Dead End (William Wyler / U.S., 1937):

The penthouse in the cesspool, New York harmonies and dissonances in a laboratory study. Towers and gutters are the poles of a vertical structure—the camera recognizes it at once as an elaborate simulacrum and proceeds accordingly, acute angles and lighting modulate the painted backdrops and rear projections of a Broadway transposition. (Vidor's craning shots from Street Scene figure tellingly in the filming.) It's a matter of construction, this inferno, the noble architect (Joel McCrea) wants it torn down but settles for painting signs, the seamstress-activist (Sylvia Sidney) has picket lines and a wayward brother (Billy Halop) to fret over. The prodigal son meanwhile is a nostalgic hoodlum (Humphrey Bogart), reshaped by riches and plastic surgery yet promptly exposed by a mother's (Marjorie Main) slap and a moll's (Claire Trevor) venereal recoil. Roaming the bottom rung is a pack of juvenile hyenas, ever ready to give Little Lord Fauntleroy a good thrashing. "'Enemies of society,' they say in the papers. Why not? What have they got to be so friendly about?" The New Deal and the Goldwyn conscience: The reheated Gorky is by Sidney Kingsley, the popular-front commotion is by Lillian Hellman, the tasteful screen squalor is by William Wyler and Gregg Toland. A riverside view for the panorama of crime and poverty, a dense metallic welter (arches, railings, windows, bars, pylons) enhances the proscenium. Hard work is the final diagnosis, virtue is its own escape and yet there's Bogart's melancholy violence slicing through the claustrophobic respectability. "Aw, go stick yer head in a spittoon!" Drunken Angel and Los Olvidados and Once Upon a Time in America draw on it variously, Sturges in Sullivan's Travels has McCrea in quite the keen analysis. With Allen Jenkins, Wendy Barrie, Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, Gabriel Dell, Bobby Jordan, Bernard Punsly, Minor Watson, and Ward Bond. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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