REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:
DEAD END. Goldwyn/UA, 1937. Sylvia Sidney, Joel McCrae, Humphrey Bogart, Wendy Barrie, Claire Trevor, Alan Jenkins, Marjorie Main, and the Dead End Kids. Screenplay by Lillian Hellman, from the play by Sidney Kingsley. Directed by William Wyler.
A year after The Petrified Forest (recently reviewed here), Bogie found himself again playing a gangster on the run in a film based on a popular (and somewhat self-important) play. But in that year, he had learned how to act for the screen, and the difference is agreeable.
Let’s dispense with the bad news first: Dead End is as pretentious and mannered as The Petrified Forest was, and even more didactic. Sylvia Sidney’s noble working woman; the insulated, uncaring rich people; the feral youths; and especially Joel McCrae as the voice of Progress… they’re all types first and characters as an afterthought. The film only flickers to anything like real life when it leaves them to check in on “Baby Face” Martin’s tragic homecoming.
That’s Bogart, ably abetted by Alan Jenkins as his dubious stooge, and if you can wade (or fast-forward) through the other stuff, the payoff is rewarding indeed.
First there’s Marjorie Main as Martin’s weary-unto-death mother, carrying the infamy of her notorious son like a dead baby in her womb. When they meet, we see the first chink in Martin’s tough-guy façade, and Bogie plays it splendidly, like a fighter trying not to show how bad he’s been hurt, taking his punishment and hoping to make the next round.
When that round comes though, it’s only for Martin to find out his old girlfriend is now a hooker, and not a very classy one at that. As played by Claire Trevor in a moving cameo, her face is a mask of tragedy cast in brass. And Bogart’s face as he realizes the truth is a study in disillusion: disappointment giving way to disgust and disintegration.
Kingsley writes a small but telling moment into this scene. Anxious to be rid of her, Bogart shoves a wad of money at Trevor, who stashes it away without counting, then asks Martin if he can spare another Twenty! The mix of need and greed in her voice evokes the character as few could, and when she caps it off by asking for one last kiss, for old time’s sake the effect is incredible.
Director Wyler and the players do what they can with the rest, but it’s all as artificial as the massive and deliberately stagey set built for the film when Producer Sam Goldwyn refused to shoot on location. That said, it’s still worth seeing for Bogie’s bits.
And yes, the juvenile delinquents in Dead End became stock players at Warner’s as The Dead End Kids, then elsewhere as the East Side Kids and the Little Tough Guys, before settling down at Monogram as The Bowery Boys. Which makes me wonder if Sidney Kingsley ever got any royalties for Bowery Buckaroos.