of a score helps to create several captivating moments. In fact, the film picks up considerably about halfway through when the situation in the street becomes more serious. The shoot-out sequence is particularly exciting, despite the fact that none of the gun wounds appear to draw blood.
A lot of the performances border on melodrama, but the lead cast manage to avoid that pitfall. Sylvia Sidney and Joel McCrea find the understated sides to their characters and Humphrey Bogart as the troubled gangster is the picture of intensity. The most interesting relationship in the film is found during Bogie's character's interaction with his ex-girlfriend of many years ago, now an ailing prostitute. The Hays Code once again forces this script to be riddled with subtext, but hats off to Claire Trevor for her fascinatingly touching performance as the disease-ridden Francey, earning a well-deserved Best Supporting Actress nomination.