Director Robert Altman largely disowned The Delinquents (1957), his first feature, but in fact this $63,000 production, shot over three weeks in Kansas City where Altman had been making industrial films, is technically proficient, mostly well acted, is sincere and definitely not the exploitation "B" its title and lurid advertising suggests. Inspired by emerging teen dramas such as Rebel without a Cause (1955), The Delinquents isn't as glossy and a lot rougher around the edges but in many ways superior.
Partly this is accidental, in shooting the film far from Hollywood where inexperience and unfamiliarity with Hollywood norms partly become advantages, much as it did for the Pennsylvania-based makers of The Blob (1958) and 4-D Man, superior character-driven features. The Delinquents is similarly sincere and nonjudgmental toward its cast of teenagers and young adults, where their Hollywood counterparts made compromises and concessions muting their films' themes. The awful-looking, super-soft opening and closing titles - the rest of it looks fantastic - includes a very unusual voice-over disclaimer*, almost certainly added by distributor United Artists.
A gang of delinquents, including leader Bill Cholly (Peter Miller, late of Blackboard Jungle) and bad lieutenant Eddy (Richard "Dick" Bakalyan) make trouble at a local Kansas City nightclub where talented, Ella Fitzgerald-esque jazz singer Julia Lee performs "A Porter's Love Song." The bartender is wise to their fake ID, kicks them out, and they counter by throwing a bus stop sign through a window.
Meanwhile, 18-year-old Scotty White (Tom "Billy Jack" Laughlin, making his film debut) is told by the parents of steady girlfriend Janice Wilson (Rosemary Howard) that the 16-year-old is too young to date a college-bound boy and ordered to break it off.
Upset, he goes to the local drive-in (playing a double-bill of The Desperate Hours and How to Marry a Millionaire) where he happens to park right next to Cholly's gang. Eddy slices the tire of a rival gang's wheels nearby, and Eddy makes it appear that Scotty is responsible. Cholly's gang steps in to "save" the bloodied Scotty, and take him under his wing.
Cholly proposes posing as a new young boy dating Janice, as an excuse to get her out of the house and into Scotty arms. Cholly then manipulates the naïve couple to join a wild party at a vacant house. When Jenise is threatened with sexual assault they leave, and soon after the local cops raid the house and arrest the merrymakers. Eddy, jealous of Cholly's interest in Scotty, convinces him that Scotty must have ratted on them, and plot revenge.
The Delinquents mostly is very good. What impresses is that Altman and probably others keep the action confined, naturalistic, and logical, and clearly understand the sensibilities of young people and even adults. Janice's parents are fairly strict but understandably concerned and protective, yet they also sympathize with Scotty's feelings and compromise a bit. Scotty is basically a good kid who hangs around with Cholly only because he's vulnerable at that moment, something Cholly knowingly exploits. Scotty and Janice have feelings toward one another but they're the feelings of inexperienced 18- and 16-year-old kids; the movie doesn't try to elevate them to Romeo & Juliet heights. They're willing to deceive their parents like all teenagers do, up to a point, but after a brief taste of Cholly's criminal activity they're eager to scurry back to their safe suburban lives, even with its restrictions.
The leads are well cast, with Tom Laughlin appropriately sensitive and clean-cut looking, and Rosemary Howard amazingly believable as a 16-year-old even though she was actually pushing thirty. Peter Miller and Richard Bakalyan likewise, the former subtle enough one can easily see how Scotty could fall in with such characters.
Video & Audio
For the most part, the 1:66:1 widescreen The Delinquents looks great, with excellent detail and inky blacks (reportedly, Altman instructed his cinematographer to model its look after The Asphalt Jungle). Supposedly the post-production was done in Hollywood, but process shots, most noticeable during the opening and closing titles, are outrageously soft and terrible, as if the optical printer wasn't working properly the day those effects were done. The DTS-HD Master Audio mono audio, with optional English subtitles, is very good and is region "A" encoded.
The one supplement is a trailer. It's a great trailer, way over the top, in terms of selling a lurid exploitation film, but The Delinquents isn't.
A real surprise, The Delinquents is excellent considering its budget and the relative inexperience of its makers. No wonder, after seeing it, Alfred Hitchcock hired Altman to direct episodes of the former's TV series. Highly Recommended.
* The voiceover relays, "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 - their struggle to understand, their need to be understood. Perhaps in its rapid progression into the material world, man has forgotten the spiritual values which are the moral fiber of a great nation: decency, respect, fair play... Perhaps he has forgotten to teach these values to his own; he has forgotten to teach his children their responsibility before God and society. The answer may lie in the story of the delinquents, in their violent attempt to find a place in society. This film is a cry to a busy world - a protest, a reminder to those who might set the example." Oy.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian largely absent from reviewing these days while he restores a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.