The dead end sign sits where Manhattan’s Lower East Side meets the water. Here, the poor have long struggled in squalid tenements while next door, in a manner painfully reminiscent of today’s gentrification struggles, the wealthy luxuriate in newly built condominiums situated to capitalize on the river views. Adapted by Lillian Hellman from a hit stage play by Sidney Kingsley, William Wyler’s Dead End follows a group of people stuck in this literal and metaphorical cul-de-sac over a space of a day. The film brims with the cynicism of the depression era, taking swipes at the police and penal system, the fourth estate, and the empty dream of upward mobility.
In an attempt to blunt any social commentary, MGM’s Louis Mayer insisted on the film being shot in a Los Angeles studio rather than Wyler’s preference for an actual New York slum. John Breen, Head of the Production Code Administration, had recommended that the film should be “less emphatic, throughout, in the photographing of this script in showing the contrast between conditions of the poor in tenements and those of the rich in apartment houses” (Carl Rollyson, qtd. Terence Hoagwood, Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 41 iss. 1). Whether or not the magnificent set fully delivers on Breen’s suggestion is debatable. Cinematographer Gregg Toland invests the cockroach infested interiors, dirty alleyways, and hidden crannies of the docks with the expressive shadows later associated with film noir. On the other hand, the barred windows of the slums gaze mournfully towards a sun kissed, tree lined eden behind the walled enclosure of the condominium.
Drina (Sylvia Sidney), a striking shop worker, spends her days facing down the cops on the picket line, whilst dreaming of escaping the slums with her young brother. She is in love with the upstanding Dave (Joel McCrea), who trained to be an architect so as to build a better neighborhood. His reformist zeal is on hold, the only job he has found being as a sign painter. For his part, Dave is infatuated with Kay (Wendy Barrie), a young woman who escaped poverty via a loveless attachment to a wealthy man, and now resides in the plush tower beside the slum.
Into the mix comes the simmering “Baby Face” Martin (an electric early performance from Humphrey Bogart), a murderer with a price on his head, on a nostalgic home visit. First spurned by his anguished mother, then discovering that his first love, Francey, has turned to prostitution to survive, picking up syphilis along the way, the raging gangster looks for another way to capitalize on his journey. Claire Trevor’s lone scene as the tragic Francey earned her an Oscar nomination.
With particular reference to Bogart’s early roles in The Petrified Forest (1936) and Dead End, Thomas Doherty notes in Pre-Code Hollywood (1999) that, in these early years of the enforced production code, “gangsters were magnetic intruders … not centers of attraction whose rise and fall dictated the trajectory of the narrative.” Indeed, rather than the big plans of “Baby Face”, much of Dead End is given over to the antics of a gang of street kids led by Drina’s brother, Tommy (Billy Halop). The child actors were ported from the Broadway play and, as The Dead End Kids, then The East Side Kids, and finally The Bowery Boys, they would appear together in numerous films and serials for Warner Brothers and Universal. Given perhaps more time on screen than any of the marquee actors, their constant presence can feel a frustrating diversion from the adult narrative. Nonetheless, the two intertwine, with Dave and “Baby Face” representing very different role models for Tommy, and paths that his lives may take. Tension between the two men rise as the gang’s antagonism of a rich kid brings Tommy to the attention of the police, but it is Tommy’s story that ultimately provides the film’s climax.
As dictated by the production code, any wrong doers are brought to justice. But a barbed commentary cuts through the film’s conclusion. The justice system works for those with money, and reform school is just a path towards a life of crime. For a woman, escape from the slums depends on selling yourself to a wealthy man. For a man, escape comes through violence. Eight men lost their lives so that “Baby Face” Martin could arrive in an expensive silk shirt. The message that to succeed, you need to make a killing, is ultimately reinforced. Of course, killing on a global scale would ultimately bring the depression to an end. While the adventures of “Baby Face” and young Tommy both culminate in violence, the greatest terror is experienced by the upwardly mobile Kay as she ventures into the darkness of Dave’s tenement building. For those poised precariously beyond its reach, poverty represents the greatest fear of all.