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Nov 12, 2014

Noirvember: Noir Delinquent - John Cassavetes in CRIME IN THE STREETS (1956)


Imagine West Side Story without the singing and dancing (and without the romance element) and you've got Crime in the Streets, a cross between a 1950s Juvenile Delinquent picture and a Film Noir.

Teen delinquency pictures were all the rage in the 50s with titles like High School Confidential (1958) and of course the most iconic one of all, Rebel Without a Cause (1955) with James Dean. In the 30s and 40s, tough street kids grew up to become successful gangsters but in the 50s the issue was presented in a more complex manner that hinted the increasingly confused youth were in danger of never making it past their teen years. In Crime in the Streets, the teen whose soul is in question is John Cassavetes and his character is nothing like James Dean's in Rebel Without a Cause. While Dean's performance was emotional and sensitive, Cassavetes is a powder keg just looking for a reason to blow. That reason comes in the form of Mr. McAllister (Malcolm Atterbury).

John Cassavetes and the 'Hornets' get read to rumble
The picture opens with a gang rumble - the Hornets, led by Cassavetes, vs. their rival the Dukes. Director Don Siegel (credited here as 'Donald') opens the film with a frenetic, hand-held shot of the Dukes watching as Cassavetes and the Hornets arrive. This rumble is not just a bunch of boys expelling their energy. They come armed to the teeth as we see one brandishing a heavy wrench and another holding a plank of wood with a very lethal nail sticking out of it. These 'kids' mean business.

The 'Hornets' all follow Cassavetes' lead until he plans to go too far
One of the Dukes is captured by the Hornets and after they beat him up in an alley, they demand that he lick the ground before they send him on his way with a warning for his mates. One of the Hornets pulls a homemade zip gun on him which is seen by an adult passerby. This adult is the aforementioned Mr. McAllister, a cranky old dinosaur who tells a nearby shopkeeper that the only way to handle youth is to beat the violence out of them. McAllister boldly sticks his nose where it doesn't belong and the kid with the gun is sent to jail. Step one in sending Cassavetes over the edge.

Malcolm Atterbury as the cantankerous 'Mr. McAllister' who believes teens should have sense beaten into them
Step two comes when Cassavetes confronts McAllister and then threatens the obstinate old man. McAllister smacks Cassavetes across the face which is the worst possible thing he could have done. We as the audience don't blame him because Cassavetes is physically threatening him, but then again we don't like McAllister either because he is so incredibly out of step with the times. Cassavetes doesn't like being touched by anyone which makes you wonder if he was beaten as a boy to make him so sensitive. He has a brick wall around him that if penetrated, the response is violence. Later when one of his gang members - Lou (Mark Rydell who will come up in more detail later) - playfully taps him on the face, Cassavetes almost throws him over the side of a fire escape and would have if not for Sal Mineo's intervention.  Consider the Cassavetes powder keg officially lit.

McAllister's actions are just what Cassavetes needed to become unhinged
McAllister appears to be an old man that never had any children, and whether he was ever married or not is also in question. He lives by himself, spends most of his nights bowling and when he exits the apartment in one scene he stares down blankly at a pair of tweens playing cards. We don't see his face, but his body language tells us he doesn't understand these little people sitting before him at all. We the audience are relieved that this man is childless, because his speech about how the teens all need to be smacked around to keep them in line tells us he would be a strict and likely abusive father. Even though McAllister does the civil thing in involving the police in the gun incident, he is injecting himself into a situation where he is clearly out of his element.

Mark Rydell, John Cassavetes and Sal Mineo plot a murder
Cassavetes may lead his gang, but he's an island unto himself. Unlike the other Hornets he rarely wears his fancy Letterman-like jacket but is mainly seen in the same ratty sweater and jeans. He lives in a lousy (understatement) studio apartment with his mother (Virginia Gregg) and half-brother (Peter Votrian) and at age 18 is forced to sleep in the same bed as his 8 year old sibling. How humiliating. To say he doesn't like his brother much is also an understatement. Votrian is a bright, sensitive boy constantly trying to get his brother's attention yet Cassavetes is always threatening him with extreme violence. In once scene he even threatens to slice the kid up with his switchblade. When he announces to the other Hornets that he plans to kill McAllister for his interference and even more so for the face slap, the others - with the exception of Rydell and Mineo - want nothing to do with it or him. He is completely ostracized from the gang because murder is going too far. Funny, didn't we see these very same gang members brandishing weapons like boards with sharp nails earlier in the picture? Why yes, yes we did although it seems that these teens have no idea of the real damage they could do in their 'playful' acts of gang warfare. Cold blooded murder just isn't their thing as they would rather spend their time hanging around the soda shop, dancing with girls, mouthing off to authority figures and attending the picture show.

James Whitmore as the more understanding social worker
Even as Cassavetes plots to kill McAllister, there is an odd bit of reverence. He still refers to him as 'Mr.', even though he confronts him like an equal and is prone to mouthing off to cops without shame. A pesky social worker played by James Whitmore is the opposite. He corrects the kids when they try to refer to him as 'Mr.' wanting to be more of a 'pal' rather than an authority figure (the usual line of how his Dad is the Mr.). He makes it into their inner circle more so than the other adults who want nothing to do with these bad kids even though they try to ignore him.

Peter Votrian as the sensitive younger brother
Cassavetes holds disdain for Votrian (who is perfectly cast as the younger brother) because he views this kid as having stolen his mother's love from him. Virginia Gregg shows more appreciation for the younger sibling who we find out is the illegitimate result of an affair - if not a one-night stand - with another man (not Cassavetes' father) that Votrian has never met. As the mother, Gregg is no source of inspiration for either of these kids. Working as a waitress she is constantly tired and complaining about how tired she is and how everything hurts. It's a barrage of complaining that gets old fast. If this is what growing up is going to be like, why bother? We as the audience have only witnessed it two or three times but imagine these kids who have had to listen to this night after night for years. As Cassavetes has degenerated into a near psychopath, her adoration has clearly transferred over to the younger Votrian which doesn't help matters at all.

Mark Rydell as Lou
Cassavetes' remaining conspirators are just as messed up as he is - and in the case of Rydell as Lou, even more so. Cassavetes at least comes across as smart and although volatile, there is a trace of a decent person somewhere within him that remains hidden under the layers of hate and anger. This is a testament to his performance as even while he's plotting a most heinous act, we still feel that there is some hope for him - unless of course he succeeds. Rydell on the other hand seems to be devoid of any sort of emotional attachment to what they are about to carry out. He's excited by Cassavetes' plot and gets upset when he tells Mineo that he merely plans to carve the word 'rat' into McAllister's chest rather than kill him. He smiles devilishly and hums a riff while Cassavetes outlines the murderous plan which composer Franz Waxman implements as a musical motif within the jazz inspired score. He's the one in the opening with the nail-board weapon, and pokes the nail to make sure it is extra sharp. There is a vibe that he may be gay by the way he carries himself which unfortunately the picture could also be highlighting as a source of his delinquency. Off-setting these two is the sensitive Mineo fresh from his part in Rebel Without a Cause. He isn't quite sure about the murder plot but wants to prove himself as a man. His immigrant father keeps calling him 'Baby' as does Cassavetes fueling his need to prove just how grown up he is. By referring to him as baby they send him deeper into age regression as he feels the need to lash out - like a young boy - in order to prove a point. Mineo just has that face that sells confusion and conflict raging in his mind and soul and is yet another misunderstood youth being swallowed up by the concrete jungle.

Sal Mineo's father continues to call him Baby at age 15
Cassavetes' performance really makes this picture. Director Don Siegel's approach adds the Noir element thanks to the lighting, the claustrophobic urban setting and Franz Waxman's outstanding jazz score to what really is more of a juvenile delinquent 'message' picture than anything else. The picture has too many heavy exposition scenes about the problems these kids have and the discussion of how they should be understood rather than treated with anger which grind things to a halt. James Whitmore's social worker is a weak link, coming off as stiff although he doesn't have all the right answers either and knows he's fighting a battle that he ultimately needs to win one person at a time - and in this case, that person is Cassavetes who he sees potential in (he never seems to take any interest in Rydell at all as I believe he knows wherever Cassavetes goes, Rydell and others will follow.)

It is not particularly a great film. The year before it hit the big screen, it was a live television play broadcast as part of 'The Elgin Hour' which also starred both Cassavetes and Rydell and was directed by Sidney Lumet. Yet Cassavetes as the youth about to explode into something he can never turn back from makes it compelling and engaging, not to mention he is supported by solid performances by Mark Rydell, Virginia Gregg, Sal Mineo and Peter Votrian.