|'); document.write(''); //-->|
"You looking for excitement?" "Why not? I'm a citizen!"
The first of Albert Zugsmith's cheerfully vulgar exploitation films, 1957's High School Confidential! is a heady slice of camp absurdity that became a cult item as early as 1969, when Richard Staehling wrote it up in his classic Rolling Stone article From Rock Around the Clock to The Trip: The Truth About Teen Movies. Three years previously MGM had caught heat for its 'shocking' Blackboard Jungle, which threatened to corrupt morals and incite a wave of juvenile delinquency. In this picture Leo the Lion roars proudly (3 times) in front of a picture that openly features marijuana and heroin use. It uses all the correct drug terminology, even if its dated hep-cat lingo is so thick as to be ridiculous. The show stokes the flames of teen chaos, what with Jerry Lee Lewis slamming out his song High School Confidential (Boppin' at the High School Hop) on a piano atop a flatbed truck cruising through what looks like a college campus. Zugsmith had a knack for attracting an unusual mix of name talent to front his stock company of personal-pals. No matter how preposterous things get, the acting is all rather good. In the case of star Russ Tamblyn, it's very good -- MGM's bright kid star sells even the most extreme dialogue lines:
"I'm looking for a different kind of action... I'm looking to graze on some grass."
Delinquent, arrogant and disrespectful transfer student Tony Baker (Russ Tamblyn) purposely makes a splash at Santo Bello High School, shocking the staff with his crude remarks, putting the moves on his English teacher Arlene Williams (former noir icon Jan Sterling) and spreading the word that he wants to go into business as a pot and heroin salesman. Reigning pusher and head of the Wheeler-Dealer gang J.I. Coleridge (John Drew Barrymore) initially hates Tony for chatting up his girlfriend/potential dope addict Joan Staples (Diane Jergens). He eventually puts his rival in contact with the sinister 'main man' Mr. A (Jackie Coogan), the local weed and horse wholesaler. Throwing his money around, Tony keeps pursuing the chaste Arlene while fending off the amorous advances of his "aunt", the shapely, wet-lipped and hot to trot Gwen Dulaine (Mamie Van Doren) A beatnik recital, a switchblade showdown, a drag race and other sordid adventures ensue, as Tony sets himself up as a serious crook.
High School Confidential! seems designed to be a camp hoot. The absurdity of Mamie Van Doren's tight sweaters undulating all over her 'nephew' Russ Tamblyn is a spectacle in itself. The film's clean-cut students all look to be in their middle 'twenties. They speak in uniformly stylized hipster lingo, as if they grew up in the Robert Mitchum School of hep-cat slurs and put-downs:
"You've got 32 teeth, Buster, wanna try for none?"
The fast and efficient direction is the work of former Universal journeyman Jack Arnold, who really knows how to keep things moving and even provides good action scenes, something lacking in most teen angst epics (and entirely lacking in Zugsmith's later self-directed efforts). A drag race is staged on what looks like an abandoned army camp, while the final brawl features some excellent action blocking. No doubt the sure-footed Tamblyn was a big help with the physical action. The lighting is flat but the cartoonish characters keep the screen energized. The only entirely lame set is a police station that looks suspiciously like a minimally re-dressed generic hotel room.
With his twisted lip and slimy Southern drawl, John Drew Barrymore is the exception to the clean-cut look. Never much of an actor, Barrymore is helped by a well-defined character. Diane Jergens (Island of Lost Women) is an impossibly dumb pixie that tries to entice Tony into bed. Dark-haired Jody Fair (The Brain Eaters) is the dope fiend who ends up writhing in agony in the criminal headquarters of Mr. A, who wants her to agree to become a prostitute in exchange for a fix. MIchael Landon looks good in a forgettable part and teen actor notables William Wellman Jr., Burt Douglas and Charles Chaplin Jr. haven't much to do. Musician-turned actor Ray Anthony is Mr. A's main henchman, while the obscure Phillipa Fallon delivers a beatnik speech with verve:
"Now there's a race for space. We can cough blood on the moon soon. Tomorrow is dragsville, cats. Tomorrow is a king-sized drag."... "Turn your eyes inside and dig the vacuum!"
Notable hipster expert Mel Welles reportedly wrote Fallon's "High School Drag" poem. He also has a bit as a lecherous drunk. Taking a break from Ed Wood movies, former major star Lyle Talbot shows up as a mob lawyer. Add oldster Charles Halton in his last film role, and we're left with a handful of shapely babes, including Naura Hayden of The Angry Red Planet. High School Confidential! never even begins to get dull. From remarks in interviews about Jack Arnold's taste for young actress hopefuls, I imagine the director had a fine time on Confidential! just chasing the talent.
"Slam Bam, thank you ma'am."
Jan Sterling maintains her dignity even when the script asks her to be ridiculously tolerant of Tony Baker's insinuating verbal advances. Jackie Coogan is excellent as the ruthless drug kingpin, who upbraids his lieutenant for corrupting his body with booze. With Coogan in charge the film's crime angle almost makes sense.
The Production Code does prevent Mamie Van Doren from doing more than flaunting her figure in sweaters and a revealing dress or two. Most of the sin and corruption remains on a verbal level. The cops get in a few remarks, blaming much of the delinquency on thoughtless parents. Tamblyn definitely ranks cool cat status. Despite the crazy dialogue and ridiculous relationships, his snappy performance keeps everything on the rails, making High School Confidential! a low-rent exploitation treat. The final shot consciously parodies moral endings - Tony, Arlene and Joan share the front seat of the convertible. Is he sleeping with both of them?
Richard Staehling's groovy essay on teen flicks has a permanent home in Todd McCarthy and Charles Flynn's book Kings of the B's. The website Conelrad has a fascinating multi-part investigatory article on the mysterious would-be star Phillipa Fallon.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
High School Confidential! Blu-ray rates:
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with footnotes, reader input and graphics.