Often these teenage delinquency thrillers are pretty bad--the ones that aren't directed by Nicholas Ray, anyway--and must be perversely enjoyed for what they are. However...
With Robert Altman's 1957 feature debut THE DELINQUENTS (Olive Films) we get a briskly executed, fast-moving tale of heated teen intrigue that can be appreciated on its own modest terms without the usual "so bad it's good" vibe needed to keep us interested.
Ed Wood-like, budding auteur Altman (MASH, NASHVILLE, THE PLAYER) enjoys his own "Written, Produced, and Directed By" credit, while the film is like a top-drawer cousin to those often dreary exploitation cheapies whose sanctimonious sermonizing was an excuse to indulge in gratuitous violence and debauchery.
Here, Altman is careful to make the characters and situations much more realistic and true-to-life than in many such films and we don't get the feeling that we're "slumming" as we watch, despite a narrator's hokey Sunday School sermonizing (which Altman himself clearly did not write) bookending the film.
The story begins with a bunch of twenty-something teens disrupting a jazz bar after being refused alcohol and then piling into their top-down jalopy and going on the prowl for more trouble to get into.
Led by smooth but surly narcissist Cholly (Peter Miller, whose other credits include FORBIDDEN PLANET, THE ONION FIELD, BLUE THUNDER) and his hotheaded toady Eddy (familiar actor Richard Bakalyan, CHINATOWN), this group of ne'er-do-wells are on their way to evolving into the same type of ultra-violence addicts we meet in Kubrick's A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.
Thus begins a sick "friendship" between Scotty and Cholly, whose only intention is to abuse Scotty's trust for his own amusement and even try to move in on Janice after helping her sneak out of the house to see Scotty.
During a wild party in a vacant house, Eddy gets Scotty drunk so that Cholly can make advances on Janice, and in the ensuing police raid Scotty is once again unjustly blamed, this time for being the snitch who led the police there.
The rest of the film is a tense and often violent series of clashes between Scotty and the gang with innocent bystanders like Janice (who is ultimately kidnapped to lure Scotty into a trap) representing the adverse effects of delinquency on decent society in general.
With most of the young cast finally ending up in the police station, the film rather abruptly ends where REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE begins, as the narrator once again exhorts us to do something about this teen delinquency scourge before it's too late.
With THE DELINQUENTS, Robert Altman proves himself a more than competent director with a lean efficiency that would serve him well in such television shows as "Combat!" and "Alfred Hitchcock Presents." His hastily-written script displays the same qualities, as well as a knack for snappy and engaging dialogue.
Already he was directing his actors well and getting good performances out of them, including his own cute little daughter Christine as Scotty's kid sister Sissy and his wife Lotus Corelli as Janice's mother. Peter Miller as Cholly and Richard Bakalyan as Eddy are convincingly sleazy and volatile, while the energetic, expressive Laughlin, trying his best to channel James Dean, is fascinating to watch.
It's particularly interesting to see Laughlin in his starring debut being so boyish and open (happy-go-lucky Scotty often enters the scene whistling, while he and Janice play and giggle like children when alone), in sharp contrast to the tortured and taciturn Billy Jack character who, years later, would spin-kick and method-act his way through a series of preachy action flicks with the intensity of a constipated gorilla.
Laughlin would later write and direct his own cautionary teen dramas such as LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON (1961) and THE PROPER TIME (1962) before becoming the iconic Billy Jack in 1967's THE BORN LOSERS.
As late-50s teen exploitation, this film is noteworthy for its lack of both rock-and-roll music (the gang listens only to jazz) and drugs (they only get high on alcohol). There's also little reference to school, meaning no sympathetic or antagonistic teachers and fellow students complicating the narrative. And aside from a few minor authority figures and some bossy parents, the conflicts are kept strictly between the younger characters.
The crisp black-and-white cinematography is gorgeous, the print used here being pretty much pristine. I love the stark, shadowy night photography (all done on location in Altman's hometown of Kansas City, Missouri) with the somewhat lurid but exhilarating aura of the era's low-budget horror thrillers. Some of the violence, while mild today, is shockingly bloody for its time.
The DVD from Olive Films has an aspect ratio of 1.66:1 and mono sound. English subtitles are available. The film's trailer is the sole extra.
"The Hoods of Tomorrow! The Gun-Molls of the Future!" extols the breathless trailer for THE DELINQUENTS, and while not quite that sensationalistic, the film itself is both exciting and genuinely absorbing. Altman and star Laughlin may skirt the edges of "so bad it's good" territory here, but for the most part, in its own modest way, it's just plain good.
Buy it from Olive Films