In the slums of New York, on the East River just below the Queensboro Bridge, wealthy people live in opulent and luxurious apartments because of the picturesque views of the river, while the destitute and poor live nearby in crowded, cockroach-infested tenements.
At the end of the street is a dock on the East River; to the left are the luxury apartments and to the right are the slums. The Dead End Kids, led by Tommy Gordon (Billy Halop), are a gang of street urchins who are already well on the path to a life of petty crime. Members of the gang besides Tommy include, Dippy (Huntz Hall), Angel (Bobby Jordan), Spit (Leo Gorcey), T.B. (Gabriel Dell), and Milty (Bernard Punsly), the new kid on the block in search of friends. Spit is a bit malicious with a cruel streak and initially bullies the newcomer and takes his pocket change. However, Tommy eventually lets Milty join the gang, and he turns out to be both a loyal and generous friend.
Tommy's sister, Drina (Sylvia Sidney), dreams of marrying some dashing, rich stranger who will save her and Tommy from this miserable life of poverty and help prevent Tommy from growing up to be a mobster like Hugh "Baby Face" Martin (Humphrey Bogart), who has returned to the neighborhood to visit his mother and childhood girlfriend. Dave Connell (Joel McCrea), raised on the same street as Martin, recognizes him and warns him to stay away, but Martin contemptuously ignores him. Dave, a frustrated architect who currently works odd jobs, is Drina's childhood friend. He is having an affair with a rich man's mistress, Kay Burton (Wendy Barrie). Although Dave and Kay love each other, they know they can't be together because Dave cannot provide Kay with the kind of lifestyle she desires.
Meanwhile, the kids lure Philip (Charles Peck), a rich kid from the apartments, into a cellar where they beat and rob him. When the boy's father tries to intervene, Tommy winds up stabbing him in the arm. He escapes the police and goes into hiding.
Martin is subsequently rejected by his mother (Marjorie Main), who denounces him as a murderer, and repulsed by his ex-girlfriend, Francie (Claire Trevor), who is now a prostitute and "sick" (a coded reference to her suffering late term stages of syphilis). Despondent over the failed visit, he decides to kidnap the rich child for ransom to make the trip back worthwhile. Dave sees Martin and his accomplices planning the kidnapping and again warns him to leave. Martin knifes him and Hunk (Allen Jenkins) pushes him into the river. Managing to pull himself out of the river, Dave pursues the hoodlums, knocking out Hank and chasing Martin on the rooftops before cornering him on a fire escape. Among a hail of bullets, he manages to kill Martin who falls onto the street below.
As the police and a crowd of people gather around Martin's body, the doorman (Ward Bond) recognizes Spit as being a member of the gang that attacked the rich kid's father and identifies him to Officer Mulligan (James Burke). Spit exonerates himself by informing the police that the man was cut by Tommy, who has returned to say goodbye to Drina before running away.
Meanwhile, Kay approaches Dave asking him to go away with her, using the reward money that he received for killing Martin. Dave refuses, and Kay returns to the man whom she doesn't love, but can provide her with financial security.
Tommy hears of Spit's betrayal and tries to give him the mark of the "squealer", which is a knife wound across the cheek. Before he can do so, Dave intervenes, and he and Drina convince Tommy to surrender to the police. Dave then offers to use his reward money to pay for Tommy's defense. As Drina, Dave, and Tommy leave with Mulligan, the rest of the Dead End Kids meander off into the night, singing "If I had the wings of an angel, over these prison walls I would fly."Billy Halop as Tommy Gordon
Huntz Hall as Dippy
Bobby Jordan as Angel
Leo B. Gorcey as Spit
Gabriel Dell as T.B.
Bernard Punsly as Milton 'Milty'
Sylvia Sidney as Drina Gordon
Joel McCrea as Dave Connell
Humphrey Bogart as Hugh "Baby Face" Martin
Wendy Barrie as Kay Burton
Claire Trevor as Francey
Allen Jenkins as Hunk
Marjorie Main as Mrs. Martin
Charles Peck as Philip Griswald
Minor Watson as Mr. Griswald
James Burke as Officer Mulligan
Ward Bond as Doorman
Elisabeth Risdon as Mrs. Connell
Esther Dale as Mrs. Fenner
George Humbert as Pascagli
Marcelle Corday as Governess
Charles Halton as Whitey
Dead End was filmed from May 3 through July 8, 1937.
Robert Osborne, film historian, stated that Joel McCrea had a tough time working with Humphrey Bogart, especially during the scene "...on the rooftop, guns ready, and standing very close to each other. During the filming of that scene, McCrea kept flinching and the director William Wyler had to keep doing more takes. Finally, Wyler pulled McCrea aside, and he asked him what was wrong. McCrea, embarrassed to tell him, explained that Bogart kept spitting in his face when he was speaking. Not exactly what Wyler was expecting to hear or to be the problem. Happens with actors more than you can imagine."
The stage directions to the play indicate that Rockefeller Center can be seen in the distance, which would place the location of the pier at approximately 50th Street in Manhattan. In the movie, the location is made more definite as 53rd Street, adjoining a luxury building that is obviously the River House, which was and is at that location.
The actual Dead End was the corner of East 53rd Street and the East River. Sutton Place South runs north from East 53rd Street at that corner. The producers of the play and movie made a painstaking effort to recreate that very area in the stage scenery. The River House at the end of East 53rd Street closely resembles the Griswalds' house in the play and movie. One can find traces of some of the locales in Dead End in that area, however, the pier and tenements are gone and the Dead End is now part of Sutton Place Park and Exit 11 of FDR Drive.
The official name of the "Dead End" Kids is on the brick wall in chalk behind the boys as they play cards.This wall and the inscription is shown in several scenes throughout the film. The graffiti reads: East 53rd Place Gang Members Only. Writing in the New York Times, Carter B. Horsley said of the River House: "Erected in 1931 when its area still teemed with tenements, it was mocked in the famous and popular 1936 movie, 'Dead End' that was Lillian Hellman's adaptation of Sidney Kingsley's play." 
It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Art Direction (Richard Day), Academy Award for Best Cinematography (Gregg Toland) and Best Supporting Actress (Claire Trevor).
In 2008, the American Film Institute nominated this film for its Top 10 Gangster Films list.
The film was released on VHS and Beta in 1985 by Embassy Home Entertainment and on DVD on March 8, 2005 by MGM.