Wednesday, March 17, 2010

1937 - Dead End

The sun is out in New York City as it has been for the last couple of days. The chill in the air seems to have subsided and our old friend warmth has returned. One suspects this is the coming of spring and I speak on behalf of most Australians who live in colder climes when I say, "About bloody time!" While I am looking forward to not needing a heavy coat, scarf and gloves every time I walk outside, for some reason, all I can think of is this.

Today, instead of enjoying the sun, I continued my hermit ways by watching another nominee from the Best Picture contest of 1937...

Dead End
William Wyler
Lillian Hellman
(based on the play by Sidney Kingsley)
Sylvia Sidney, Joel McCrea, Humphrey Bogart, Wendy Barrie, Claire Trevor
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
0 wins

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.

1 comment:

  1. William Wyler wanted to film Dead End on location, but that was quickly shot down by the studio. Still, by using a huge set and clever art direction, Wyler gives us a visually interesting movie, particularly the opening sequence. Dead End is very typical of the socially conscious New York stories of the thirties. To me, it was easy to see that Cagney owned that decade. Bogart would come into his own as an icon in the 40s when film noir took hold. In the 30s he seemed weaker and more ferret-like. Cagney's gangster in Angels with Dirty Faces the following year, wins over the Dead End kids immediately.

    The Dead End kids would go on to make a few more films with big stars, then be relegated to their own low budget serials for the next 15 years. A couple of tidbits about them: Leo Gorcey, the cowardly big mouth was apparently a sourpuss off screen as well. If you look at the cover of Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, you see one face blanked out. That's Leo Gorcey. He wanted to be paid to use his image, so they removed it. In 1956 a movie called High Society was nominated for Best Story. It was meant to go to the writers of the musical remake of The Philadelphia Story that starred Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly. However, they mistakenly nominated the writers of the Dead End Kids (now known as The Bowery Boys) movie also named High Society. To save the Academy further embarrassment, the writers withdrew their nomination. When their next film, Spook Chasers came out, Dead End Kid Huntz Hall quipped "I think we've got another Academy Award nominee in this one."

    Claire Trevor's nomination has to be one of the four or five shortest performances on record. I don't think it lasted more that 5 minutes - but I agree she was very good in her one and only scene. All in all, not a bad picture, but like you said Matt, there were more compelling gangster films from this era.