Brief Classic Movie Blog - Dead End

Powerful, gritty-Classic
Dead End 1937
Dead End 1937(imdb)
Published: Jul. 29, 2023 at 11:58 AM EDT|Updated: Jul. 29, 2023 at 12:10 PM EDT
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Brief Classic Movie Blog

Dead End 1937

This drama, based on the hit Broadway play by Sidney Kingsley, has managed to sneak under my radar for decades. I was surprised to discover that I hadn’t seen it before, when I decided to stream it (Amazon Prime) on a recent summer night. It’s even more astonishing when I consider that my favorite playwright of all time, Lillian Hellman wrote the screenplay. I disappointed my cinephile self.

The drama is set where East 53rd street meets the East River in Manhattan- a dead end-where street kids, desperate poverty, and crime butt up against the majestic luxury of a grand depression era apartment building. An apartment building inspired by the real River House complex, which still stands 90 years after it was built. The haves and the have nots live in proximity, creating inherent drama.

Directed by the great William Wyler, the film goes for gritty realism, which is successfully accomplished through realistic acting and the incredible set by Richard Day. His massive street scene captures the depth and complexity of a neighborhood so well that it is still talked about today, and it is done without any CGI. An ensemble cast, lead by Humphrey Bogart, who only gets third billing, under Sylvia Sydney and Joel McCrea is directed to perfection by the master of actors. Side bar: William Wyler is not only the most Oscar nominated best director of all time (12), but he has also directed more actors into Oscar nominations (36) and wins (14) than any other director. Compare Steven Spielberg: 8 directing nominations, 16 nominated acting performances and only 3 wins for actors. Wyler directed several iconic actors to wins, including Audrey Hepburn, Bette Davis, Barbra Streisand and Olivia De Havilland.

The Oscar nominated performance in Dead End belongs to Claire Trevor, who is fantastic as Bogart’s ex-girlfriend turned prostitute. It takes Bogie’s gangster character, Baby Face Martin a bit to realize what has happened to Francie; her job and her illness because of the job, but when he does, she will not tolerate any judgement, telling him I had to do something. Furthermore, she has the audacity to ask him for more money when he gives her some to get lost. She is onscreen for less than five minutes but scores the nomination for best supporting actress. The entire scene is compelling and fascinating and very subtle, especially for its time. What cannot be said in dialogue is said on the actors faces, which are perfectly framed and shot by Wyler and ace cinematographer Gregg Toland. Trevor finally won her Oscar eleven years later for Key Largo, again with Bogart as a co-star.

Dead End is a rich satisfying movie whose desperate characters and themes of crime, poverty and the class system are all relevant today. It pulls no punches, and though the ending may offer some hope, it’s not pat, it’s bittersweet and modern. These are people whose problems cannot be easily solved.

All the artists involved were at the top of their game, and it shows.