The plots may twist & turn; the violent young punks shake, rattle & roll; but in the end it’s always Society’s Fault in juvenile delinquent pics of the '50s & '60s. As the Jets gang boy says in ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ from WEST SIDE STORY/’61: ‘Hey!, I’m depraved on account of I’m deprived!’ This East Side Harlem Story, nearly as näive & simplistic as the rest, has aged better than most. (Earlier examples, like Nick Ray’s KNOCK ON ANY DOOR/’49 with Humphrey Bogart & John Derek look painfully dated.) Here, the gangs are Italian & Puerto Rican; the victim blind, but maybe not so innocent; and the prosecuting Asst. D.A. a success story who pulled himself out of the old neighborhood. That’d be a perfectly cast Burt Lancaster, finding complexities where his ambitious boss sees an open-and-shut career-making case. This was the feature film that lifted John Frankenheimer out of tv, and he makes a meal of it, offering showy dynamic angles & fancy tracking shots to prove he’s really making movies. It doesn’t hurt too much, and the acting & location lensing make up for a lot directorial overkill. (Though it’s damn hard to get much of a threat out of kiddie hoodlums in such adorable leather & cap outfits.) Still, the third-act courtroom scenes put Frankenheimer back in his natural comfort zone. One on-the-stand interrogation between Lancaster & the victim’s sister is really exceptional. Hell, even Shelley Winters, an old flame of Burt’s and now mom to one of the accused, gives a restrained, disciplined perf. In fact, she’s great, and looks just right.* As does much of this well-crafted piece of Kennedy New Frontier dramatic sociology.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Italians in Harlem, you ask? Yes, still a fixture at the time though fading fast. Now, only that world-famous overrated/over-priced Italian-American insider joint, RAO’S remains from the old days. Though with Harlem’s current gentrification, everything’s up for grabs once again.
DOUBLE-BILL: Frankenheimer did four more films with Lancaster. Best of the bunch, and one of the great underseen WWII pics, is THE TRAIN/’64.