“You’re a wop just like me,” taunts a teen gang member to AWAV-assimilated (Anglo With a Vengeance) New York City assistant D.A. Burt Lancaster in John Frankenheimer’s raw 1961 crime drama THE YOUNG SAVAGES, now on Blu-Ray from Kino-Classics/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios, Inc.
Vastly underrated and virtually forgotten, this early Sixties gem consistently writhes and throbs with angst, guilt and hypocrisy – and from both sides of the political fence. In short, this ain’t your ordinary street picture. While modestly made (for a major studio, that is), this UA entry, following Lancaster’s Oscar win for Elmer Gantry, simmered with liberal relevance – a plea to address the problem of juvenile delinquency. Star Lancaster wore more hats than the porkpie variety he sports in the movie; he also produced the picture (via his Contemporary Productions, Inc., company, a subsidiary of Hecht-Hill-Lancaster); United Artists knew that a message pic – even with a name cast – was going to be a tough sale. They figured, worst-case scenario, post-Gantry, it was a project that they could easily write off. Truth be told, UA really didn’t push it hard, although the movie got decent reviews and did respectable business (it was tossed in the Lancaster-minus column along with Sweet Smell of Success, the arthouse stuff that was a “necessary evil” price paid for the actor’s high-profile efforts).
Lancaster scoured the media in an effort to assemble Hollywood’s and New York’s best/most promising artists and technicians; in 1960, that wasn’t as difficult as it often could be for a lofty deep-dish picture for Burt Lancaster was at his peak, and his calling in favors chain-reacted a reverse effect. When the word got out, he had to practically beat the talent off with a stick (and possibly literally did, an added audition perk for the Brute Force star). And the impressive payoff is so extraordinary that it’s still amazing that this movie isn’t better known.
The source work comes from A Matter of Conviction, a bestseller by Evan Hunter. Lancaster, the star, knew that this had box-office potential, as did Lancaster the producer. Blackboard Jungle‘s formidable grosses still resonated throughout the industry (also by the way, emanating from a Hunter work). The extremely modern script is by two heavyweights, Edward Anhalt and J.P. Miller. Again, this not only is a testament to Burt’s genuine penchant for picking top-notch talent, but choosing up-and-coming top-notch talent (aka, they can be had cheap). The blistering black-and-white cinematography is by the great Lionel Lindon. The cool score comes from David Amram (a banner year for the composer, as his output also encompassed the beautiful music for Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass).
The cast was terrific as well, an equal mix of veteran pros and untested newbies. Again, this is all due to Lancaster’s very hands-on approach. Dina Merrill plays the star’s wife, an upper-crust, good-intentioned Vassar-educated liberal, without any notion of life in the real world. Lancaster’s pent-up guilt stems from the opening punk-quoted line in this piece. His character is Hank Bell, shortened from Bellini (when he lived in the hood). Bell/Bellini battles his own demons: does he deserve the luxurious upscale Manhattan apartment and the sexy, smart wife and teenage daughter (Roberta Shore) that goes with the territory? (“I got out,” screams Bell almost with shame).
What ignites matters during a typically oppressive sweltering New York City summer is the brutal murder of a 15-year-old Puerto Rican boy. It doesn’t help that the slain minority member was blind, and a poetically/musically inclined beloved local. Protests threaten to turn vicious, as factions in East Harlem fester to the boiling point. The remnants of Bellini’s crowd, the diminishing Italian/Irish populace (we were here “before the Indians” spouts a delusional j.d.), move to steamroll the increasing Hispanic community. This is personified by gang warfare a la the white Thunderbirds vs. the Latino Horsemen. Worse, one of the three murderers arrested is the son of Bell’s onetime lover, single mom Shelley Winters (an ironic casting choice because…well, you know). The trio of hotheads represents a psychological cross-section. Winters’ son (Stanley Kristien) is the intelligent member of the triad, occasionally even displaying pacifist traits; this is offset by Batman (Neil Nephew), the moron of the bunch (underlined by his peeps laughingly daring the teen to “show him how stupid you are”). The most dangerous of the three is Reardon, a full-blown psychopath, played with frightening lunacy by the freakish John Davis Chandler. Chandler, whose scarifyin’ looks prevented him from ever having a career playing anything but maniacs, is best described as a Mardi Gras Steve Buscemi float. Chandler’s work prior to this movie comprised his only lead, as Vincent Coll in Mad Dog Coll. He would also deliver a notable performance as the perverted member of Jack Palance’s gang in Ralph Nelson’s excellent 1965 thriller Once a Thief (Chandler’s horrific grimace was even more defined when enacting scenes opposite lead Alain Delon). Most of the teens exhibit disfigurements – their battle scars of street survival. Mentally, the Thunderbirds torment the D.A. by chiding him with verbal daggers (“You gonna burn [Winters’] son for old time’s sake?”); physically, Bell’s safety net gets ripped to shreds when the boys pay an “uptown” visit to his family. Lancaster’s mastery at self-hatred spews forth in an admittedly preachy moment as his primal true colors obliterate his nicety-nice liberalism (“Oh, man, I feel sick…I was trying with all my heart to kill him!” he reveals, vowing retribution on one of his wife and daughter’s attackers).
All of this nastiness seemingly devours the entire city, and perilously infringes upon Bell’s supposed perfect marriage (“You third-generation progressive!,” he spits out to his wife during a particularly explosive argument).
But nobody’s clean in THE YOUNG SAVAGES, and that includes the cops, racist police detective Telly Savalas (like Ernest Borgnine, under personal contract to Lancaster, which translated to $150 a week when working), greedy, fascist bent politico Edward Andrews (a Lancaster holdover from Gantry), the smarmy press (boosting circulation with faux leftie “oppressed minority week” headlines) and just about everyone else. Teen prostitution, drugs, bigotry and extortion all explode upon the screen in a courtroom finale before the pic’s 103 minutes unspool to its squirmy, uncomfortable ending.
It wasn’t so comfortable shooting either. Lancaster, always looking for exciting new ways to meld entertainment with art, chose fledgling movie director John Frankenheimer (his second big-screen outing) to helm THE YOUNG SAVAGES. Said Lancaster of his choice, “Those early Playhouse 90s he directed weren’t just interesting plays, they were shot uniquely, were sometimes even crazy and bizarre. At the outset…John and I had some problems, I felt his approach to his work did not get the best results because of his attitude. He was tough and arrogant and terribly demanding on the set, sometimes to his own detriment.” Certainly a situation of the pot calling the kettle noir. But, again, it was Lancaster the producer who knew he could acquire Frankenheimer’s services economically. Indeed, Frankenheimer’s already notorious FU-I-don’t-care-who-you-are demeanor caused the two alphas to butt heads continually during filming, with Lancaster eventually admitting that the director was right (the angles and set-ups that so intrigued the star are inventively prevalent throughout THE YOUNG SAVAGES). The two would reunite for Birdman of Alcatraz the following year – a venture that erupted with heightened acrimony (Frankenheimer vowed never to work with Lancaster again). The undeniable praiseworthy outcome pushed the artists into further collaborations and by 1965’s The Train, their fourth of five teamings, the pair’s antagonism melted into respect and, finally, a great friendship.
More amiable was the hiring of Sydney Pollack as dialog director (Pollack came by recommendation of Frankenheimer). Lancaster was enamored by the performances Pollack got out of the unknowns, whom he coached exclusively. When Pollack revealed that he too wanted to direct movies, Lancaster called Universal to inquire if there was some ascending training program. There wasn’t, so Lancaster put Pollack under his personal wing, eventually taking him to Italy to work on The Leopard. Lancaster helped Pollack achieve his aspiration, offering to act in the novice’s early works, The Scalphunters and Castle Keep. Pollack, at Lancaster’s request, later did an uncredited “spiff up” on The Swimmer.
THE YOUNG SAVAGES was a personal picture for Burt Lancaster. I mean, he’s all over it, but he also wanted to tear the facade off a problem that needed attention. Juvenile delinquency, racism and income inequality had to be addressed, and ways to help fix this were by concurrent improvements to education and government programs. And he wasn’t just mouthing platitudes. Throughout the 1960s, Lancaster was there: championing civil rights, urban renewal (a scene in YOUNG SAVAGES depicting an overcrowded Puerto Rican apartment is like something out of a Warners pre-Code social commentary flick: antiquated squalor replete with an Olive Oyl hand-cranked washing machine), and a devotion to a rainbow coalition of children’s access to the Arts (I still recall his live hook-up in Harlem on an episode of Sesame Street).
If you need any further proof, one need only look toward the star’s hair. Lancaster’s follicle arrangement was a sure-fire litmus test that defined the seriousness of his endeavors. For example, when leaping around a rollicking extravaganza such as The Crimson Pirate (or even Vera Cruz), Burt’s hair unabashedly flowed with his patented fluffy look, a visual appendage to his ha-ha persona. When it was a “no foolin’” picture, the coiffeur was slicked down. In THE YOUNG SAVAGES, Lancaster’s villus is practically spray-painted on his skull.
Kino-Classics Blu-Ray of THE YOUNG SAVAGES is, as one might expect, crystal clear. It’s an excellent platter that renders the monochrome New York City photography (shot mostly in East Harlem, but also on many of the same Manhattan locations as UA’s other 1961 gang pic, West Side Story) to perfection. The mono audio does justice to Amram’s music and Anhalt and Miller’s sharp, uncompromising dialog.
A cynical look at right-wing greed and leftist phoniness, THE YOUNG SAVAGES (to say nothing of middle-aged and old savages) might well be TV-subtitled Law and Slaughter, SOBs. It’s disconcerting to realize that 53 years later, we’re still gagging on the same bullshit.
THE YOUNG SAVAGES. Black and white. Letterboxed [1.75:1; 1080p High Definition]; Mono DTS-HD MA. Kino Lorber/Kino-Classics/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios, Inc. CAT # K1398. SRP: $29.95.