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Note, 9.26.14: I hear that some purchasers of this disc have said that it has sync issues. My final product screener played perfectly, and stayed in sync all the way through.
The movie West Side Story had a lengthy shooting period in New York City, using streets marked for demolition to make way for the Lincoln Center. That glossy musical wasn't the only United Artists film about Anglo and Puerto Rican gangs released in 1961; about seven months earlier producer Harold Hecht's The Young Savages hit the screens with a very different view of teen crime on the streets. The B&W movie has an unusual part for Burt Lancaster in that he doesn't hit anybody or perform any physical stunts. The actor had always kept up a parallel thread of legit dramas alongside his action films, a plan that foundered with Sweet Smell of Success but paid off with an Oscar for his performance in Elmer Gantry.
Lancaster had also been operating as a producer for almost ten years. A liberal thinker who in business could be a domineering bully, he gravitated toward equally commanding directors, doing well when working (or fighting) with the likes of John Sturges, Richard Brooks, Robert Wise, and Robert Aldrich. The actor liked John Frankenheimer's tough but creative attitude and would work with him steadily for the next eight years. Lancaster also met Sydney Pollack for the first time on this show. He'd help Pollack get TV directing jobs and serve as his mentor. As long as we're talking career jolts that began with The Young Savages, there's Telly Savalas, who had some okay TV credits but caught Lancaster's attention. Savalas' stock rose immediately. After an additional appearance in The Birdman of Alcatraz the bald-headed actor would eventually co-star with Lancaster in The Scalphunters, directed by Sydney Pollack. Getting on Burt's good side could be healthy for one's career.
A staple of live TV dramas in the mid-'fifties were stories of juvenile delinquents waxing James Dean over their existential predicaments. Actually, I think James Dean did his share of these as well. Neworks, sponsors and regulations prevented too much realism about what was really going on in the crowded ghettos. Taken from a novel by Evan Hunter, Edward Anhalt and J.P.Miller's The Young Savages gets a little closer to the truth, actually delivering a taste of "the raw terror of the streets". Of course, the story is still experienced through the filter of a concerned Anglo hero.
Three members of the Anglo Thunderbirds gang Arthur Reardon, Tony "Batman" Aposto and Danny diPace (John Davis Chandler, Neil Nephew & Stanley Kristien) march a few blocks to East Harlem and for apparently no reason knife to death blind Puerto Rican kid Roberto Escalante (José Pérez). Danny's girl Angela Rugiello (Jody Fair) hides the knives but the boys are immediately apprehended. Assistant D.A. Hank Bell (Burt Lancaster) gets what looks like an open & shut case, which is taken as good news by his boss and a political candidate, Dan Cole (Edward Andrews). If Hank has political ambitions, a conviction would be good for Hank as well. Hank's wife Karin (Dina Merrill) is so cynical about city politics, even in front of Cole, while Hank's detective friend Gunderson (Telly Savalas) thinks Hank is too soft when dealing with the defendants. Hank insistst on going into the ghetto to investigate, and is confronted by hostility, accusations of corruption, and personal threats.
The Young Savages has the typical explotative scenes made famous in other J.D. epics like The Blackboard Jungle. Thugs terrorize Dina Merrill in a claustophobic elevator car, while Lancaster is badly beaten on a subway car. But there's an equal emphasis on doing things a little smarter than earlier movies in the subgenre. Excellent screenwriter Edward Anhalt places Hank Bell in a career context, where hanging onto his job will depend on having friends. His superiors are already banking on a 'tough on crime' conviction from the start. Everybody has an angle. Lt. Gunderson chides Bell, presuming he'll sell out like his predecessors did. A Puerto Rican newspaper columnist warns Bell that if he goes easy on the Anglos, there'll be hell to pay. Bell is the man on the line, who has to listen to the accusations of the dead boy's mother. But he's also being lobbied by Mary diPace (Shelley Winters), the mother of one of the perpetrators -- who is also Hank's ex-lover. Burt Lancaster does little or no fighting but instead uses his strong physical presence to resist the pressure on all sides. Will he do the right thing?
Well, it's still a Star Vehicle so we know darn well that Burt will fight the good liberal fight. But his Hank Bell is the only person interested in finding out why three hoods murdered a blind boy, who couldn't have been part of the gang. All assume that gangland violence is now an epidemic of killings without reason or logic. Hank digs in, and comes up with the truth.
In his second theatrical film director Frankenheimer gets impressive footage filmed right in the middle of huge crowds on the street. Backlot streets do see use, and even cameraman Lionel Lindon can't hide the artifice when Shelley Winters' character shows up during a street funeral. Out on location Lancaster's attention suddenly turns to one side, and we cut away to Ms. Winters standing in an obvious set back in Hollywood. Mainstream movie visuals still have a way to go to achieve naturalism.
Frankenheimer quickly establishes his characters, making sure that the kids both Anglo and Latin get plenty of attention. Jody Fair and Roberta Shore are a slum girl and Lancaster's daughter, sketched without exaggeration. The Puerto Rican gang members are convincing, and seem to be running their own mini-Mafia selling narcotics. One Anglo hood called Pretty Boy Savarese has a big scene with Lancaster but isn't even given billing. He's Chris Robinson, who later starred in the horror movie Stanley, and just a year before played a monster in Monte Hellman's first movie.
Of the three surly defendants Stanley Kristien is effective and Neil Nephew a nicely judged kid with mental problems. Neither had big careers. Dangerous-looking John Davis Chandler got off to a great start, however, with a starring role in Mad Dog Coll and featured parts in Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country and Major Dundee. His psychotic punk is wholly convincing.
The strongest content in the movie comes in the courtroom where Hank forces the victim's sister (Pilar Seurat) to admit that she makes her living as a prostitute. Audiences in 1961 hadn't seen movies where sweet-looking teenagers of any color admitted to a knowing role in vice, and nothing like that was acceptable on TV either. It's a calculated 'edgy' scene surely influenced by the provocative trial scene in the recent Anatomy of a Murder, and it lends street cred to a picture that might otherwise be just another Hollywood foray into 'exotic' subject matter.
Shelly Winters whines and pouts well enough, while the relatively highly billed stage actress Vivian Nathan is suitably forbidding as the murder victim's old-country mother, robed in black. Dina Merrill's Karin is a refreshing break from the usual career boosting spouse found in movies like this; it takes quite a while for Karin to decide that her husband is not a sellout to the system. Telly Savalas makes his mark by not overplaying. Burt Lancaster can of course hold any show together, and he does his best to play against type. Everybody Hank Bell sees feels entitled to shout in his face and point fingers at him, when in real life Lancaster was reportedly an intensely intimidating presence. As we're also told that Lancaster frequently used his power to make his characters look better than written, we aren't surprised when Bell remains cool and focused throughout his ordeal, which includes being sent to the hospital with contusions and bruised ribs, etc.
Lancaster's character does turn out to be a Superman in the courtroom, getting justice without using some dynamite evidence he's discovered. He manages to get each of the three defendants treated differently depending on the severity of their crimes. In doing so he satisfies the Puerto Ricans, keeps the peace with his ex-girlfriend, impresses his wife, gains the respect of his colleagues and probably comes out in good shape as a potential political candidate. This star-oriented finale is probably needed to give The Young Savages a positive finish, but it does put it a little behind the second generation of liberal TV dramas that were currently airing. E. G. Marshall in The Defenders came up against the same kinds of tough liberal issues, with the difference that the good guys didn't always win, and justice didn't always prevail.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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T'was Ever Thus.