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USA 1961
Directed by
John Frankenheimer
103 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2.5 stars

The Young Savages

Released the same year as West Side Story,The Young Savages is part “social conscience” film, part court-room drama with well-established television director John Frankenheimer making what was effectively his feature film debut. 

Unlike Robert Wise’s colourfully aestheticised take on gang warfare on the Lower East Side of NYC, Frankenheimer‘s film aspires to be a revealingly realistic insight into juvenile delinquency, a topic in which American independent film-makers had already taken an interest with films such as The Wild One (1954)
Rebel Without a Cause and Blackboard Jungle (both 1955) the latter, like The Young Savages, being based on a novel by Evan Hunter

Burt Lancaster stars as Hank Bell, an assistant DA who takes on the case of prosecuting three hooligans who stabbed to death a blind Puerto Rican youth on the stoop of his tenement. It looks like an open-and-shut case and Hank who grew up in the same neighbourhood in Harlem but who has pulled himself up by the bootstraps has no sympathy for the perpetrators. The more he digs into the case, however, the more it becomes apparent that the truth is more complicated than he assumed. In an atypical role Shelley Winters plays the mother of one the three accused killers.

Frankenheimer directs with flair, regularly choosing unconventional camera angles and striking compositions and going out of his way to capture the self-perpetuating poverty of the ‘hood (with, for those who like such things, interesting location photography of NYC of the day), albeit, as was the wont of the day, in a highly tendentious manner

The main focus of attention is Lancaster whose production company with Harold Hecht and Murray Hill made the film. He gives, as always, a solid performance but, good intentions notwithstanding, the film is underwhelming in the way it stages the courtroom scenes and the revelations of "truth" which Hank is pursuing whilst Hank's and the situation's moral dilemmas are resolved a little too patly

FYI: Frankenheimer and Lancaster would team up again the following year for Birdman of Alcatraz.




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