I'd like to spank the Academy

Dead End (1937)

dead endDirected by William Wyler

“There was blood on his hands…and a price on his head!” I knew absolutely nothing about Dead End before I watched it, but this tagline made me pretty sure it was film noir. I was so excited; I love film noir. Turns out Dead End is not film noir, but something better: a look at the life of poverty-stricken people in New York’s Lower East Side.

So what’s the story? Drina is single and poor, struggling to raise her younger brother, Tommy. She has always been in love with Dave, a man who worked hard to put himself through college so he could escape the slums, but who can’t get a job now. Dave is falling for Kay, a young woman living in the fancy new apartment building that backs onto Drina and Dave’s block. Tommy is the leader of a street gang; he’s getting into more and more trouble lately. One day, a mysterious man comes to the block. On that one fateful day, the tensions between rich and poor, wealth and poverty, and law and crime all come to a head.

The Good: The lead actors (Sylvia Sydney as Drina and Joel McCrae as Dave) were amazing. Their performances were so good that I can’t figure out why I wasn’t familiar with their names. They both deserved to have much bigger careers than they did. Humphrey Bogart did a good job as always, as did some of the teens in Tommy’s gang.

The filmmakers used several elements to contrast the realities in the lives of the rich and poor. At the beginning, they use editing to show alternating scenes as both groups get ready for the day. The costumes also show class contrast. Drina has one dress on throughout the day, and although it’s clean and pressed, it’s not fashionable. We see Kay in a couple of dresses: a fashionably simple, blindingly white day dress, and a beautiful evening gown. The gang of teenage boys wear a variety of clothes, many of which are obviously hand-me-downs, while the teen boy who lives in the apartment house wears a tailored suit. Martin wears (and brags about) his expensive clothes, while Dave wears worn shirts and trousers. Those living in the poor neighborhood use more slang than the wealthy apartment dwellers; their grammar is also not always perfect. These things all come together to subtly remind viewers of the contrasting lives.

The musical score in Dead End is perfect for the movie; there isn’t one. Sure, there’s some music over the opening credits, and again at the “The End” placard, but the only other music in the movie is the naturally occurring music throughout the day: the player piano in the bar; the kazoo that one of the boys joyfully plays; the songs people sing; the jazz records of the wealthy. This adds to the realism of the movie.

More than anything else, though, the story and screenplay made me love this movie. Dead End speaks for people who don’t have voices, people who are doing their best but who can’t make it out of poverty. It shows why people get stuck in the poverty cycle. It explores that while all people have dreams, sometimes you can’t have all of your dreams. Fighting for your dreams is important, but that doesn’t mean that you’ll get what you’re fighting for. Doing your best isn’t always good enough. The wealthy are not only privileged in their money, but also with the law. They have connections that can get them what they want. On the other hand, just because they are wealthy doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve the protections of the law. All of this was packed into one movie that takes place in one day. That was extraordinarily well done.

The Bad: While Tommy’s gang has some good actors in their midst, some of them are not so great. Also, some of them have such thick New York accents that it’s hard for this person from “out West” to tell what they are saying sometimes.

There were a few parts that felt a little bit slow, but everything is important at some point, so don’t let your attention wander.

The Ugly: This is still happening. People are still living in poor, crime-ridden parts of town. They want to move to a nicer place, but they don’t have the money. Kids still get in over their heads in gangs. Some people decide that they would rather have the money that comes with a life of crime than live an honest life. Some people try to get out of the life, but society makes it hard for them. The justice system comes down harder on poverty-stricken people. I have never ever said that a movie should be remade, but I think this one should be. Not because it’s a bad movie, but because many people won’t watch a black-and-white movie to save their lives. I also think some of the parallels to today might be lost on some people. But this is partially what the humanities are for: to help people understand other people whose lives are so completely different than their own.

Oscars Won: None.

Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actress in a supporting role (Clair Trevor); best cinematography; best art direction.

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