Dead End is a 1937 crime drama directed by William Wyler. The screenplay was written by Lillian Hellman and is based on an adaptation of the Sidney Kingsley 1935 Broadway play of the same name.
It stars Humphrey Bogart, Joel McCrea, and Sylvia Sidney. It is notable as being the first film appearance of the Dead End Kids. Supporting cast includes Marjorie Main, Claire Trevor, Wendy Barrie, and Allen Jenkins.
Dead End was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Art Direction (Richard Day), Academy Award for Best Cinematography (Gregg Toland) and Best Supporting Actress (Claire Trevor).
In the slums of New York, wealthy people have built luxury apartments because of the view of the picturesque East River. At the end of the street is a dock on the East River; to the left are the luxury apartments and to the right are the slums.
The Dead End Kids, led by Tommy Gordon (Billy Halop), are a petty street gang whose members include Dippy (Huntz Hall), Angel (Bobby Jordan), Spit (Leo Gorcey), T.B. (Gabriel Dell), and Milty (Bernard Punsly).
Tommy's sister, Drina (Sylvia Sidney), dreams of marrying someone rich who will save her and Tommy from this miserable life of poverty and help prevent Tommy from growing up to be a criminal.
Dave Connell (Joel McCrea) is an unemployed architect who currently works odd jobs. Dave is torn between Drina, sweet but equally poor, and Kay (Wendie Barrie), a rich man's mistress.
Mobster Baby Face Martin (Humphrey Bogart), has returned to the neighborhood to visit his mother (Marjorie Main) and old girlfriend, Francey (Claire Trevor).
The Dead End Kids rough up a rich kid (Charles Peck) who lives in the apartments. When the boy's father tries to intervene, Tommy winds up stabbing him in the hand. He escapes the police and goes into hiding.
Martin, meanwhile, is rejected by his mother who denounces him as a murderer. Matin is repulsed to learn his ex-girlfriend, Francie is now a prostitute and suffering from syphilis.
Despondent over the failed visit, Martin decides to kidnap the rich child for ransom money to make the trip back home worthwhile. Dave orders Martin to leave or he will call the police. Dave and Martin struggle and Dave is stabbed and thrown into the river. Dave manages to get out of the river and a shootout begins. Martin is killed.
When the police arrive, a crowd gathers, including Spit, who is recognized as being a member of the gang that attacked the rich kid and his father. Spit squeals and informs the police of Tommy's identity and where to find Tommy. Tommy hears of Spit's betrayal and tries to give him the mark of the "squealer", which is a knife wound across the cheek. Before he can do so, Dave apprehends him and convinces him to turn himself in. Dave agrees to use his reward money from Martin's slaying to pay for Tommy's defense.
This movie is not only a crime drama, it is also a a great social commentary on the divisions between rich and poor.
The film shows the class differences between the rich and the poor. One moving scene is when Kay (Wendie Barrie) attempts to visit Dave (Joel McCrea) in his apartment building. She doesn't make it to his front door as she is horrified at the living conditions as she slowly climbs the stairs of the apartment building.
The film also shows the plight of the poor. Baby Face Martin turned to a life of crime. Drina has an honest job but is having trouble supporting herself and her brother. Dave got a college education but is unemployed and still living in the same neighborhood taking odd jobs. Francey moved to Brooklyn and turned to a life of prostitution.
The Dead End kids are know for theft, robbery and assault. One of them has already been to reform school. Tommy is probably going to reform school. The rich kid's father, a brother of a Judge, says that reform school will teach Tommy some good and keep him from hurting someone else. A fellow Dead End kid is telling Tommy to team up with "Smoke" at the reform school and he will show him the tricks to survive.
One strong message in this film, is the wealthy do not understand the plight of the poor. First, they moved into their neighborhood but act as though it is the poor who are intruding and interferring with their happy life. Second, the wealthy think reform school is a solution and do not realize reform school teaches more criminal behavior than anything else.