Monday, July 29, 2013

John Frankenheimer: The Young Savages


Note: Some of Frankenheimer’s films are pretty hard to come by, one of those being his debut film, The Young Strangerso I had to start this retrospective with his second film. There’s about a handful of films I couldn’t get a hold of; I will try my best to fill in the blanks as I go.

After a less than thrilling experience shooting his feature film The Young Stranger, John Frankenheimer returned to television (where he got his start) for four years (a practice he would continue throughout his career — proudly showing that he was always a man of television that could bring cinematic ambitions to the small screen) before returning to theatrical filmmaking with his second feature, The Young Savages. Frankenheimer didn’t have a lot of time to prepare for The Young Savages, and it shows in certain scenes, particularly the final 30 minutes of the film where the ambitions of he and his star, Burt Lancaster, pretty much derail the film. But the way he imbues just his second feature with so many stylistic flourishes (a definite sign of things to come for him and his DP Lionel Lindon) keeps one intrigued enough despite the film’s well-intentioned but ultimately flawed narrative.

The story of The Young Savages is really no different than the countless other “juvie” films released around the ‘50s and early ‘60s. In New York’s Spanish Harlem, a 15-year-old blind boy is stabbed to death by three Italian thugs. The street toughs are eventually arrested, and the politically ambitious DA, Dan Cole (Edward Andrews), pushes hard for the death penalty. However, the crime isn’t as cut-and-dry as Cole thinks it is, and his assistant, Hank Bell (Lancaster), who himself was a product of the slums before changing his name from Bellini to Bell while pursuing his career, tries to convince his boss that further investigation in the matter is needed.

Throughout Bell’s investigation we come to find that the onus he has put on himself to uncover the truth is a little more complicated than just hitting the streets and asking questions. Bell’s former fiancée, Mary (Shelley Winters), is the mother of one of the three thugs accused of the murder. In addition, Bell’s wife, Karin (Dina Merrill), takes on the voice of the liberal who is anti-capital punishment. So there are many voices of influence swirling around Bell as he investigates the murder and struggles to uncover the truth and do the right thing. What he ends up finding out is that the boy was actually the head of a Puerto Rican gang (using his guise as a blind kid to hide drugs and weapons since I guess cops would never suspect a blind kid of being mixed up in a gang), and that he was the pimp for his 13-year-old sister.

When Bell uncovers this truth, he is beaten down, stomped to a bloody pulp, by some thugs in the subway. This is the catalyst for Bell to embrace the Bellini within him and see that these kids didn’t murder by choice—it was a product of the environment they’re from. He also begins to feel a strong urge to protect his fellow Italians from the “menacing” Puerto Ricans (who proceed to harass Bell’s wife) even if it means self-sabotage for his political career. Feeling compelled to tank the case in order to stay true to his convictions, Bell argues for the trio of murderers by film’s end.

Surely this kind of material was a bit shocking at the time with its use of a 15-year-old blind kid pimping out his sister and acting as the head of a gang (nothing at all shocking to us now as it would probably pass these days as an episode of “Law and Order”), but I don’t think that the film’s ambitions as a socially conscience message picture mix well with the film’s trappings rooted in exploitation “juvie” pictures, especially since the latter is just so much more interesting than the former. I will say this about the film’s ambitions as a message picture though: The idea of leaving behind who you truly are to get ahead (The whole internal dilemma surrounding Bell/Bellini) and the portrayal of the Italian thugs as a product of a twisted society (in one scene, one of the thug’s tells Bell that his father was a drunk, his mother takes in boarders and then goes out with them, and that he isn’t even sure his sister is his sister) causing them to be the way they are, is a commendable one.

So, kudos go to Frankenheimer for broaching such important sociological issues as race and geography and poverty, but the execution doesn’t match the well-intentioned effort, for what truly stands out in the film — and the only real reason to still see it today — are those aesthetic flourishes that seem rooted in exploitation — the very thing that keeps the film’s narrative from truly resonating. It’s a dilemma, fir sure, but man does Frankenheimer make the film look way more interesting than your run-of-the-mill “juvie” exploitation film. Which shouldn’t come as a shock since the director would meld exploitation with loftier, aesthetic ambitions frequently throughout his career; but here, with The Young Savages, it is interesting to see those ambitions at their gestation.

The opening credits sequence which leads to the stabbing that acts as the catalyst for the film’s story is a doozy. It’s the highlight of the movie with its close-ups of "juvie" iconography (boots, rolled up jeans, et al) found in films of the late '50s, handheld work, stylized shots (I like the shot of the chaos of the opening stabbing reflected in the lens of sunglasses, another bit of "juvie" iconography), on-location shooting, deep focus (a favorite of Frankenheimer’s), and Dutch angles. In other words, if The Young Savages tells us anything, it’s that the opening credits portend everything that Frankenheimer would refine over his career. Credit most definitely also goes to Frankenheimer’s DP, Lionel Lindon, who collaborated with Frankenheimer on some of his most visually memorable films like The Manchurian Candidate and Grand Prix. The Young Savages is an impressive looking film for something that traditionally comes off as B-grade level.

More about imagery in the opening: I like what Frankenheimer is doing by opening the film with an innocent enough shot of a child buying an ice cream: simplistic and relatable. Who hasn’t, as a child, reveled in the small joy of an ice cream cone on a hot summer day? The image seems simplistic enough, but in reality — as the film’s procedural uncovers more and more about the truth of those opening moments — as we think back on this image we realize that this is the blind boy’s sister, who we’ve also come to realize as the film progresses is being pimped out by her 15-year-old brother. Now the image takes on a whole new meaning, and once again Frankenheimer has taken a simple bit of iconography from countless other films of this ilk, and twisted it just-so to make it much more disturbingly ironic image than first suggested.

The acting is good but not great. I’ve never been the biggest Burt Lancaster fan, but he’s fine and all here; however, as previously stated, the convictions of the actor and the director to make this a message-heavy film really bogs things down in the second half, especially with the stomping scene and the revelation that he’s still “one of them.” Lancaster was somewhat known for thinking that films should really say something (speaking to the widest audience possible) but also be of high quality (speaking to cinephiles). It’s a nice idea and all, but the execution of the narrative, especially the courtroom scene (which takes up about 20 minutes of the film), is all askew and comes off as rather hokey. It's something that, according to Stephen B. Armstrong in his book on Frankenheimer, Pictures About Extremes, states was a problem with some of their collaborations, especially their subsequent picture, The Birdman of Alcatraz. Shelley Winters and Telly Savalas (10 years before he played Theo Kojak) also star and are quite good in their small roles.

Despite the narrative failings of the film, it must be said that early in his career, Frankenheimer was interested in doing something different by making movies about the marginalized as characters to focus on and center the action around. And not for simplistic reasons of exploiting those character types, either. I’m sure we’ll return to this idea throughout this retrospective, for it is one of the traits (along with his visual style) that defines much of Frankenheimer’s work. The following year was a busy one for Frankenheimer, who would have three (!) films released, two of which were, arguably, his most popular and famous films of the ‘60s: The Manchurian Candidate and The Birdman of Alcatraz. But we’ll first look at the less popular of the three, All Fall Down, starring Warren Beatty and Eva Maire Saint and adapted for the screen by William Inge.


  1. I just saw this for the first time about three weeks ago. Spot-on analysis, and even as a huge Lancaster fan, I tend to think that this one finds him getting a bit too comfortable up his own ass. But a solid entry in a genre that I've never quite warmed up to.

    1. Yeah. I guess I should clarify my comment about Lancaster: I'll elaborate on this more with subsequent reviews in this retrospective (I'll be seeing Lancaster a lot), but I think compared to his contemporaries, he was one of the big movie stars I never really felt all that compelled to watch. I liked him in The Sweet Smell of Success and The Leopard (but that may have more to do with the movies than the actor), and I especially liked him in The Professionals. But other than that...well, I guess we'll see since so many of the "bigger" films of his I have yet to see are in fact Frankenheimer films. But, yeah, I just never thought he had that classic Hollywood leading man magnetism that so many of his peers had at the time. So I suppose that's what I mean when I say "I'm not the biggest fan." But "comfortable up his own ass" is a great way of putting how I feel with a lot of his performances that do nothing for me.