I love Dead End for a few reasons. It’s a great film based off a stage play that yep, both looks and feels stagey, but that works highly in its favor. It’s a classic Old New York City film just for the location it presents and the feeling that, staging aside, that place actually existed. It also marked the debut of The Dead End Kids who’d later morph into The Little Tough Guys, then The East Side Kids and then into The Bowery Boys with a total of close to 50 audience-pleasing fluff comedies made between 1937 and 1958. To some non-fans of the Boys, this only proves the law of diminishing returns should have been more strictly obeyed and enforced (ha and ha). But, I digress.
It also has Humphrey Bogart in an early knockout role as a slickly dressed but menacing thug who returns to his old stomping grounds with a brand new facelift for mixed results. Finally, it’s a nicely directed “message” film by the great William Wyler that works on many levels, some of which soak in only after a second or third viewing. Go grab your popcorn, pal. I’ll wait. Oh, you’re making it on the stove the old-fashioned way? Good. I’ll go get a bowl and meet you back here in five.
The great thing about the film is how well it manages to cram plenty of authentic details into every frame to the point that those well-constructed sets feel just right. Interestingly enough, Bogart’s not the big star here although he certainly has a blast here playing Hugh “Baby Face” Martin, a nattily dressed gangster who just wants to come back to his old neighborhood and see his mom (Marjorie Main) and meet up with an old girlfriend, Francie (Claire Trevor). Let’s just say things don’t go well for Martin, as his mom hates him for what he’s become and his old flame is suffering from the ill effects of her chosen profession and not taking proper precautions. There’s a kidnapping and chase that follows, but all that happens after the Dead End Kids get plenty of screen time as the film sets up its story of wealth meeting poverty from a few angles.
The hero in this film is also flawed to some extent, as Dave Connell (Joel McCrea) is struggling architect having a relationship with with a rich man’s mistress, Kay Burton (Wendy Barrie), who wants a life filled with the the best things life can offer. Dave’s childhood friend, Drina (Sylvia Sidney) also wants to marry upwards, but you almost know that she and Dave will get together when all is said and done. Drina’s got a young brother, Tommy (Billy Halop), who leads the Dead End gang and they of course, get into a few shenanigans that play important roles in the plot that follows.
As it’s a post Hays code film, pretty much anything bad gets quashed like a bug here. But the film has enough social bite that any heavy handedness or morality aren’t cloying at all. Besides, Wyler’s assured direction and those incredible sets do an excellent job along with the cast in conveying a bit of what life was like in the big city back then. This is a film that pulls off being essential and classic even with the moralizing, and it’s worth seeing because it does it all right.
Now those later Bowery Boys films? Uh, let’s not discuss those too much here. They range from funny to really forgettable acquired tastes and that’s all I’m going to say about them here. Hey, you’re out of popcorn. Go make some more, please. I think I’ve got another film you might like. Let me go post this short review and we can have a look, okay?