Wednesday, November 30, 2005

John Frankenheimer

The Young Savages could have been your average ‘60s youth gang run amok courtroom melodrama, a non-musical companion piece to the same year’s West Side Story. But then somebody obviously got smart -- they hired a young John Frankenheimer. That “someone” was probably not the star Burt Lancaster (according to the little TCM prologue, this was purely a contract-fulfilling gig for him). But this is the movie that cemented a bond between the two, resulting in such later Frankenheimer/Lancaster classics like The Train, Seven Days in May, and Birdman of Alcatraz.

Burt plays a New York City D.A. originally from the mean streets of Harlem who’s now married up to rich socialite wife. When a politically and racially charged knifing goes down between two rival gangs, one white and one Puerto Rican, he has to return to the old hood to investigate the delicate situation. The victim is a blind Puerto Rican boy who on the surface appears to be a complete innocent. The Puerto Rican community wants the death penalty for the white adolescents who did it. And so does the mayor and the press...more votes, better headlines.
But, of course, Burt wants “the truth.” And to make matters more complicated, one of the white gang members is the son of his former love from the old neighborhood, Shelly Winters. Was the blind boy really so innocent? Or was he part of the Puerto Rican gang? And was that a knife that he flashed in the heat of the moment, or just his harmonica?
At times, this movie pushes the earnest and topical melodrama boundaries close to its breaking point. Some of the courtroom scenes at the end do get a little histrionic. But Frankenheimer’s urgent, inventive shooting style makes up for all this. We’re talking angles all over the place -- low, high, complicated framings, multiple planes of action. The opening scene with the white gang heading through the hood to knife the blind boy is pure momentum and grabs you by the short hairs right off the bat.
As usual, Burt is great, Winters is great. Telly Savalas (pre-chrome dome) as Burt’s sidekick is fun, and even the young gang members are convincing. But this is all Frankenheimer’s show. It felt as if he had been storing up all the shot ideas that he couldn’t do while toiling away in within the square-framed confines of live TV. And here he bursts onto the scene with a cinematic gusto (actually this is his second film) reminiscent of a young Welles with Citizen Kane and, later, Touch of Evil.
If you know Frankenheimer’s work, you already know the guy could shoot action like nobody’s business. Here he’s saddled with a much more static plot but finds ways through composition and editing to make things more electric. That’s what good directors do after all -- make water into wine. And this one, though slightly aged, is still pretty tasty.

No comments: