Essential List of Films for Filmmakers by Spike Lee

"I've Been A Professor At The NYU Graduate Film For The Past 15 Years.The 1st Day Of Every Class I Hand Out My List Of Films That I Feel You Must See If You Want To Make Films. Please Look At This List And See What You Might Have Missed. As I Tell My Students If You Want Your Film "Game" To Be Tight You Must Have Seen Great Movies, World Cinema, It Just Can't Be Hollywood Films. Educate Yourself. Learn. Grow. Evolve. Make Great Films."

- Spike Lee

Weight: 30


  1. Single author (-50)
  2. Voted on by industry employee(s) (-20)

Films (86)

1. District 9

Directed by Neill Blomkamp | R | 112 min | 2009|

An extraterrestrial race forced to live in slum-like conditions on Earth suddenly finds a kindred spirit in a government agent who is exposed to their biotechnology.

Stream it on: Amazon iTunes link

2. Apocalypto

Directed by Mel Gibson | R | 139 min | 2006|

As the Mayan kingdom faces its decline, the rulers insist the key to prosperity is to build more temples and offer human sacrifices. Jaguar Paw, a young man captured for sacrifice, flees to avoid his fate.

3. Kung Fu Hustle

Directed by Stephen Chow | R | 99 min | 2004|

In Shanghai, China in the 1940s, a wannabe gangster aspires to join the notorious "Axe Gang" while residents of a housing complex exhibit extraordinary powers in defending their turf.

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4. City of God

Directed by Fernando Meirelles, Kátia Lund | R | 130 min | 2002|

Two boys growing up in a violent neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro take different paths: one becomes a photographer, the other a drug dealer.

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5. Dirty Pretty Things

Directed by Stephen Frears | R | 97 min | 2002|

An illegal Nigerian immigrant discovers the unpalatable side of London life.

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6. Hoop Dreams

Directed by Steve James | PG-13 | 170 min | 1994|

A film following the lives of two inner-city Chicago boys who struggle to become college basketball players on the road to going professional.

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7. Bad Lieutenant

Directed by Abel Ferrara | NC-17 | 96 min | 1992|

While investigating a young nun's rape, a corrupt New York City police detective, with a serious drug and gambling addiction, tries to change his ways and find forgiveness.

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8. Boyz n the Hood

Directed by John Singleton | R | 112 min | 1991|

Follows the lives of three young males living in the Crenshaw ghetto of Los Angeles, dissecting questions of race, relationships, violence and future prospects.

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9. Black Rain

Directed by Shôhei Imamura | 123 min | 1989|

The story of the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing, based on Masuji Ibuse's novel.

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10. Raising Arizona

Directed by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen | PG-13 | 94 min | 1987|

When a childless couple of an ex-con and an ex-cop decide to help themselves to one of another family's quintupelets, their lives get more complicated than they anticipated.

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11. Empire of the Sun

Directed by Steven Spielberg | PG | 153 min | 1987|

A young English boy struggles to survive under Japanese occupation during World War II.

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12. Ran

Directed by Akira Kurosawa | R | 162 min | 1985|

Set in Japan in the 16th century (or so), an elderly warlord retires, handing over his empire to his three sons. However, he vastly underestimates how the new-found power will corrupt them, or cause them to turn on each other...and him...

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13. Stranger Than Paradise

Directed by Jim Jarmusch | R | 89 min | 1984|

A self-styled New York hipster is paid a surprise visit by his younger cousin from Budapest. From initial hostility and indifference a small degree of affection grows between the two. Along...

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14. Zelig

Directed by Woody Allen | PG | 79 min | 1983|

"Documentary" about a man who can look and act like whoever he's around, and meets various famous people.

15. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior

Directed by George Miller | R | 94 min | 1981|

In the post-apocalyptic Australian wasteland, a cynical drifter agrees to help a small, gasoline rich, community escape a band of bandits.

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16. Thief

Directed by Michael Mann | R | 122 min | 1981|

Becoming closer to his dream of leading a normal life, a professional safecracker agrees to do a job for the mafia, who have other plans for him.

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17. Raging Bull

Directed by Martin Scorsese | R | 129 min | 1980|

An emotionally self-destructive boxer's journey through life, as the violence and temper that leads him to the top in the ring destroys his life outside it.

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18. Mad Max

Directed by George Miller | R | 88 min | 1979|

In a self-destructing world, a vengeful Australian policeman sets out to stop a violent motorcycle gang.

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19. Killer of Sheep

Directed by Charles Burnett | N/A | 83 min | 1978|

Stan works in drudgery at a slaughterhouse. His personal life is drab. Dissatisfaction and ennui keep him unresponsive to the needs of his adoring wife, and he must struggle against ...

20. Blue Collar

Directed by Paul Schrader | R | 114 min | 1978|

Three workers, Zeke (Richard Pryor), Jerry (Harvey Keitel) and Smokey (Yaphet Kotto), are working at a car plant and drinking their beers together. One night when they steal away from their...

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21. Days of Heaven

Directed by Terrence Malick | PG | 94 min | 1978|

A hot-tempered farm laborer convinces the woman he loves to marry their rich but dying boss so that they can have a claim to his fortune.

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22. Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Directed by Steven Spielberg | PG | 137 min | 1977|

After an encounter with U.F.O.s, a line worker feels undeniably drawn to an isolated area in the wilderness where something spectacular is about to happen.

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23. Marathon Man

Directed by John Schlesinger | R | 125 min | 1976|

A graduate history student is unwittingly caught in the middle of an international conspiracy involving stolen diamonds, an exiled Nazi war criminal, and a rogue government agent.

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24. Cooley High

Directed by Michael Schultz | PG | 107 min | 1975|

In 1964, a group of high school friends who live on the Near North Side of Chicago enjoy life to the fullest...parties, hanging out, meeting new friends. Then life changes for two of the ...

25. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Directed by Milos Forman | R | 133 min | 1975|

A criminal pleads insanity after getting into trouble again and once in the mental institution rebels against the oppressive nurse and rallies up the scared patients.

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26. Dog Day Afternoon

Directed by Sidney Lumet | R | 125 min | 1975|

A man robs a bank to pay for his lover's operation; it turns into a hostage situation and a media circus.

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27. The Godfather: Part II

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola | R | 202 min | 1974|

The early life and career of Vito Corleone in 1920s New York is portrayed while his son, Michael, expands and tightens his grip on his crime syndicate stretching from Lake Tahoe, Nevada to pre-revolution 1958 Cuba.

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28. Chinatown

Directed by Roman Polanski | R | 130 min | 1974|

A private detective hired to expose an adulterer finds himself caught up in a web of deceit, corruption and murder.

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29. Day for Night

Directed by François Truffaut | PG | 115 min | 1973|

A committed film director struggles to complete his movie while coping with a myriad of crises, personal and professional, among the cast and crew.

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30. The Last Detail

Directed by Hal Ashby | R | 104 min | 1973|

Two Navy men are ordered to bring a young offender to prison but decide to show him one last good time along the way.

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31. Mean Streets

Directed by Martin Scorsese | R | 112 min | 1973|

Following the life of a small-time hood who struggles with a moral crisis regarding his friends, family, business, and his conflicting religious beliefs.

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32. Badlands

Directed by Terrence Malick | PG | 94 min | 1973|

An impressionable teenage girl from a dead-end town and her older greaser boyfriend embark on a killing spree in the South Dakota badlands.

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33. Last Tango in Paris

Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci | NC-17 | 129 min | 1972|

A young Parisian woman meets a middle-aged American businessman who demands their clandestine relationship be based only on sex.

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34. The Godfather

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola | R | 175 min | 1972|

The aging patriarch of an organized crime dynasty transfers control of his clandestine empire to his reluctant son.

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35. Fat City

Directed by John Huston | PG | 100 min | 1972|

Two men, working as professional boxers, come to blows when their careers each begin to take opposite momentum.

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36. The Conformist

Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci | R | 111 min | 1970|

A weak-willed Italian man becomes a fascist flunky who goes abroad to arrange the assassination of his old teacher, now a political dissident.

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37. Patton

Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner | GP | 172 min | 1970|

The World War II phase of the career of the controversial American general, George S. Patton.

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38. MASH

Directed by Robert Altman | R | 116 min | 1970|

The staff of a Korean War field hospital use humor and hijinks to keep their sanity in the face of the horror of war.

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39. Midnight Cowboy

Directed by John Schlesinger | X | 113 min | 1969|

A naive hustler goes to New York to seek personal fortune but in the process finds himself a new friend.

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40. Bonnie and Clyde

Directed by Arthur Penn | 111 min | 1967|

A somewhat romanticized account of the career of the notoriously violent bank robbing couple and their gang.

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41. In the Heat of the Night

Directed by Norman Jewison | 109 min | 1967|

An African American police detective is asked to investigate a murder in a racially hostile southern town.

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42. Cool Hand Luke

Directed by Stuart Rosenberg | PG | 126 min | 1967|

A man refuses to conform to life in a rural prison.

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43. The Battle of Algiers

Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo | 121 min | 1966|

In the 1950s, fear and violence escalate as the people of Algiers fight for independence from the French government.

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44. Is Paris Burning?

Directed by René Clément | N/A | 173 min | 1966|

The departure of the German army from Paris in 1944.

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45. The Train

Directed by John Frankenheimer, Arthur Penn | 133 min | 1964|

In 1944, a German colonel loads a train with French art treasures to send to Germany. The Resistance must stop it without damaging the cargo.

Stream it on: iTunes link

46. I Am Cuba

Directed by Mikhail Kalatozov | N/A | 108 min | 1964|

Four vignettes about the lives of the Cuban people set during the pre-revolutionary era.

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47. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Directed by Stanley Kubrick | PG | 95 min | 1964|

An insane general triggers a path to nuclear holocaust that a war room full of politicians and generals frantically try to stop.

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Directed by Federico Fellini | 138 min | 1963|

A harried movie director retreats into his memories and fantasies.

49. Lawrence of Arabia

Directed by David Lean | PG | 216 min | 1962|

The story of T.E. Lawrence, the English officer who successfully united and lead the diverse, often warring, Arab tribes during World War I in order to fight the Turks.

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50. To Kill a Mockingbird

Directed by Robert Mulligan | 129 min | 1962|

Atticus Finch, a lawyer in the Depression-era South, defends a black man against an undeserved rape charge, and his kids against prejudice.

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51. Yojimbo

Directed by Akira Kurosawa | 110 min | 1961|

A crafty ronin comes to a town divided by two criminal gangs and decides to play them against each other to free the town.

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52. West Side Story

Directed by Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise | 152 min | 1961|

Two youngsters from rival New York City gangs fall in love, but tensions between their respective friends build toward tragedy.

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53. La Dolce Vita

Directed by Federico Fellini | 174 min | 1960|

A series of stories following a week in the life of a philandering paparazzo journalist living in Rome.

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54. Breathless

Directed by Jean-Luc Godard | 90 min | 1960|

A small-time thief steals a car and impulsively murders a motorcycle policeman. Wanted by the authorities, he reunites with a hip American journalism student and attempts to persuade her to run away with him to Italy.

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55. Spartacus

Directed by Stanley Kubrick | PG-13 | 197 min | 1960|

The slave Spartacus leads a violent revolt against the decadent Roman Republic.

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56. North by Northwest

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock | 136 min | 1959|

A hapless New York advertising executive is mistaken for a government agent by a group of foreign spies, and is pursued across the country while he looks for a way to survive.

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57. Some Like It Hot

Directed by Billy Wilder | 120 min | 1959|

When two musicians witness a mob hit, they flee the state in an all-female band disguised as women, but further complications set in.

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58. The 400 Blows

Directed by François Truffaut | 99 min | 1959|

Moving story of a young boy who, left without attention, delves into a life of petty crime.

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59. Black Orpheus

Directed by Marcel Camus | PG | 100 min | 1959|

A retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, set during the time of the Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro.

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60. Vertigo

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock | PG | 128 min | 1958|

A San Francisco detective suffering from acrophobia investigates the strange activities of an old friend's wife, all the while becoming dangerously obsessed with her.

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61. Touch of Evil

Directed by Orson Welles | PG-13 | 95 min | 1958|

A stark, perverse story of murder, kidnapping, and police corruption in a Mexican border town.

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62. The Bridge on the River Kwai

Directed by David Lean | PG | 161 min | 1957|

After settling his differences with a Japanese PoW camp commander, a British colonel co-operates to oversee his men's construction of a railway bridge for their captors - while oblivious to a plan by the Allies to destroy it.

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63. A Face in the Crowd

Directed by Elia Kazan | 126 min | 1957|

An Arkansas drifter becomes an overnight media sensation. As he becomes drunk with fame and power, will he ever be exposed as the fraud he has become?

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64. Paths of Glory

Directed by Stanley Kubrick | 88 min | 1957|

After refusing to attack an enemy position, a general accuses the soldiers of cowardice and their commanding officer must defend them.

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65. Lust for Life

Directed by Vincente Minnelli, George Cukor | 122 min | 1956|

The life of brilliant but tortured artist Vincent van Gogh.

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66. The Night of the Hunter

Directed by Charles Laughton, Robert Mitchum, Terry Sanders | 92 min | 1955|

A religious fanatic marries a gullible widow whose young children are reluctant to tell him where their real daddy hid $10,000 he'd stolen in a robbery.

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67. Rear Window

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock | 112 min | 1954|

A wheelchair-bound photographer spies on his neighbours from his apartment window and becomes convinced one of them has committed murder.

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68. On the Waterfront

Directed by Elia Kazan | 108 min | 1954|

An ex-prize fighter turned longshoreman struggles to stand up to his corrupt union bosses.

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69. La Strada

Directed by Federico Fellini | 108 min | 1954|

A care-free girl is sold to a traveling entertainer, consequently enduring physical and emotional pain along the way.

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70. Singin' in the Rain

Directed by Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly | 103 min | 1952|

A silent film production company and cast make a difficult transition to sound.

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71. Ace in the Hole

Directed by Billy Wilder | 111 min | 1951|

A frustrated former big-city journalist now stuck working for an Albuquerque newspaper exploits a story about a man trapped in a cave to re-jump start his career, but the situation quickly escalates into an out-of-control circus.

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72. An American in Paris

Directed by Vincente Minnelli | 113 min | 1951|

Three friends struggle to find work in Paris. Things become more complicated when two of them fall in love with the same woman.

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73. Miracle in Milan

Directed by Vittorio De Sica | N/A | 100 min | 1951|

An old woman finds a baby among the cauliflowers in her garden. She takes care of the orphan, and calls him Totò. When she dies, he is sent to an orphanage, which he leaves as a teenager. ...

74. Rashomon

Directed by Akira Kurosawa | 88 min | 1950|

A heinous crime and its aftermath are recalled from differing points of view.

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75. Los Olvidados

Directed by Luis Buñuel | 80 min | 1950|

A group of juvenile delinquents live a violent and crime-filled life in the festering slums of Mexico City, and the morals of young Pedro are gradually corrupted and destroyed by the others...

76. Home of the Brave

Directed by Mark Robson | N/A | 88 min | 1949|

During WW2, a reconnaissance platoon is sent to map out a Japanese-held island but racial tensions arise between the white soldiers and the only black member of the group.

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77. White Heat

Directed by Raoul Walsh | 114 min | 1949|

A psychopathic criminal with a mother complex makes a daring break from prison and leads his old gang in a chemical plant payroll heist. Shortly after the plan takes place, events take a crazy turn

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78. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Directed by John Huston | 126 min | 1948|

Fred Dobbs and Bob Curtin, two Americans searching for work in Mexico, convince an old prospector to help them mine for gold in the Sierra Madre Mountains.

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79. The Red Shoes

Directed by Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger | 133 min | 1948|

A young ballet dancer is torn between the man she loves and her pursuit to become a prima ballerina.

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80. Bicycle Thieves

Directed by Vittorio De Sica | 89 min | 1948|

Set in Post-WWII Italy, a working class man's bicycle is stolen. He and his son set out to find it.

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81. Paisan

Directed by Roberto Rossellini | 120 min | 1946|

Six vignettes follow the Allied invasion from July 1943 to winter 1944, from Sicily north to Venice. Communication is fragile. A woman leads an Allied patrol through a mine field; she dies ...

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82. Rome, Open City

Directed by Roberto Rossellini | 103 min | 1945|

During the Nazi occupation of Rome in 1944, resistance leader Giorgio Manfredi is chased by Nazis and he seeks refuge and escape.

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83. Casablanca

Directed by Michael Curtiz | PG | 102 min | 1942|

In Casablanca, Morocco in December 1941, a cynical American expatriate meets a former lover, with unforeseen complications.

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84. The Maltese Falcon

Directed by John Huston | 100 min | 1941|

A private detective takes on a case that involves him with three eccentric criminals, a gorgeous liar, and their quest for a priceless statuette.

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85. The Wizard of Oz

Directed by Victor Fleming, George Cukor, Mervyn LeRoy, Norman Taurog, King Vidor | 102 min | 1939|

Dorothy Gale is swept away to a magical land in a tornado and embarks on a quest to see the Wizard who can help her return home.

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86. Dead End

Directed by William Wyler | 93 min | 1937|

The Dead End Kids, an unemployed architect, and gangster Baby Face Martin interact with an East Side neighborhood over one day and night.

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