Audiences coming to this film expecting another typical Bogart gangster movie may be disappointed to discover that it is in fact a social drama that just happens to have a Bogart gangster as one of the characters, and a secondary one at that.
But they shouldn’t, because it’s an always engrossing, sometimes moving and unusually serious piece of work, with an overt social conscience rare for a Hollywood movie of its time.
Adapted from a hugely successful play by Sidney Kingsley, Dead End is striking in its effort to convey, more vividly than any film made since the introduction of the Hays censorship code, a realistic portrayal of New York slum life, a world of poverty, causal violence, prostitution and squalor, cleverly staged on stylised but brilliantly designed and photographed sets.
It also addresses class tensions in an unusually frank manner, with Sylvia Sidney’s Drina striking for better working conditions, and Joel McCrea’s Dave, the former slum boy who trained as an architect and wants to build a new future away from the ghetto, torn between his feelings for Drina and his infatuation with Kay (Wendy Barrie) one of New York’s upper set, whose town house overlooks the tenements. (Ironically, in real life it was Barrie who thought it cute to hang out with thugs.)
Into this carefully delineated world comes Bogart’s ‘Baby Face’ Martin, a notorious gangster on the run, returning home to flaunt his new affluence and catch up with his mother and old girlfriend Francey.
These scenes are among the most powerful in the film, and feature some of Bogart’s best ever acting work, as he is first tearfully rejected by his mother (Marjorie Main), now old, dejected and repulsed by the man he has become, and then horrified to discover that Francey (a stunning cameo from Claire Trevor) has become a tired and wasted prostitute.
The film is also important for introducing the Dead End Kids, an ensemble of naturalistic teenage actors who would go on to take supporting roles in several Warner Brothers crime films (notably Angels With Dirty Faces) and ultimately, in variously renamed and arranged conglomerations, in a series of increasingly comic second-feature vehicles of their own. Here, as the street gang exactly like the one in which both Dave and Baby Face started out, they represent the perpetuation of the crime and violence that the slums breed, a visual symbol of hopelessness and despair, for all their amusing banter and seeming lust for life.