Thursday, June 26, 2008

Teen-Age Crime Wave (Clover/Columbia, 1955)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I picked was Teen-Age Crime Wave (the hyphen is part of the title on the original credits), a Sam Katzman production for Columbia in 1955, directed by Fred Sears from a script by Ray Buffum and Harry Essex — I’d never heard of Buffum before but Essex is a writer with some genuinely respectable genre pieces on his résumé: Kansas City Confidential, The Las Vegas Story, It Came from Outer Space and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Unfortunately, this isn’t one of them; it’s basically Rebel Without a Cause meets The Desperate Hours.

It opens in a sleazy bar where Freddy (George Cisar), a portly, middle-aged horndog who proves they didn’t break the mold after they made Guy Kibbee, is being cruised by Terry Marsh (Molly McCart), who’s supposed to be a teenager (though the actress, born on February 24, 1929, was already 24 when this film was made, and looked it); she gets him to leave with her and then, once he’s outside the bar, the other members of her gang, her boyfriend Mike Denton (Tommy Cook) and Mike’s friend Al (Jimmy Ogg), jump Freddy and steal his well-filled wallet — only to get caught almost immediately by the cops. Also arrested is Jane Koberly (Sue England), a nice girl who accepted a blind date to go to a movie with Al and proved she was a nice girl by resisting his post-cinematic advances: “Just because you took me to a movie doesn’t mean you own me!” Jane’s dad (James Bell) is willing to listen to her side of the story, but her mom (Helen Brown) washes her hands of her and calls her a “sinner.”

Jane is sentenced to one year in a dreary-sounding institution called the “industrial school,” and I was rather looking forward to seeing it because it sounded so much like something from a Charles Dickens nightmare — only we never get there; after a scene in county jail in which it looks as if Terry (whom the authorities have inexplicably allowed to room with Jane) is going to make a Lesbian pass at Jane and then laments that she’s been sentenced to stay in the “industrial school” until her 21st birthday (which quite frankly from Molly McCart’s appearance looked like ancient history!), Mike runs the car taking them there off the road, kills the sheriff’s deputy who was driving it and attempts to drown the prison matron who was guarding Terry and Jane by pushing the car into a lake — only she gets rescued in time and reports the escape to the police.

Needing a place to hide out pronto, Mike takes them to the farmhouse where Thomas and Sarah Grant (Guy Kingsford and Kay Riehl), a middle-aged couple, live; they’re awaiting the arrival of their son, war hero Ben (Frank Griffin) for Thanksgiving the next day. There follow several reels of the J.D.’s holding the Grants (including sonny boy, when he finally shows up — and seems just as dull, boring and offensive as the bad guys) hostage and terrorizing them, following which they manage to get word to their friend Al (ya remember Al?) to meet them there and take them away and over the border to Mexico, only Al is shot down by the police and the bad guys steal Ben’s car and end up at — of all the possible displays of chutzpah on the part of writers Buffum and Essex — the observatory at Griffith Park, famed as the site of two of the most important sequences in Rebel Without a Cause.

Mike and Ben confront each other in the observatory’s rotating dome (something Nicholas Ray and Stewart Stern never thought of!) and Terry gets shot down — with her dying breath she exonerates Jane, which was dreadfully nice of her — while Mike, who seems to have wanted to die a great big romantic death under a hail of police bullets, seems incredibly disappointed when he’s actually taken alive. The weird thing about Teen-Age Crime Wave is that there are isolated moments in which all the elements click — the dialogue (especially when Mike and Terry are talking about their backgrounds and Mr. Grant is concerned about his sick wife) occasionally hits notes of real pathos and the actors are good enough to make us feel for them — before the script carts them all right back into the familiar grooves of J.D. cliché and the movie takes on an air of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 badness (and I believe MST3K actually did do this one).