Saturday 24 September 2016

Movie Review: The Young Savages (1961)

A tight crime and courtroom drama, The Young Savages energetically probes the culture of youth-gone-bad on the streets of Harlem.

In Harlem, three members of the Italian American street gang the Thunderbirds stab to death Roberto Escalante, a blind member of the rival Puerto Rican Horsemen gang. The three culprits are soon apprehended: Arthur Reardon is the combustible leader, Anthony "Batman" Aposto is a dimwit, and Danny diPace is still a juvenile at fifteen, escaping a broken home. Daniel Cole (Edward Andrews) is the ambitious District Attorney about to launch a campaign to become Governor. He agrees with assistant DA Hank Bell (Burt Lancaster) to charge the three boys with first degree murder and seek the death penalty.

With help from Detective Gunderson (Telly Savalas), Bell starts to put together the case. He is originally from the same Harlem neighbourhood, and in his younger days used to date Mary diPace (Shelley Winters), Danny's mother. Bell's wife Karin (Dina Merrill) holds liberal views espousing tolerance and understanding of the social conditions driving youth to violence. As Bell delves into the details of the murder and the backgrounds of the victim and the assailants, he finds more than meets the eye. But with the Puerto Rican community baying for revenge and Cole seeking the good publicity of a quick conviction, there is little room for compassion.

Directed by John Frankenheimer, The Young Savages is a gritty film, intent on seeking all sides a complex societal issue. A dramatic companion piece to West Side Story, Frankenheimer delivers a thoughtful, well-rounded exposition of the hidden factors that drive youth into trouble on the streets. What starts as a straightforward brutal murder of a helpless kid in broad daylight turns into much more, with complex and varied motivation and no easy answers.

The film draws energy from the menace of alleys dominated by wild kids engaged in their own civil war. The black and white cinematography, courtesy of Lionel Lindon, is a perfect fit for a rough Harlem dominated by dog-eat-dog sensibilities, petty turf wars and sneering youth finding a better fit among peers than at home. Bell is proud to have escaped this ghetto and believes anyone who also tries should succeed. It is ironically left to his well-bred wife Karin to prod him into seeing that not all kids will have the same opportunities, and some will be left behind to fend for themselves with knives as the primary survival tool.

The climax in the courtroom veers more towards social commentary to the detriment of pragmatic legal reality. Bell seeks to punish guilt but only in the right doses while accounting for evil intent, peer pressure and abject lack of intellect. He also tries to find space for the sensibilities of his wife, his boss and the victims' families. It is all a bit too much for one case to absorb and one attorney to deliver, and his improvisation away from a senior lawyer's discipline undermines credibility.

Burt Lancaster delivers a typically sturdy performance, ably assisted by small but precise roles from Dina Merrill and Shelley Winters. Merrill is cool and collected, almost icy, as Bell's life partner in the new world he created for himself. Winters is ruffled and frantic as the woman left behind: Bell could have been Danny's father, a scenario that Mary holds onto as her greatest achievement and he looks back on as his greatest escape. Such are the margins of life between savagery and civilization.

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  1. It was indeed a test for United Artists' "West Side Story," to be released a few months later, "The Young Savages," based on Evan Hunter's "A Matter Of Conviction" is essentially a fictionalized account of the real-life Michael Farmer murder of 1957, the "Capeman" murders of 1959, and the shooting death of 15-year-old William Blankenship in 1955, all gang murders, but, in "A Matter Of Conviction" and "The Young Savages," the ethnicities are reversed!

    A classic "JD" movie, with serious social commentary. A more "modern" remake of sorts, based on the "Capeman" murders, was released as a made-for-tv NBC movie, "Death Penalty," with "The Young Savages" being referenced.


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