Teen-Age Crime Wave (1955) is another surprisingly good, crackling little B-movie from actor-turned-director Fred F. Sears, toiling away in Sam Katzman's Clover Productions B-unit at Columbia Pictures. Despite unconvincing, overage teenagers who talk like 1930s gangsters and B-Western villains, the movie otherwise is taut and well directed, interesting and never dull.
The movie's ripe dialogue became an easy target for the show Mystery Science Theater 3000, which held Teen-Age Crime Wave up for ridicule in one episode and apparently referred to it in many others. But, like so many of the movies featured on that and similarly smug shows, it unjustly takes the movie out of context, with a kind of willful ignorance of the period in which it was made.
While certainly dated now, at the time Teen-Age Crime Wave was rather prescient, anticipating bigger and more influential movies with similar themes. It was filmed over 10 days in January 1955 and released that November. That would put its production ahead of the release of MGM's Blackboard Jungle, and a full three months before production even started on Rebel Without a Cause. In an amusing coincidence, Teen-Age Crime Wave and Rebel Without a Cause have similar climaxes: teen vs. cops shoot-outs filmed at Griffith Park Observatory.
A manufactured-on-demand, Sony "Choice Collection" release, Teen-Age Crime Wave is presented in a solid 1.85:1 enhanced wide screen transfer, sourcing decent film elements. There are no extra features or even menu screens.
Teen-Age Crime Wave (called "Teenage Crime Wave" on the posters and the DVD, but not onscreen) opens like Hell's House (1932), so much so that at first I thought this might be a remake. Innocent suburban Los Angeles teenager Jane (Sue England) is in the wrong place at the wrong time, unaware that new friends Terry (Mollie McCart), Mike (Tommy Cook) and Al (James Ogg) are juvenile delinquents. Underage Terry flirts with a middle-aged man in a bar, luring him outside in a botched robbery attempt. Mike and Al get away but Jane and Terry are arrested. Jane's parents are horrified, particularly her mother: "You've sinned and now you'll have to pay," she says without a whiff of sympathy. "I don't know how your father will ever face his business friends again!"
In the scene most resembling Hell's House, Jane and Terry are brought before the juvenile court judge (Doris Packer) in her chambers. She is sympathetic to the obviously nonviolent Jane and her lack of a criminal record but when Jane refuses to identify Mike and Al (why not?) the judge is left no choice but to sentence her to one-year at "industrial school." Terry gets a much stiffer sentence: juvenile hall for a year, then five more at the state pen once she turns twenty-one.
During the ride to industrial school, Teen-Age Crime Wave takes a sudden Detour into low-budget noir territory. Mike intercepts the sedan carrying the girls, Mike fatally shooting the police officer-driver and nearly beating to death the elderly matron accompanying the young women. Jane tries to flee but Mike and Terry essentially kidnap her, ditching Mike's car in a ravine and deciding to hole up at a remote farmhouse, 30 miles from Lancaster in the Antelope Valley.
Pious, retirement age Tom and Sarah Grant (James Bell and Kay Riehl) see their home invaded by the fugitives, and later their war hero son Ben (Frank Griffin) also becomes a hostage. Constant television, radio, and newspaper* reports about the fugitives, likening the innocent Jane to her cold-blooded kidnappers, finally inspires Jane's more sympathetic father (Guy Kingsford) to press the police to reopen the robbery case as the dragnet builds steam.
Teen-Age Crime Wave, originally shot as Jail Bait but changed to avoid confusion with Edward D. Wood, Jr.'s infamous film, is pretty good for what it is, despite a general cluelessness of what real teenagers are like, how they behave, and what their own concerns might be. Mollie (sometimes billed as Molly) McCart has Doris Day's facial features and fellow redhead Shirley MacLaine's short bob hairstyle. (Oddly, a radio report describes Terry as a blonde.) She has the lion's share of the terrible dialogue, which is less like a troubled teen than a sassy tramp in a pre-Code gangster picture. McCart goes for broke, but the results are over-the-top funny. Outraged by Terry's newfound fascination with Dan, Jane blurts out, "You're dirt, Terry! He'd never touch you!"
Throughout the film the threesome are described as "kids" and Mike as a "young man" and "son" by the Grants, but it's obvious England, McCart, and top-billed Cook are all in their mid-20s and look older than that. Cook, a former child star (famous as "Little Beaver" in a Republic serial and for several years on radio), went headfirst through a car windshield in a traffic accident when he was five, so the large facial scar he carries is real.
The climatic shoot-out at Griffith Park shows some originality, using the mechanical works under one of the domes imaginatively. Indeed, the entirely 76-minute film moves at a fast clip, with numerous little touches of imagination throughout, such as a tight shot of a telephone ringing as the kidnappers and their hostages nervously wait on the other end of the line, wondering if it'll be answered.
Video & Audio
Teen-Age Crime Wave sources decent film elements and is presented in its correct 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio, enhanced for widescreen TVs. Detail, contrast, and blacks all impress. The audio, English only with no other choices and no subtitle options, is likewise strong. There are no menu screens; the movie simply begins then restarts automatically after it's done. The disc is region-free. No Extra Features.
Despite dialogue laughable by 2013 standards and a general misconception of the then emerging problem of juvenile delinquency, Teen-Age Crime Wave is nonetheless a good hostage melodrama well directed by the unsung Fred F. Sears, and worthy of reappraisal. Highly Recommended.
* Eagle-eyed viewers will notice that Columbia used the same dummy newspaper mock-up whenever they wanted to show a newspaper headline relating to that film's story. All the other headlines are fakes used again and again, notably the ubiquitous "Building Code Under Fire."
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.