The Dead End Kids are introduced in their intricate East Side slum, overlooked by the apartments of the rich. Their antics, some funny, some vicious, alternate with subplots: unemployed architect Dave is torn between Drina, sweet but equally poor, and Kay, a rich man's mistress; gangster Baby Face Martin returns to his old neighborhood and finds that nobody is glad to see him. Then violent crime, both juvenile and adult, impacts the neighborhood and its people.Written by
Rod Crawford <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Opening credits prologue: Every street in New York ends in a river. For many years the dirty banks of the East River were lined with the tenements of the poor. Then the rich, discovering that the river traffic was picturesque, moved their houses eastward. And now the terraces of these great apartment houses look down into the windows of the tenement poor. See more »
Cinema has always had an uneasy relationship with the theatre. By their nature stage plays tend to have very long scenes and base everything around dialogue, and there is something in the power of having real life players there in front of you that makes this workable. But there is also something about the very specific visual form of cinema that makes straight adaptations of stage plays potentially very boring.
The way in which this can be overcome, other than completely restructuring the source text, is by ensuring that the picture keeps moving and keeps storytelling on a visual level. You see, perhaps the most important difference between stage and screen, is that in the theatre every audience member sees things from a slightly different angle or distance – there is no universal perspective, and theatre directors have to ensure that everything is clear whichever seat it's seen from. But in the pictures everyone sees the exact same image at any given moment, and a screen director must find the best camera placements and shot arrangements. Fortunately for Dead End, this screen director William Wyler was among the best and most inventive users of space on screen. For starters, look at how the shots of the rich folks contrast with those of the poor ones. In the former, the camera mostly keeps an aloof distance, and everything is picked out in crisp white. In the latter, the camera is closer to the action, and the image is filled with mottled shades of grey.
The other very important thing in adapting stage plays to screen, is to ensure the performances are presented as well as possible, in order to give cinema audiences a taste of that same atmosphere and presence they would feel in front of a stage. Wyler also happens to be especially good at this. In particular he is bold enough to focus us on just one facet of a performance, sometimes keeping a character with their back to the camera and not showing us their face, forcing us to focus more on their posture, or the reaction of the opposite person. He also keeps the entrances of characters in keeping with their nature – for example having Humphrey Bogart smoothly slide into the frame, or craftily appear in the background as other figures move aside.
And the performances pay off big time. This was still a period in which an actor like Bogart was unlikely to be anything but a villain, but his appearance here surely raised his profile considerably and put him one step closer to those heroic leads. He adds some incredibly subtle yet effective touches – for example, when Joel McCrea gives him the cigarette, look at how he pauses before grudgingly lowering his head to accept the lighted match, as if this tiny stretch is some extreme display of generosity on Bogart's part. Joel McCrea is one of those actors (like, say, Gary Cooper or Van Heflin) who doesn't look like he ought to be a good actor – he looks like he ought to be an absolute hunk of wood – but he isn't. This is probably his finest performance. It's also the best I have seen from Sylvia Sidney. And of course there are those kids, every one of them a character.
The strange thing to consider about the acting in Dead End, is that all the performances are essentially one-dimensional – but in the best possible sense. Bogart is continually a mean and moody presence, moving and speaking slowly, submerging his feelings under a veneer of hard-hearted masculinity. In so doing he fulfils his character's placement as the symbolic archetypal gangster figure. Sylvia Sidney is the eternal independent working class lass, while McCrea is the honest, level-headed working man, and even when he turns to violence it seems not so much character development but merely the natural result of his principled persona in extreme circumstances. Claire Trevor, in her portrayal of the prostitute-moll, has the very opposite tone to the measured performances of Bogart and McCrea, all venom and fragile emotion. Of such things many a Best Supporting Actress nomination is made.
The odds were perhaps stacked in the filmmakers' favour with Dead End, it being a very engaging and punchy play that lends itself well to the cinematic medium. Of particular appeal is the way it begins as a kind of plot-less social study, but gradually a story emerges as the character's lives become interwoven. Still, it is the superb efforts of Wyler and his cast that really bring this one to life.
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