Originally released in 1937, Dead End is a gangster film with social conscience. Based on a Broadway play and featuring a screenplay by the iconic progressive writer Lillian Hellman, Dead End is a crime film that’s more interested in the root causes of crime than in crime itself.
Dead End takes place over the course of one day in the slums of New York City. While tenement children spend their time swimming in the East River and idealizing gangsters, wealthy people live in high-rise apartments and depend on the police and their doorman (played, naturally enough, by Ward Bond) to keep them protected from the poor people living next door.
Among the poor is Drina (Sylvia Sidney), who divides her time between marching on a picket line and trying to keep her younger brother Tommy (Billy Halop) from hanging out with the local street gang, the Dead End Kids (Huntz Hall, Bernard Punsly, Leo Gorcey, and Gabriel Dell). Drina’s childhood friend is Dave (Joel McCrea), an idealistic architect who is having an affair with a rich man’s mistress (Wendy Barrie).
Complicating things is the arrival of Baby Face Martin (Humphrey Bogart). Like Dave, Martin grew up in the slums. However, while Dave is trying to escape by making an honest living, Martin has already escaped by choosing a life of crime. Now, he’s viewed as a hero by Tommy and his friends and with wariness by Dave and Drina who know that Martin’s presence will eventually lead to the police invading their home. Martin, however, is more concerned with seeing his mother (Marjorie Main) and his ex-girlfriend (Clare Trevor), who has become a prostitute and is suffering from syphilis.
For a film that was made close to 80 years ago, Dead End holds up pretty well. Is this because it’s a brilliant film or just because the connection between poverty and crime has remained one of the constants of human history? It’s probably a combination of both. Considering that Dead End was filmed on a Hollywood backlot, it’s a surprisingly gritty and realistic film that only occasionally feels a bit stagey. The film’s entire cast does a good job of bringing this particular dead end to life, though the obvious star of the film is Humphrey Bogart. As played by Bogart, Baby Face Martin is both sympathetic and despicable, the epitome of the potential that can be found and wasted in any American city.
Dead End was nominated for best picture but lost to The Life of Emile Zola. The film also received a much deserved nomination for best art design but lost to Lost Horizon while Clare Trevor lost the race for best supporting actress to Alice Brady, who won for In Old Chicago. Perhaps most surprisingly of all, Humphrey Bogart did not even receive a nomination for his excellent work in Dead End. Meanwhile, the film’s tough gang of street kids proved to be so popular that they, as a group, were cast in several other films. Originally credited as the Dead End Kids (and later known as the Bowery Boys), they ended up making a total of 89 films together. With the possible exception of Angels With Dirty Faces, none of those films are as highly regarded as Dead End.