An interesting film which attempts to grapple with the depths of despair and desperation that the poor must continuously battle juxtapozed with the conflicts and views that the very wealthy have towards them and their place in society. This film was also a bit of a landmark as it basically calls out the reform school and prison systems and squarely blames their inadequate systems on creating the modern hardened criminal played by Humphrey Bogart. It might not seem like a big deal these days but back then it caused quite a stir.
This film was also a landmark in that it introduced the gang of smart aleck gang of kids known in this film as the Dead End Kids and whom would later go on to make literally dozens of films in various incarnations probably the most famous of which is the Bowery Boys (which is where I first encountered them). Even with this knowledge I was fairly taken aback by the overall dark and depressing nature of the film as it draws a very bleak picture of the poor and their hopes and dreams or lack thereof.
I really enjoyed this picture although I do think some of its points and issues are a tad dated so its not quite as powerful as it was during its debut. With the properties of the very rich literally towering right over the ramshackle tenements of the poor it painted a very real line between the poor and the rich. A large and very clean door opens right into the tenement and acts as a beacon of hope for some, a sign of safety for some, and a temptation of violence for others.
In a particularly telling moment the new love of Joel McCrea (for whom he has recently fallen at the disappointment of an old flame) attempts to visit him in his worn down apartment complex. Leaving the safety of her expensive dwelling she starts to make her way up the stairs and bit by bit she is worn down by the filth and degradation until she finally breaks down and flees the filthy abode in utter fear and immediately runs through the clean doorway to take up safety in the comfort of the rich.
You see, she used to be poor just like them and although her love for Joel is strong, she can't overcome her fear of being that desperately poor again and so she must put aside her feelings and stay with her rich fiance'. Unknown to her Joel as seen her approach and escape and immediately realizes that it's just not to be.
The film features an interlocking array of characters all of whom dramatically affect the fate of one another with their actions bit by bit throughout the film. It all fits together very well and is fairly unflinching in its presentation of these characters. Bogart's gangster character comes back hoping to reconnect with his mother and old flame but the reunion of both is the worst possible outcome. Drina tries to save her brother from becoming more and more of a hardened street thug but she is almost helpless to watch as he becomes caught up in the nightmare of their situation.
In the end it's a very satisfying movie but then I felt something was a little off. For such a rough movie it somewhat tries to back-peddle a bit and soften the blow of the inevitable conflicts and the two main characters are given a somewhat hopeful outlook. Then I saw those giant words plastered on the ending board "Approved by the Movie Board Association" and I realised the date of the film and it all became clear.
Even though it's is a fairly dark film and I admired at how much of a statement they were allowed to make, I realized the Hays Code was in full effect at this point and I had to laugh. Apparently the writers did soften up the remaining main characters a little bit from the stage production and created a more hopeful outlook for them in the end.
Still, I did really enjoy this film and that way in which it immerses the viewer right into the run down Dead End neighborhood and made you live there was really magical and very well done.