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Double Feature: “Dead End” (1937), “The African Queen” (1951)

“Dead End”
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Sylvia Sidney, Joel McCrea, Billy Halop, Allen Jenkins

Sidney Kingsley’s “Dead End” offered a different look at gangland in the ’30s, and so it is with William Wyler’s gritty film adaptation. Wyler’s work does not show the daily tasks, murderous and mundane, of a gangster. Instead, “Dead End” details the two critical parts of the lifestyle: the beginning and the end. Neither one is attractive. At the beginning end of the spectrum is Tommy (Billy Hallop), a ringleader in his East Side slum gang known as The Dead End Kids. The name fits. Tommy lives in abject poverty with his sister Drina (an arresting Sylvia Sidney), who’s participating in a union strike in hopes of fairer wages. Drina gets a look at where Tommy could end up (if he’s lucky) when well-to-do famed Mafioso Babyface Martin (Humphrey Bogart) returns to his stomping grounds wearing a face altered by drastic plastic surgery. While Tommy’s just started down his path of violence, Babyface may have come to the end of his.

This is the intriguing dichotomy that Kingsley’s play sets up; however, it’s a bit simplistic to call “Dead End” a picture of haves vs. have nots. Tommy — like fellow Dead End Kids Dippy (Huntz Hall), Angel (Bobby Jordan), Spit (Leo Gorcey), T.B. (Gabriel Dell) — is miserably poor, but he has Drina there to defend him and bail him out. Babyface isn’t quite so lucky. He has his right-hand man Hunk (Allen Jenkins) and no one else. Gangsters don’t gain notoriety and status by trusting people; they do it by keeping the world at arm’s length. Babyface believes that because people in his circle fear, even revere him, the faces of his past will fall in line blindly, too. That is not to be. Bogart’s expressive face tells its own story, a story without a happy ending. The neighborhood he left behind is the same, but different in the ways that matter most to him. His mother doesn’t welcome him with open arms; she slaps him weakly and berates him, calling him a murder. His one-time dame Francey (Claire Trevor, heart-twisting in a tiny role) isn’t the tawny, slim beauty of his boyhood; she’s a haggard, sickly prostitute at the end of her rope. Used to getting exactly what he wants when he wants it, Babyface is ill-prepared to face grim reality … which is all Tommy and his friends have in the world.

There are other stories in “Dead End” — including the smaller thread about Drina’s love for her unemployed architect friend Dave (Joel McCrea), besotted with rich man’s mistress Kay (Wendy Barrie), and a new boy’s (Bernard Punsly) pitiful attempts to befriend The Dead End Kids — but none quite so arresting as those of Tommy and Babyface. Halop and Gorcey, in particular, set themselves apart from the gang; Gorcey’s Spit has the swagger, and Halop’s Tommy has the muscle. Gregg Toland’s cinematography complements the anxious and slightly elegaic atmosphere, the camera roving over the ramshackle dock, the shoddy, abandoned buildings and the dirty back alleys both Babyface and The Dead End Kids call home. The set feels intimate, and not necessarily in a good way: Everyone lives in everyone else’s back pocket, so the misery of hard times and poverty compounds exponentially. This is the slums at pavement level, the very bottom, and still there is a sliver of hope for the people who live there. They accept the limitations of the slums, while Babyface can’t let go of how things used to be.

Grade: A

~~~~~~~~~~

“The African Queen”
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, Robert Morley, Peter Bull

Range is a precious commodity in Hollywood. Back in the ’40s and ’50s, when film noir ruled, it was especially precious. Films like “Dark Passage” and “”The Maltese Falcon” offered convincing evidence that maybe it was a commodity Humphrey Bogart didn’t have. Then in marched “In a Lonely Place,” helmed by Bogart’s nuanced, knock-’em-flat performance. But the true kicker, the real piece of dynamite, was John Huston’s “The African Queen” — not because it was dazzlingly original in plot or technique (it wasn’t) but because Bogart stepped out of character. It might be more accurate to say he leapt out of character, given how different the light-hearted Charlie Allnut was from the Sam Spades, Philip Marlowes and Rip Murdocks of his resume. Allnut’s all humor, no sardonic undercut, no dark subtext … which is surely what secured Bogart’s one and only Best Actor Oscar* (ripping it away from Brando, nominated for “A Streecar Named Desire”). Decades before Sean Penn’s win for “Milk,” there was “The African Queen.”

Oscar aside, there’s something disquieting about Humphrey “Here’s looking at you, kid” Bogart making like Otis the happy drunk on a ramshackle boat. But he plays the part well enough that once the shock fades out the goofy enjoyment sets in (provided viewers can swallow the loony plot about a tiny boat torpedoeing a giant German gunship). Bogart’s Charlie Allnut is the Canadian captain of small vessel The African Queen docked in German East Africa in 1914. His easygoing attitude and coarse manners horrify Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) and her minister brother Samuel (Robert Morley), missionaries who have started a church nearby. The two ignore Charlie’s warnings that Germany and Britain are at war, and Rose finds herself alone and desperate after the Germans burn the village and Samuel succumbs to fever. Allnut’s return is her only shot at salvation, but she decides to elevate salvation into a revenge plot: She wants to turn The African Queen into a torpedo boat and ram it into the side of the Louisa. Steering through rapids gives her a taste for danger and adventure she’s never had before (the brush with death spawns one of the film’s funniest innuendo-laden lines: “I never dreamed that any mere physical experience could be so stimulating!”). Charlie quickly learns that Rose isn’t nearly the shrinking violent she looks to be.

Huston doesn’t much concern himself with crafting a believable tale in “The African Queen,” which would matter more if the Bogart-Hepburn union wasn’t a harmonious one. The actors have a solid odd-couple appeal that keeps things comical and light-hearted, just enough to balance the zaniness of Rose’s kamikaze scheme. They have the believable chemistry of two strangers thrown together by chance who build a relationship on their shared intense experience. There’s additional appeal in the fact that the heroes of “African Queen” aren’t young and impeccably coiffed and naïve, a welcome reminder that romance and adventure stop being fun after 25. Even as “The African Queen” sputters toward its perfectly ludicrous conclusion, Bogart and Hepburn keep the laughs — some silly, some poignant — coming. The characters bring out the best in each other, something only best romances accomplish.

Grade: B-

*The movie Bogie really deserved the Oscar for was “In a Lonely Place.”

Review: “Key Largo” (1948)

Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart) is through being a soldier. He’s settled into his new life as a drifter, moving from place to place in search of the odd jobs that finance his food, drink, lodging and cigarettes. Frank wants to put the war behind him, wants to make a career of laying low. But a bit of wrong-place/wrong-time bad luck forces his hand and drums into his head what he’s worked so hard to ignore: “When your head says one thing and your whole life says another, your head always loses.”

Bogart always could take a simple, unassuming line and give it the weary ring of gospel truth. His finest performances spring from characters who fail to bridge the gap between who they want to be and who they really are. In John Huston’s tense thriller “Key Largo,” Bogart’s tired but resilient ex-soldier is not alone in his ambivalence. The Key Largo hotel Frank has stopped in is populated with people who want something they can’t have or are afraid to want. Though they are the hostages of mobster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson), they’re also hostages, in a way, to their own desires. There is Nora Temple (Lauren Bacall), whose late husband served in World War II with Frank. She feels an attraction to Frank she’d dare not voice; her eyes give away everything. There is James Temple (Lionel Barrymore), Nora’s ailing and crippled father-in-law, who wishes he was young and healthy enough to take down Rocco and his clowning goons. Saddest of all is Gaye Dawn (a gut-wrenching Claire Trevor), Johnny Rocco’s girl, formerly a hot-ticket lounge singer. When Johnny’s desire for her turned to disgust and cruelty, she turned to alcohol and checked out of reality. Gaye, more than anyone else, knows the burden of carrying the memory of the person you’ll never be again.

So “Key Largo” is a multi-layered character study where much of the action takes place in one location: James Temple’s hotel. The setting manufactures a feeling of claustrophobia that heightens the anxiety; the hurricane raging outside the hotel adds another level of menace. These elements, when mixed with Bogart’s increasingly unsuccessful attempts to seem impartial, ratchet up the tension further. While hostage situations lend themselves to that charged atmosphere naturally, Robinson’s bombastic, smirking performance as the entitled gangster helps things along. He doesn’t make his entrance — Johnny Rocco loves a grand entrance — until his lackeys, Curly (Thomas Gomez) and the wisecracking Toots (Harry Lewis), disarm the local sheriff (Monte Blue) and corral the hostages. Johnny intends to trade some counterfit bills and commandeer a boat so he and his crew can escape to Cuba. He’s supremely confident he will succeed: “I was too much for any big city police force to handle. It took the United States government to pin a rap on me. And they won’t make it stick.” He struts and preens, even tossing Frank a gun and trying to anger him into a shootout. Frank doesn’t nibble the bait, leaving us to wonder if he’ll choose inaction to the end.

Frank McCloud does not represent a new direction for Bogart, but somehow the actor makes the character’s troubles feel new. (That was Bogart’s way.) His slow-growing anger is a dynamite match for Robinson’s cocky, boastful energy, leading to a violent, nerve-wracking showdown that’s a game of cat and mouse. Johnny Rocco is a character, but as a criminal he’s no joke — his sing-for-a-drink treatment of his dame Gaye is purely sadistic, and that scene may be what snaps Frank to action. Or perhaps his motivation can be found in a quieter moment, bar none the most wrenching and beautiful shot I’ve ever seen. The camera moves in slowly toward Bogart, looking down at the sleeping Nora. He reaches out his hand gingerly and strokes her hair. He leaves his hand there. Seconds later, the camera catches him looking at Bacall — and oh, what a look. There’s more longing and romance in that look than can be found in volumes of Romantic poetry. It is a symphony of feeling, and it is the moment where he knows and we know that he can’t play cool anymore.

Grade: A