Oscar Vault Monday – Dead End, 1937 (dir. William Wyler)
Continuing with Noirvember, I decided to write about a proto-noir, William Wyler’s Dead End. This is a fabulous example of crime cinema, coming at the end of the thirties and a wave of films like Scarface and The Petrified Forest. Dead End takes a look at the life of several residents who live in tenements located below luxury apartments built for the view of the picturesque East River. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards, though it didn’t win any: Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Supporting Actress Claire Trevor and Best Picture. The other films nominated for Best Picture that year were The Awful Truth, Captains Courageous, The Good Earth, In Old Chicago, Lost Horizon, One Hundred Men and a Girl, Stage Door, A Star Is Born and winner The Life of Emile Zola.
I’ve written about William Wyler many times, but I always feel the need to reiterate how awesome he was and what a huge mark on film he made. Wyler holds the record for Best Director nominations, having received twelve nominations. He won the award three-time, and those three films also went on to win Best Picture: Ben-Hur, The Best Years of Our Lives and Mrs. Miniver. He also directed more performers to Oscar nominations than any other director; his films resulted in 36 acting nominations and 14 wins. While cinematographer Gregg Toland only received four nominations during his career (for Les Misérables (1935), Dead End, Wuthering Heights (1939, won), The Long Voyage Home (1940) and Citizen Kane (1941) ), his contribution to the art is immeasurable. I also wanted to mention that the screenplay was written by none other than playwright Lillian Hellman. Hellman joined the Screen Writers Guild (which was founded in 1933 and would later become the WGA) in 1935 and was one of its staunchest advocates and recruiters.
I have such endless love for Sylvia Sidney. Most movie-goers today probably remember her turns in the Tim Burton films Beetlejuice and Mars Attacks!, but you gotta go back and watch her work in the 30s. No one looks like her and few brought such fierceness to the screen. I highly recommend City Streets, Merrily We Go to Hell, Fury, You Only Live Once and You and Me. Sidney received her one and only Oscar nomination for 1973’s Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams. In Dead End, Sidney plays Drina, whose younger brother Tommy keeps getting into trouble. She’s a tough woman in tough situation, but she does her best. It’s really telling of the era that the only escape Drina can see for her and her brother is through marrying a rich man, who will take them away from the tenement.
Joel McCrea is one of my favorite actors ever. I wrote about him in 1943’s The More The Merrier, but really you should see everything he has ever done because he is always good. McCrea did all kinds of films, from screwball comedies to crime drams to adventures films to westerns and he never seems out of place. In this film, he plays Drina’s childhood friend and out of work architect, Dave Connell, who works odd jobs and is having an affair with a rich man’s mistress. I like that Drina and Dave are shown as just friends, without much romantic undercurrents to their relationship. Drina’s concern for Dave is much like her concern for her own brother.
Dead End came a year after Bogart’s breakout role in The Petrified Forest, though it would be another four years before he went from supporting bad guy to leading man in High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon. Bogart plays gangster Baby Face Martin who has returned to his old neighborhood after a long absence. He is shunned by his mother and rejected by his old girlfriend. Martin decides to kidnap a rich kid to make his trip worth while, which leads to the film’s epic climax between Bogart and McCrea. The power and depth Bogart showcases is astounding, it’s hard to imagine that he was a bit player, knowing that he was to become arguably the world’s greatest movie star of all time. Bogart made nearly 75 films and was nominated for three Academy Awards: Casablanca (1943), The African Queen (1951, won) and The Caine Mutiny (1954). For Noirvember, I recommend you watch his films with future-wife Lauren Bacall, as well as The Maltese Falcon, High Sierra and In A Lonely Place.
Claire Trevor is devastating as Martin’s ex-girlfriend Francie, who is now a prostitute and “sick” (which was a veiled way of saying she had late-stage syphilis). Trevor more than holds her own against Bogart and received an Oscar nomination for her work (though she lost to Alice Brady in In Old Chicago). Trevor would wow audiences again in the 1939′ Best Picture nominee Stagecoach and received two other Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actress for Key Largo (1948, won) and The High and the Mighty. Trevor is no stranger to noir and you can find her in several films from the era, chewing scenery and spitting men out like seeds.
The Dead End Kids were a group of kids who starred in the 1935 Broadway production of Dead End on which this film is based. They were brought to Hollywood by Sam Godlwyn to make this film and continued to make films under various other stage names such as the Little Tough Guys, the East Side Kids, and the Bowery Boys. In this film, Tommy (Billy Halop), Drina’s sister, is the leader of the gang, which causes his sister much grief. The kids rough up a rich kid who lives in one of the apartments near the tenements, and it is through this group that Martin kidnaps the same kid. There is a pretty rough sequence at the end of the film where Tommy has been “squealed” on by Spit, on of his gang members, so Tommy decides to give him “the mark of a squealer” with his knife. He is narrowly stopped by Dave because this isn’t a pre-code movie; imagine how it would have ended if it were made five years earlier! All and all, Dead End is a great example of the kind of cinema that led to the noir era in a post-war world and a good reminder that the darkness that loomed after the war was already there to begin with.
Posted on November 12, 2012, in Oscar Vault Monday and tagged 1937, Claire Trevor, Dead End, Dead End Kids, Gregg Toland, Humphrey Bogart, Joel McCrea, Noirvember, Sylvia Sidney, William Wyler. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.