On New York’s East River sits the convergence of the “haves” and “have nots.” Luxury apartments with picturesque river views stretch several stories high, while just outside of that view sit the tenements.
Drina (Sylvia Sidney) is a tenement-dwelling woman, raising her younger brother Tommy (Billy Halop) and hoping she’ll someday get them out of the tenement. She works hard to provide for Tommy and tries her best to keep him in line, but worries he’ll end up a gangster like Baby Face Martin (Humphrey Bogart). She dreams of meeting a handsome, wealthy stranger and living in one of those high-rise apartments.
Though Drina’s good-hearted friend Dave (Joel McCrea) tries to keep Martin out of the neighborhood to protect Tommy and his friends, tensions rise when Martin returns to visit his mother (Marjorie Main) and ex-girlfriend (Claire Trevor).
Dead End was directed by William Wyler. The screenplay was written by Lillian Hellman from a play by Sidney Kingsley.
Sylvia Sidney! Humphrey Bogart! Joel McCrea! Allen Jenkins! Claire Trevor! Marjorie Main and her unmistakable voice! Dead End has a fantastic cast. To go along with that, it has a strong script, compelling drama, and a lot of visual appeal. I think I’ve discovered a new favorite!
The film kicks off with a statement on the gentrification of the neighborhood along the East River, and how the windows of the rich quite literally look down upon the tenement homes. The issue of poverty weighs heavily throughout the film, with Drina dreaming of a better life and Dave dating a woman (Wendy Barrie) who won’t commit to him because he can’t provide her with financial security.
Drina is a wonderful character, and Sylvia Sidney plays her perfectly. She puts a lot of pressure on herself, not only to make ends meet but to change Tommy’s fate. Her wish to provide the best life possible for her brother makes her a natural character to root for, but her hard-working, principled personality and thoroughly good spirit make her even more sympathetic.
Also a stand-out is Marjorie Main, who is startling and heartbreaking to watch as Baby Face Martin’s mom. This role is different than any other I’ve seen her in — I know her best for her much lighter supporting roles in Judy Garland musicals and The Women. Her interaction with Bogart is profoundly emotional and shows the hardened gangster’s human side.
All in all, this movie really punched me in the heart! It has atmosphere, well-built characters, and a story that is told both thoroughly and effectively. I heartily recommend this underappreciated, powerful work by the great William Wyler.