Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Crime in the Streets (1956)

Director: Don Siegel                                         Writer: Reginald Rose
Film Score: Franz Waxman                              Cinematography: Sam Leavitt
Starring: John Cassavetes, James Whitmore, Sal Mineo and Virginia Gregg

Crime in the Streets is a nineteen-fifties juvenile delinquent film, attempting to cash in on the success of movies like The Wild One and The Blackboard Jungle, a genre that would reach its apotheosis with West Side Story in 1961. It’s more interesting for the presence of Don Siegel as director, the film debut of John Cassavetes, and the jazz score by Franz Waxman than the story itself. Screenwriter Reginald Rose was one of the earliest television writers, and his concern for social issues is evident not only by this film, which was an adaptation of his own script for The Elgin Hour the year before and directed by Sidney Lumet, but for his most famous screenplay the following year, 12 Angry Men, also directed by Lumet. He is often credited for helping to create a more realistic style of drama, though his stories are still incredibly hopeful and uplifting, something that is light years away from a film like The 400 Blows made just a few years later and dealing with similar themes.

The story begins with a rumble, with John Cassavetes and Mark Rydell the leaders of one of the gangs. During the fight they capture a member of the rival gang and beat him up, though by today’s standards it’s almost comical how unthreatening it all seems. Eventually one of the gang members pulls out a gun and a man walking by the alley, Malcolm Atterbury, sees it. He reports it to the police and the kid is arrested before the rest of the gang can warn him. This gets under the skin of John Cassavetes. He’s angry and he doesn’t care who knows it, and the one thing he wants to do is punish Atterbury in retribution. After the requisite scene with him berating his single mother, Virginia Gregg, and ignoring his little brother, Cassavetes confronts the old man and, after receiving a slap in the face, begins to formulate his revenge. But there’s nothing comical about his plan: he wants to kill the man. He enlists Rydell, the crazed kid who loves violence, and Sal Mineo, the frightened kid who Cassavetes protects, to help him and waits for the right time.

James Whitmore plays the local social worker who runs a game room for the kids in the neighborhood. He tries to do what he can, but doesn’t fool himself about his chances. As he tells the owner of the soda shop, Will Kuluva, most of the kids need a lot more than what he can possibly give and the chances of success are pretty slim. He advocates talking above anything else, where the obviously childless Malcolm Atterbury in a similar conversation with Kuluva, says that violence is the only thing that has any effect on them. Seeing the desperate parents attempt both is incredibly moving. Of course the plot revolves around John Cassavetes who was no doubt chosen for the role because he had played the part in the television drama. If he doesn’t exactly look eighteen it’s probably because he was twenty-seven at the time, but he does as good a job as one could expect. Underneath the brooding and anger, the role is fairly one-dimensional, as is the entire story itself. The direction by Don Siegel is probably as good as one could hope for as well, with the stage-bound studio sets adding even more artificiality to the production.

One of the more interesting aspects of the film is the score by Franz Waxman. It’s what Donald Fagan of Steely Dan calls “fake jazz” in that it is entirely composed. Though Elmer Bernstein’s score for Sweet Smell of Success is usually credited as the first jazz score this was obviously much earlier, but because of the lackluster reception of the film it is generally forgotten. What’s more interesting is the association of rock ‘n’ roll with the delinquents, an idea that would reach its peak with Henry Mancini’s score for Touch of Evil. What’s probably most telling about the film is the way the idea of the fifties juvenile delinquents, with their gang jackets and duck tails, would become little more than a nostalgic memory that reached its nadir with Happy Days in the 1970s. The underlying problem, however, if one is willing to look for it, hasn’t changed all that much and the poverty and despair that led kids into a life of crime sixty years ago is still pulling them in the same direction today. Crime in the Streets admittedly seems tame when seen today, but there’s certainly something more for the viewer willing to meet the film on its own terms.

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