Dead End is a 1937 film directed by William Wyler, starring Joel McCrea, Sylvia Sidney, Humphrey Bogart, Claire Trevor, and the "Dead End Kids" in their film debut. It was adapted from Sidney Kingsley's 1935 Broadway play of the same name.
The setting is New York City, on the East River just south of the Queensborough Bridge. This area of the East Side is filled with grinding poverty, street gangs, and filthy, vermin-ridden tenements. However it also offers a nice view of the river, and gentrification was already a thing in 1937, so a fancy apartment building for the hoity-toity rich has been built directly abutting the slums. (As it turns out this setting is closely based on a Real Life area, namely, the end of 53rd Street and the ultra-luxurious River House apartment building, built in 1931).
The poor people haven't been chased out of Manhattan yet, however. This particular neighborhood is home to the Dead End Kids, a gang of young hooligans who haven't quite yet graduated to serious crime. One of their number is Tommy, who is a bit more honorable than some of his buddies. His older sister Drina (Sidney) longs to escape the slums and wants to save Tommy from a life of crime. Drina also hopes for romance with Dave (McCrea), who grew up with her in the neighborhood and is struggling to make it as an architect. Unfortunately Dave is having an affair with Kay Burton, who is the mistress of one of the rich occupants of the apartment building. Further complicating matters is Hugh "Baby Face" Martin (Bogart), who also grew up in the neighborhood with Drina and Dave, but is now a gangster wanted for multiple murders. Hugh has snuck back into the neighborhood to visit his mother and his old girlfriend.
Bogart, still four years away from breaking out as a leading man with High Sierra, is billed third. The young actors who played the Dead End Kids would wind up appearing in 89 movies over 21 years, first as the "Dead End Kids" in six Warner Brothers crime dramas (including this film, Angels with Dirty Faces, and They Made Me a Criminal), then as the "Bowery Boys" in a series of Poverty Row B-Movies.
- Abusive Parents: One of the kids in the gang meets the others, shows off a bump on his head, and tells them matter-of-factly about how his father hit him before passing out drunk on the floor.
- The Big Rotten Apple: A filthy, garbage-ridden slum, where disease-ridden hookers walk the streets, gangs of delinquent teens commit crime, and gangsters murder people. One of the most memorable scenes has Kay going into Dave's tenement looking for him, only to be repulsed by the garbage and the vermin and the tubercular lowlifes.
- Bookends: The film opens with a shot of the skyscrapers of New York City, followed by the camera descending into the tenements of the East Side. The last shot is the first shot reversed, with the camera rising out of the tenements to show the skyscrapers.
- Chekhov's Gun: As soon as Spit grabs one of the kids from another gang, shows the rest his nasty facial scar, and explains that it's a punishment dealt to "squealers", it's obvious that one of the Dead End Kids is going to squeal.
- Combat Pragmatist: Martin seems to like the idea of shepherding the Dead End Kids into more serious crime. He laughs when they tell him that they agreed to not use bats or knives when going to fight the other gang. He then advises them to ambush their enemies.Martin: When you fight the idea is to win, it don't matter how.
- Damn, It Feels Good to Be a Gangster!: Martin tells Dave about how much he enjoys being a criminal, all the fine things he's been able to get, and how he's happy he's not stuck in desperate poverty like everyone else there. ("I'm glad I'm not like you saps.")
- Delinquents: The Dead End Kids. They would grow progressively more comic and G-rated over the years, but in this movie they do come across as dangerous little hoodlums, although that's mostly because they lack any decent authority figures to look after them.
- Discreet Drink Disposal: A non-alcoholic example as Phillip the rich brat pours his milk into a potted plant when the servant's back is turned.
- Early Installment Weirdness: Anyone who watches the more G-rated antics of the Dead End Kids in their later films, or for that matter the broad comedy they indulged in as the Bowery Boys, might be surprised by the hard edge they have here. They beat up and rob a rich kid, and Tommy is just barely restrained from slicing Spit's face open with a knife.
- Extra! Extra! Read All About It!: A newspaper vendor is hawking papers about the death of Baby Face Martin as Drina is looking unsuccessfully for her brother.
- Face Framed in Shadow: Dave is shot this way when he hides in the stairwell to avoid Kay, as she flees the disgusting filthy tenement.
- I Have No Son!: Martin's meeting with his mother goes badly, as she is obviously ashamed of her son, telling him to go away, having brought them only misery and grief."You ain't no son of mine."
- Incurable Cough of Death:
- One of the kids is distressingly cheerful about it. "TB! I got TB!"
- And Francie for her part is coughing repeatedly during her grim meeting with Martin.
- Jerkass Has a Point: Mr. Griswald is an insufferable prick, but he does kind of have a point about Tommy. It's asking a little much to let Tommy go when not only did he stab Mr. Griswald in the hand, he participated in the beating and robbery of Mr. Griswald's son Phillip.
- Magic Plastic Surgery: Averted in both the play and the film. Baby Face Martin is said to have received a "new face" from a plastic surgeon, but is still recognizable to people who knew him before, though sometimes he needs to remind them. We never see what he looked like before, but presumably the difference is enough to fool law enforcement, but not enough to fool those who are looking closely.
- The Mistress: Kay, who's basically a Gold Digger, even if she does feel bad about it.
- My Girl Is Not a Slut: Martin reacts very badly when he realizes that Francie became a prostitute."Why didn't you starve to death instead?"
- Princely Young Man: Phillip Griswald, the arrogant little Spoiled Brat teen living in the fancy apartments, who in both look and manner comes across as a forgotten Squib from the Malfoy family. He stupidly lets the Dead End Kids lure him into an ambush, which eventually gets the kids in serious trouble.
- Roof Hopping: How Dave finally chases down Martin, hopping a couple of roofs before shooting Martin off a fire escape.
- Visual Title Drop: A visual one in the "Dead End" sign, which marks where the street ends at the East River.
- You Can't Go Home Again: Martin learns this decisively when he sneaks back into the old neighborhood, only find out that his mother disowned him and his old girlfriend is a diseased prostitute.