Tag Archives: Don Siegel

Juvenile delinquents of yore

The movies that launched a wave of 1950s dramas about rowdy urban kids/ violent juvenile delinquents were Richard Brooks’s “Blackboard Jungle” (1955) with future directors Sidney Poitier and Paul Mazursky as juvenile leads, and the “chicken” drag racers and switchblade-wielders with whom James Dean competed in “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955), which also starred Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo (the latter receiving an Oscar nomination as the needy Plato). Perhaps someone in Hollywood had seen Luis Buñuel’s gritty Mexican slum kid drama “Los olvidados” (1950), which certainly broke with the sentimental Dead End Kids and Bowery Boy movies of the late-1930s.

Don Siegel, fresh from the profitable low-budget sci-fi classic “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” directed “ Crime in the Streets (1956), based on a television drama by Reginald Rose (“12 Angry Men,” “Man of the West,” and the Sal Mineo vehicle “Dino”) in a few weeks on a single studio set of a street corner with a candy/soda shop owned by Italian immigrant Mr. Gioia (Will Kiluva), father of the 15-year-old Angelo ‘Baby’ Gioia on one side and the walk-up tenement in which the leader of the pack (a gang with jackets emblazoned “Hornets”), eighteen-year-old layabout Frankie Dane (future cinema vérité director John Cassaveates in his big-screen debut) lives with his adoring if intimidated younger brother Richie (Peter J. Votrian).

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The movie begins with a “rumble’ which the Hornets win and the beating and humiliation of a boy from the rival gang they capture. Mr. McAllister (Malcolm Atterbury) who lives above the Danes brings in the police who arrest Chuck (Doyle Baker) for having a pistol.

Social worker Ben Wagner (big-eyebrowed James Whitmore) tries to smooth things over and makes repeated attempts to engage Frankie and his exhausted mother (Virgina Gregg) in earnest conversation before Frankie commits some felony or another.

Frankie has enlisted “Baby,” who is (as in Sal Mineo’s character in “Rebel Without a Cause”) desperate for acceptance from the older hoodlum who shows some interest in him, and the psychopathic, dim-witted Lou Macklin (played by future director Mark Rydell, whose most memorable work before the camera is as Terry Augustine in Robert Alman’s “The Long Goodbye”) in a fantasy of slaying Mr. McAllister when he comes back late from bowling.

Siegel seems to have reveled in portraying very nasty criminals (Lee Marvin in the remake of “The Killers” with Cassavetaes as the one targeted, the scum skimmed by Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry,” “Charley Varrick”). The movie plays well on smaller screens with extended close-ups of Cassaveates and Mineo (especially a tow-shot in which Mineo is in the foreground, nonverbally reacting to his father’s pleas from over his shoulder to be a good boy).

”Crime in the Streets” (1956) was a very tough for the 1950s melodrama about white slum gangs. It is available in the fifth volume of Warner Brothers “Film Noir Classic Collection,” released earlier this month, with Harold Clurman’s “Deadline at Dawn,” Phil Karlson’s “Phenix City Story” and five others. All had to adhere to the Production Code, and either punish criminals or save them somehow. “Crime in the Streets” is not as campy as the 1958 “High School Confidential! (1958) with pre-“West Side Story” Russ Tamblyn, and pre-“Bonanza” Michael Landon (and drugs, the staple of movies about young slum-dwelling gangstas now).

 

What surprised me most about “Crime in the Streets” was that its jazzy music score was written by Franz Waxman, whose scores were generally for A-pictures and neo-romantic (Rebecca, Suspicion, the Oscar-winning ones for Sunset Blvd. and A Place in the Sun). Of course, there is also rock’n’roll for dancing in the street, which involves some rough handling of a few girls by the more numerous boys hanging outside the Gioia store.

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I knew that Robert Altman directed industrial documentaries and many television dramas, including “Bonanza” and “Combat!” before the gritty junkie movie “That Cold Day in the Park” (1969) and his break-out (1970) “M*A*S*H, but did not realize he had made a documentary “The James Dean Story,” in 1957, and in the same year a low-budget black-and-white movie title “The Delinquents.” It has a very heavy-handed voice-over frame, imploring parents to supervise their teenagers so they don’t become hoodlums (and gangster molls if female). ”The story you are about to see is about violence and immorality — teenage violence and immorality, children trapped in the half-world between adolescence and maturity…”

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As Scotty, the future Billy Jack (Tom Laughlin) is miffed that the parents of his girlfriend Janice Wilson (Rosemary Howard) forbade her to go out with him any more (let alone “go steady”). A devious but presentable gang leader Cholly (Peter Miller) volunteers to pick Janice up and deliver her to Scotty. She does not want to go to a party (with beer and “Dirty Rock Boogie.” in an abandoned house, but Scotty feels obligated.

I won’t reveal how Scotty and Cholly meet, since that is the best part of the movie. The movie has some interest for showing 1950s conceptions. The last third, a “woman imperiled by a psychopath captor” is not bad. Altman was able to borrow cops from the Kansas City, MO to appear in the movie, his first feature-length (well, at 75 minutes, B-picture) fictional movie.

There is no overlapping dialogue, and the cast is small.

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The feature-film debut of writer-director Jim Jarmusch (born in Akron, Ohio), “Permanent Vacation” (1980; also running 75 minutes) includes a car-jacking, and a young slacker who knows where to offload a stolen car, but no gangs.

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The voiceover is not The Voice of Authority clucking at those darn kids, but the would-be artiste Aloysius ‘Allie’ Parker (giraffe-necked Chris Parker with a greasy pompadour) who reads Lautreamont’s Maldoror (in the Penguin Classic edition, not in French) and wanders around having sort of encounters with various spaced-out New Yorkers, including his mother in a mental hospital, a rep cinema popcorn vendor who pays even less attention to him than the girlfriend of sorts on whose floor he sometimes crashes, Leila (Leila Gastil). That allows an homage in the form of the movie poster of Nicholas Ray’s The Savage Innocents.” There’s also a Latina madwoman, a black man who talks to himself, and a paranoid schizophrenic white man: New York human wreckage of the early 1980s as paraded by a pretentious recent film-school student who had seen too many Godard movies, and perhaps the Beat “Pull My Daisy”?

To my total lack of surprise, Jarmusch’s first movie showed no narrative gift, but the tedium was relieved by occasional eccentricities, as “Dead Man,” and other later Jarmusch films are. (There are more parts of “Mystery Train” (1989) that I like, and I like most of” Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai” (1999).)

“Permanent Vacation” is available currently as a bonus disc of the new Criterion edition of “Stranger Than Paradise” (1984), the odd black-and-white movie of visiting Hungarians in Cleveland unable to see Lake Erie through the snowfall when they go to the lakeside. John Lurie of the Lounge Lizards plays the slacker whose teenage Hungarian female cousin descends to disrupt his life in NYC in “Stranger.” Lurie is the saxophonist acting out the Doppler Effect in “Permanent Vacation,” though it is Allie Parker who quotes saxophonist Charlie Parker about living fast and dying young… (Lurie was also in “Downtown 81,” the documentary about a day in the life of graffiti artist Jean Michel Basquiat that has also recently become available on DVD.)

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The Criterion DVD of “Stranger in Paradise” includes a booklet by Gary Indiana praising the verisimilitude of “Permanent Vacation.” No one is going to praise the pacing or tightness of construction, I’m sure!

Allie is just passing through, next stop Paris (quel surprise!)

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None of these three movies has much interest beyond the talents they introduced to movie screens (Altman, Cassaveates, Jarmusch, Rydell) or were otherwise newish (Mineo, Siegel). Plus some as time capsules of alienated mid-1950s and early-1980s youth. (Altman’s “Delinquents” were middle-class and I infer that Allie’s pre-Manhattan background was middle-class Middle America.)

©2019, Stephen O.  Murray