Starring: Joel McCrea, Sylvia Sidney, Humphrey Bogart, Claire Trevor, Wendy Barrie, the Dead End Kids

Director: William Wyler

Year: 1937

I’d seen Dead End a number of times, but it had been a couple of years since I had last seen it. I don’t know if I had just forgotten what an incredible movie it is, or if I’d never realized quite how amazing it was, but rewatching it again made me realize what a little masterpiece this film is. It did well at the time of its release, received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, but it hardly remembered today. It’s depiction of slum life in the 1930s might seem a little distant for some film goers to really latch on to, but anybody with a decent understanding of the time and the films of the era should really “get” this film, and feel it right down to their bones.

The film takes place in a slum along the East River in New York, where the wealthy have decided to set up shop as well. Drina (Sidney) is on strike, trying to get the money she feels is owed to her so she can take her brother Tommy (Dead End Kid Billy Hallop) out of the neighborhood. She’s in love with childhood friend Dave (McCrea) who has a budding romance with rich girl Kay (Barrie). Baby Face Martin (Bogart), a childhood friend of Dave’s, is back in the neighborhood to find his mother and his old girlfriend Francie (Trevor).

There are several films from this era that deal with the struggle between the rich and the poor, especially during the Depression, but I don’t think I’ve seen a film do it so blatantly and so honestly as Dead End. The rich look down on the tenements from their big, beautiful building. They sit on their terraces, observing the poor, with the kids from the slums swim in the river. This divide is shown both harshly, when Tommy and his gang get into trouble for beating up a rich boy, and romantically, in the love triangle between Drina, Dave, and Kay. What it shows mostly, for all the characters, is how they dream of being more than just a child of the slums, and how the other world is just slightly out of their reach, both literally and figuratively.

The gentlemen give fine performances. McCrea is one of my favorite stars of the 1930s and 1940s. I don’t think anyone could play the good guy like he could. And Bogart is great as the charismatic bad guy. We find fault with his lifestyle, but can’t help to feel sorry for him when things don’t turn out at all as he imagines. And, as usual, I just loved the Dead End Kids. I don’t know exactly what it is about them, perhaps its the friendship between them, or just the fact that in older films we usually see precocious cuties, not accurate depictions of children living it rough.

But I have to say, it’s the women who steal the show. Sylvia Sidney, an almost impossibly beautiful woman, almost completely carries parts of the movie. Her love for Tommy is honest, her longtime love for Dave is pure. And more than anything, her desire to take her brother away is deep and beautiful. There’s an incredible scene where she describes to Dave a fantasy she has of meeting a rich man. The look on her face as she delivers it is brutal. And Claire Trevor…. boy, I can’t believe more people aren’t familiar with her. With one scene she received a much deserved Academy Award nomination. She’s the complete embodiment of broken dreams and a crushed future. Even Wendy Barrie, who I’m not that incredibly fond of, does a good job of playing the wealthy woman, who remains sympathetic even as she runs from a tenement in disgust.

Another strength of the film is its set design. It’s rare for classic films to take place almost entirely outside. And, when films do venture outside, it usually looks incredibly fake. Dead End creates a very real, vibrant world for these characters to live in. The slum is almost as much a character as any of the living, breathing people on the screen. And it’s a part of each character.

Dead End is simply one of the best films of the 1930s. There’s no other way to say it. It’s just a masterpiece.

Year: 1947

Director: Robert Wise

Cast: Lawrence Tierney, Claire Trevor, Walter Slezak, Phillip Terry, Audrey Long

Sam Wild is a man who is inexplicably confident and is willing to trample over anyone in his way to get where he is going. His confidence ends up taking him places, despite being a nobody. He is impulsive and dangerous. Women want him and wise men stay out of his way. When he encounters Helen Trent, played by Claire Trevor, she begins to fall for him, despite her engagement to a successful man who means stability and comfort for her, which she claims to desperately desire.

There is a difference between characters making poor choices and characters making choices that are contrived to further the story.

At times this film teeters on the line between the two. There are too many moments that seem contrived and hard to swallow, including some of the actions of Sam Wild. His character comes across as sensational at times. This is Hollywood trying to be shocking, and not being as convincing as I would like.

Had they ironed out the script a little I think this film could have been so much more.

There are some memorable performances by some great actors in it however.

Elisha Cook Jr. plays Sam’s best friend and the relationship between the two is interesting to watch and analyze. His devotion becomes more and more interesting. It seems Sam’s confidence is attractive to everyone, and even breeds devotion from those like his friend who would be better off not associating with such an impulsive man. Keep your eyes peeled for the interaction between these two.

Esther Howard is also fun to watch as an old woman who amuses herself vicariously through the escapades of young women she befriends, especially one Laury Palmer who ends up dead after she is spotted by her boyfriend with another man.

This movie is worth seeing but mostly forgettable. Despite my relative indifference towards the film I can understand those who really enjoy it and unlike some films that don’t overly impress me I wouldn’t want to discourage people from seeing it. I think some of the ideas behind the film are quite intriguing in fact, I just didn’t feel they were executed as well as I would have liked.

Seinfeld fans will remember Lawrence Tierney, who plays Sam Wild, as Elaine’s intimidating father. It seems Lawrence Tierney had a face for intimidation. He is intimidating in this film as well, and is just wild enough (his last name can’t be a coincidence) that he should be feared and avoided.

By Greg Dickson

Year: 1944

Director: Edward Dmytryk

Starring: Dick Powell, Claire Trevor, Anne Shirley, and Otto Kruger

There is something perplexing about Murder My Sweet, and it isn’t just the twisting plot. It has all the ingredients of a great noir from the 40s but doesn’t cook up to be a very filling entree. For some reason, despite being based off of a Raymond Chandler story and despite all the double-crossing, murder, despicable characters, adultery, brutality, blackmail, robbery, drugs, and sexuality, it falls some what flat. For some reason it doesn’t seem to quite connect with the audience, and for some reason it is hard to become invested in the characters.

It is still a good ride, but it doesn’t have the impact that some of the other movies from the era did. It doesn’t really stay with you after watching it. The bulk of the performances seemed mediocre to me, but the gritty story line and the stylistic flare redeem it some what, making it still worth watching, especially if you are fan of the era or a fan of film noir. It does visually cook up just the right atmosphere.

Maybe I am prejudiced against Dick Powell who plays Chandler’s well known Philip Marlowe because I recently saw Bogart play the same character in The Big Sleep, or maybe it is because Powell’s primary former film experience had been fluffy musicals. Maybe he just didn’t have what it took to step into Chandler’s dark view of Los Angeles and the shady characters who dwell there. Either way I found his performance sub-par. Maybe he just didn’t look like Marlowe to me, kind of like Timothy Dalton as Bond, his manner and looks just distract me from my love and interest in the character.

If you want to experience the best the 40s, Chandler or Film Noir have to offer, look else where first. Murder, My Sweet won’t satisfy your hunger for any of those things, but it does make a decent snack.

By: Greg Dickson