Movie for the Evening: “Dead End” 1937
There are many paths to losing, as many as there are losers, and the classic film by William Wyler “Dead End” examines many of them in the confines of a single block (a neighborhood in lower Manhattan).
The theme of this movie can be traced back to Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserable” and the raising awareness in the mind of the 19th century’s European of poverty as social injustice.
Though prohibition ended in 1933 it lingers here in the main character, Baby Face Martin, a racketeer type reminiscent of the era. Martin returns from exile in Colorado to reconnect with his idealized past. He is a materially successful hoodlum but has inescapable doubts about his life’s path which he tries to resolve with a return to the old neighborhood.
Bogart is exceptional, appearing in the filthy streets well groomed and sporting a fedora of fine felt. No other actor could match Bogie’s facial twitches and menacing tone used to convey a depraved, damaged soul (not even the admirable Cagney).
Nothing goes well for Martin. His mother rejects him for bring shame on the family and his girlfriend from the old days has turned to prostitution. In an important scene, Martin, taking a good look at what Francey (Claire Travor) has become, turns away in discussed unaware of the hypocrisy so well hidden by his fine clothes and diamond ring.
The neighborhood is being gentrified and a wealth set has moved in to watch the boats from their balconies float down the east river where the poor kids swim on this hot day. The socially fueled conflict is inevitable and several of the plot lines follow that course.
Dave, played by Joel McCrea, is making an honest effort to escape the crushing poverty by education and a decent outlook. He is the hope infused into the plot and by his noble actions he comes by a windfall that allows him to make a generous gesture to Drina, played by Sylvia Sidney. This Jean Valjean-esque atonement (Dave was a gang member in his youth) closes the circle of fear and doubt allowing a sense of forward movement and the final scene is a denouement, the only false note in an otherwise smart movie.