The view from the 6th floor of my medical office is picturesque. Intracoastal Waterway below, bordered east and west by tony condos and homes. As you walk one block to the west, things degrade quickly. Separated by several yards are well scrubbed joggers and dog walkers and the downtrodden: prostitutes, drug dealers, assorted poor souls. Sometimes there is turf (with real or imagined boundary lines) overlap among them. The destitute do make their way to the water, the "good side", a perfect image that really illustrates this telling study of contrasts that is West Palm Beach.
New York City has long been a place of such contrasts. Even with segregated neighborhoods you still, to this day, see gleaming penthouses overlooking sad tenements in some areas. In something that is symbolic as it possibly could be, often the higher you are, the wealthier, gazing down on all those poor plebians.
1937's DEAD END is a early look at urban social division. It surprised me as to how insightful it is, much moreso than the stern programmer I was expecting. It transcends (for the most part) the usual corn and paints a stark picture, a palpable air of poverty and menace. Hopelessness made all the more evident as the privileged go about their business in full view, even utilizing an entrance to their high-rise right from the street, inches from dirty and hungry loiterers. This movie is better than it should be.
Credit Sidney Kingsley, who adapted his play, and director William Wyler, who moves the camera appropriately: sometimes a nervous pan, other times with shots composed to spatially emphasize the relationships (and social standings) of the characters. Every shot is well thought out. There's a point of view from the ground (gang of dirt poor hooligans) looking up at a same-age peer, a rich kid standing on his balcony. Later, a hesitant tilt zoom from under a dock, where a youth who has snitched on his buds is hiding, up to street level, where the cronies smell a rat and plan revenge.
The recreation of a NYC city street is magnificent, right down to the diners and their handwritten signs, advertising daily specials. Such versimilitude! The alleys have depth and long shadows and seem capable of swallowing you whole. Everything rings true in DEAD END, never feels theatrical, despite its origins. Wyler briskly handles the business of the doings of a gang of street urchins (played by the Dead End Kids, including Huntz Hall and Leo Gorcey) and former neighborhood punk turned infamous gangster Baby Face Martin (Humphrey Bogart), who has returned to visit his ma and former girlfriend.
There are many interwoven stories of class struggle. Of blue collar men wooing society matrons, both knowing the inevitable but hoping for some measure of happiness in the sweet meanwhile. Of attempted kidnappings of spoiled rich kids. DEAD END's point of view is firmly through the eyes of the outsiders. Mainly through Martin's, a lifelong tough who has graduated to tailored suits and high living, but still far removed from the privileged who brush past. His terrible moment of recognition, when he finds his long lost girl, poignantly makes the case.
But DEAD END really belongs to the Kids, a motley crew of thieves who intimidate to cover their insecurities, their resignations as to where society would cast them. In some kind of cruel irony, their circle of hell nearly literally touches the palace of the Haves. Peaceful co-existence can only hold for so long. The viewer in 2013 will find more relevance in this gritty little picture than in many other contemporary entertainments. They may want to look away, but will be riveted just the same.