Dead End (1937) is hard core. If you didn't know it was produced by master film man Samuel Goldwyn, you would swear it was a Warner Brothers crime melodrama, in the manner of Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) and They Made Me a Criminal (1939). Why? Because all the elements are there, the dirty, gritty New York tenement neighborhood, the criminal element, both petty and professional, the struggle for survival under the harshest circumstances. Heck, it even has Humphrey Bogart as a sinister thug (always in his earlier days) and a gang of smart aleck young punks (the Dead End Kids, who were also featured in the afore mentioned films). However, as a few clues that it belongs to Goldwyn, it features Joel McCrea, a favorite in several Goldwyn films of the 1930's, in his regular good guy role. It also has William Wyler, Goldwyn's director of choice, at the helm.
Based on the successful play by Sidney Kingsley, Dead End is a story of abject poverty and the battle to survive in a decaying and filthy New York slum. The struggle is reflected even more vividly in the fact that the tenement is smack dab beside a luxurious high rise apartment on the Hudson River, the back entrance of which enters onto the back alley of the dead end poverty stricken street. There is nothing pretty or glamorous about the film, except actress Wendy Barrie, but even her story is ugly. Bogie is a wanted murderer, a nationally known criminal of the most dangerous order. He is back in his old neighborhood, the stomping ground of his hard and lawless youth, to see both his mother and his long ago paramour, neither of whom he's seen in over a decade. As the parable goes, he reaps what he has sown in this endeavour, as the mother (Marjorie Main, in a powerful early role), pitiful and careworn, wants absolutely nothing to do with him and tells him she wishes he were dead. His reunion with his old flame is no better. Though she is glad to see him, she is barely fit to be seen herself. Poverty and desperation have driven her into prostitution and she is in the final stages of syphilis, warning the gangster against even a lip kiss. She is played by Claire Trevor, who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, in what was an earlier and surprisingly short role (she only has one scene). Bogart's "Baby Face" Martin is a somewhat deeper character than most that he played at Warners during the same era. Still innately evil, there's a glimmer of another dimension in his affection for his mother and ex-lover.
Also on hand is Sylvia Sydney as poor working girl Drina. She is barely able to keep the heads of both she and her delinquent kid brother, Tommy (Billy Halop) above water. Drina is in love with Dave (McCrea) an educated native of the neighborhood, who can't find work as an architect so instead gets by on odd jobs. He in turn has become infatuated with Kay (Barrie), the mistress of one of the wealthy inhabitants of the luxury high rise. But romance is not the agenda of Dead End. It is merely one of the avenues which leads to dispair and the unfulfilled dreams of its characters. The setting of the film feels rather stagy, as the entire drama takes place in and around the decaying dead end street. Don't misunderstand, art director Richard Day did an outstanding job with the extremely realistic set, and instead of the claustrophobia of filth being a detriment, the single set lends to the enclosed and trapped feeling experienced on a daily basis by the inhabitants of the street.
Although Dead End finishes on a slightly higher note compared to the body of the film, the ending doesn't diminish the grimness of the overall theme. The power of both the story and of the performances by all involved shines through and endures long after its original release.