Saturday, February 21, 2009

Movies: Dead End

A super surprise treat on New York’s East River in the 1930s (shot on an unrecognizable corner perhaps located near today’s Sutton Place), where a grand new apartment building has brought the hoi polloi in direct contact with the tenement slums. The local kids (the real stars of the movie, who give it genuine vibrancy with their loudmouth clowning and physical antics, fighting and throwing each other into the river) watch the drama unfold: an old neighborhood boy (golden Joel McCrea) who took the straight route versus big-time gangster Babyface Martin (Humphrey Bogart), who’s come back to see his mother (who slaps him across the face and says she hopes he’ll die) and his old girlfriend (who now makes ends meet as a prostitute).

Refusing to leave empty-handed, Babyface hatches a plot to kidnap the same rich kid the local kids have just beat up, but the good guy senses that something’s up, now that he’s no longer big-eyed over the rich girl who had been leading him on (he sees her disgust at the roaches in his apartment building). After a great chase scene in the shadowy hallways and across the dark rooftops and fire-escapes of the slum, our hero shoots Babyface dead, winning rights to a $4800 reward. His rich girl comes back, thrilled that they can live on the money in style for a year (and after that? Who cares, at least she’ll get one year of happiness, she says), but he sends her away, at last seeing the beautiful but poor local girl as his honest match, and pledging his reward money to hire a lawyer to keep her little brother (one of the local kids, under arrest for the most innocuous knifing you’ve ever seen) out of reform school.

Bogart’s heart-broken tough-guy is fantastic, but the movie belongs to the rag-tag kids, who make their own rules and seem to be having a pretty good time, despite their lack of future. Stripped to their shorts for swimming in the filthy river, their narrow chests are big with bombast as they do mocking impressions of the doorman and the rich men and women coming in and out of the fancy-pants building, plunked right in front of their hangout. I’d love to see this movie remade today, in gentrifying Harlem or East Williamsburg, though I suppose I’m the bad guy now.

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