John Frankenheimer‘s The Young Savages, his first collaboration with Burt Lancaster, acts as a prologue to the filmmaker’s incredible string of films from 1962 to 1966. It mixes Stanley Kramer’s worst message movie tendencies with the kinetic action and direction that would become Frankenheimer’s trademarks. While the execution of the 1961 adaptation of Evan Hunter’s novel A Matter of Conviction seems dated, its story of the murder of a blind Puerto Rican boy by the children of Italian and Irish immigrants is sadly timeless.
The movie opens with full of action, introducing the audience to the stage upon which most of the action plays out. Danny DiPace (Stanley Kristien), Anthony Aposto (Neil Nephew) and Arthur Reardon (John Davis Chandler) are seen murdering Roberto Escalante, a blind member of a Puerto Rican gang. We know these juveniles killed Roberto, but it is up to prosecutor Hank Bell (Lancaster) to prove it in court.
A good chunk of the movie is spent following Hank as he tries to put the facts of the case together, with the help of a detective (Telly Savalas in his first movie) and under pressure from the politically ambitious D.A. Dan Cole (Edward Andrews), who wants the kids executed to boost his chances at becoming governor. He also runs into Danny’s mother, ex-flame Mary (Shelley Winters), who is convinced her son doesn’t deserve to die. Hank is also pestered by his wife Karin (Dina Merrill), who disagrees with how the D.A. is handling the case. After all this is put together, the case goes to trial, which turns out to be more theatrical and preposterous than any other movie trial.
The script, written by Edward Anhalt (Becket, Panic in the Streets) and J.P. Miller (Days of Wine and Roses), is quite literally overstuffed with issues and yet still drags its feet in the end. We’re dealing with racism, poverty, politics, parental incapacity, mental illness, gang warfare and more, giving the film’s message less focus. The trial that takes up the film’s third act goes off the rails, as each defendant has his own problems. Then Bell moves to put society at large on trial, losing the scope of what’s going on. The best “message movies” put a magnifying glass on a small incident and trust the audience to understand what it says about the larger picture. The Young Savages never does that, instead choosing to handle its subject with blunt force and heavy hands.
In an interview, Frankenheimer said he knew the original script was bad, but he knew there could be something in it. Producer Harold Hecht, Lancaster’s longtime producing partner who won an Oscar for producing Marty, let him bring in Miller to rewrite it. Still, he clashed with Hecht over casting. He was allowed to use unknowns for the boys, but Hecht forced him to bring in Merrill. She really is the film’s weak point. “I didn’t think she could hurt the picture too much, but she did,” Frankenheimer said. “The boys were great, were real.”
He’s right. The group of unknown actors pulled off fine performances, although only Chandler really had a career afterwards. (Chandler became a Sam Peckinpah favorite and appeared in TV Westerns.) Lancaster is also wonderful as the idealistic prosecutor, desperately going wherever the script takes him. His scenes with Shelley Winters makes you desperate for more moments between them, as the two are the only real Hollywood stars in the whole production.
Frankenheimer’s directing choices and framing are fascinating, as a young filmmaker quite obviously trying to take advantage of a bigger budget. This was only his second feature and first major Hollywood production. He got to work with cinematographer Lionel Lindon, who won an Oscar for Around The World in 80 Days, and the two came up with interesting camera angles and points of view to tell the story. There’s some shots that are pure Frankenheimer, like scenes of the D.A. whispering in Bell’s ear during the trial, with the witness seen between them.
The Young Savages is a forgotten movie for good reason. There are far better movies that hit along same lines, West Side Story chief among them. The aggressive, heavy-handed nature the picture attacks its subject with is dated. Aside from some stylistic flourishes from Frankenheimer and a decent Lancaster performance, there’s not much to recommend. The director and star’s later collaborations in the 1960s (Birdman of Alcatraz, Seven Days in May and The Train) are all more exciting and vibrant movies that burst from the screen.
Kino Lorber released The Young Savages on Blu-ray back in 2014 as part of its KL Studio Classics line. The disc includes no supplements (not even a trailer).