Dead End is a gritty, urban gangster film from the 1930s, which sadly fails to deliver on the gritty. Directed by William Wyler, and with an early supporting role for Humphrey Bogart, the film is set on the streets of New York where rich meet poor.
Bogart plays ‘Baby Face’ Martin, a man with a mysterious violent history, who is returning to his childhood streets to rake over his past. Even this young Bogart still looks old and world-weary.
But Bogart only plays a supporting role. Instead the film largely focuses on a cross-class love story between Sylvia Sidney and Joel McCrea, and the lives of the young teenage gang members patrolling the streets.
The film opens with a floating long shot around the tops of the buildings and the urban slums excellently highlighting the plights of the various people inhabiting the city. The cinematography is one of the strongest elements of the film. This is perhaps unsurprising given it was a young Gregg Toland in charge of the camera. Four years later he would break boundaries with his deep focus lens on ‘Citizen Kane’ (Orson Welles, 1941). Some of the best scenes later in the film are again down to the dark, smoky, film noir atmosphere created, presumably, by Toland.
However, as the camera lands at ground level instead of genuine, dirty city streets, what we see instead is blatantly a Hollywood studio. It does not matter that special efforts were made to exactly copy one particular Manhattan street. It is utterly unconvincing and looks more like a theatre set (the film was actually based on a 1935 Sidney Kingsley play). This is an issue because only irregularly is the setting convincing enough to immerse us.
The accents are equally as fake as the set. My ability to recognise a genuine New York accent is undoubtedly poor, but I can guarantee that many of these were worse than my own efforts. All the talk of boys and ‘goils’ is laughable enough to break any tension.
The film focuses on youth, and the divide between rich and poor, crammed together in thane urban environment. The ‘Dead End’ of the title refers both to the street the film is set on, and to the (lack of) hopes for the kids. During the film we see teenage violence escalate from hands and fists, to knives, and then to guns. The one person who did manage to escape this location in his life – Bogart – still ends up returning, unable to escape his criminal life. In this sense, the film creates a satisfyingly bleak view of the nature of violence, with people condemned by circumstances into a life of crime.
William Wyler was somewhat of a journeyman director. He made many very good films, delving into different genres. He directed three Best Picture winners: ‘Mrs. Miniver’ (1942), ‘The Best Years Of Our Lives’ (1946), and ‘Ben Hur’ (1959). But whilst there will be people who argue for the charm and elegance of Audrey Hepburn in ‘Roman Holiday’ (1953), for Laurence Olivier’s brooding in ‘Wuthering Heights’ (1939), or any of the aforementioned trio, I would argue that none of these are in fact masterpieces. In general, he lacked a unique style or flourish, preventing him and his films from reaching the next level.
Dead End was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It won none. It fits very much into the bad habit that the Oscars went through in the 1930s of nominating pretty mediocre studio-produced films. From 1933-43 at least ten films were nominated each year, and many have dated badly and been largely forgotten. Dead End is not the worst example of this, but it is unmemorable enough that in two months I will have largely forgotten it.