No Trees in the Street (UK, 1959)

Social problem noir

Willis Hall adapted his own play for J Lee Thompson to direct and it has a top of the range cast including Sylvia Sims, Herbert Lom and Stanley Holloway. Juvenile delinquency was a hot topic in the ‘fifties but this film is set, after a contemporary framing device featuring a very young David Hemmings, in the 1930s. The bird’s eye view shot of the Isle of Dogs (prefiguring the UK TV soap opera Eastenders title graphic) during the credit sequence firmly places the film in the East End slums and the film does a good job of representing the degrading environment in both the set design and the scratty clothes of the crowded streets.

Part of the difficulty ’50s cinema had to contend with was the narrow representations afforded women: basically the virgin-mother-whore types. However No Trees in the Street deals with this well for, after ensuring we understood Sims’ Hetty to be ‘sweet and virginal’, it allows Lom’s small time racketeer, WIlkie, to seduce her. I guess this was a ‘cutting-edge’ scene at the time in British cinema. Characterisation is a strength of the film as Lom fills the role with conflicted desperation; he’s a migrant who’s pulled himself up by his bootstraps and the film makes clear that crime was one of the few options available out of poverty. It is his decency that wins over Hetty but his insecurity is never far away. Stanley Holloway is, as ever, his excellent self as a has-been who finds solace in a bottle.

Thompson’s direction is excellent too with many shots obviously inspired by film noir; for example the low angle as the good detective thumps Wilkie makes him loom over the hoodlum. Thompson was on a roll at the time with Yield to the Night (1956), Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957) and Ice Cold in Alex (1959). Melvin Hayes, in his debut, has the right scrawny build for the pathetic teenager brother of Hetty whose desperate attempts to get money drives the conflict.

The film betrays its theatrical origins with its restricted settings but this does add to the claustrophobia of the characters’ world. Ronald Howard’s portrayal of the good guy copper is a little dated now though the exchange he has with his boss, who oozes contempt for the poor, brings a dash of modernity. As the title suggests the film is falling on the side of social circumstance (rather than innate badness) as responsible for crime and at the climactic moment Hetty assures her brother no one is born evil. It’s ironic that, in the framing scenes, we are shown the street now happily renovated with… high rise flats.

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Dead End (US, 1937)

Lost love

It was a real treat to revisit Dead End as it was a reminder that Hollywood, via independent producer Sam Goldwyn here, didn’t always ignore working class poverty. Adapted by Lilian Hellman from Sidney Kingsley’s hit play, Dead End focuses on a day in the life of a poor neighbourhood in New York. It melodramatically mixes poor and rich; road works necessitate the latter using the service entrance for their ‘high end’ apartments. While the focus is on the ‘dead end kids’, teens who are already delinquent (played by members of the original Broadway cast), the generation before them is where the real interest lies. Joel McCrea and Sylvia Sydney are the leads playing decent folk being worn down by the lack of opportunity; the Depression was still causing economic ruin. Humphrey Bogart and Claire Trevor play the gangster returning to his roots to see his old girlfriend.

Goldwyn often employed William Wyler to direct and Dead End is also graced with Gregg Toland’s cinematography. There are scenes of chiaroscuro lighting that suggest film noir – years before the genre started – and a few years later he was photographing Citizen Kane. The film has quality everything: script, stars, direction, cinematography and great set design by Richard Day. Kudos to Sam Goldwyn for pulling it all together.

Although we unsurprisingly get a hopeful ending it’s not exactly happy and the rich are shown for the heartless leaches that they are. If McCrae and Sidney are a little too nice there’s no missing the menace of Bogart’s wanted man who’s found a life on the run is not good enough despite his wealth. The brief scene where he and his old flame are reunited is electric; Trevor easily matching Bogart’s understated brilliance. She’s had to become a prostitute and has one of those coughs that signify the character is dying. The joy they feel at seeing one another again after many years shows what might have been but their poverty ‘insisted’ instead that they lead lives of degradation. The scene is cinematic brilliance.

Apparently there’s some deep focus cinematography in the film, which Wyler was to become well known for, but that didn’t strike me. The shootout between McCrea and Bogart, the chiaroscuro I noted earlier, is brilliantly done. They don’t make ‘em like this any more. Film noir was about to enter Hollywood and became the darkness on the edge of its town.