Thursday 25 September 2008

High School Confidential! (1958)

Every cheesy high school exploitation flick has to have its theme tune and this one is no exception: it merely plays it with a little more style than usual: by having Jerry Lee Lewis play it from the back of a truck driving through the parking lot of Santobello High. What's surprising here is just how far this 1958 film goes. In the first quarter of an hour our lead character, Tony Baker gets up to almost every bit of delinquent behaviour you could imagine in a film with no bad language or sex.

He parks in someone else's spot, then threatens to beat up the student who complains. He tries it on with the girlfriend of J I Coleridge, the president of the 'wheelers and dealers', the toughest clique in school, then tells him that he's taking over. He heads in to the principal's office to hand in his transfer papers (he's an orphan transferring in from Chicago), insults the secretary then kicks back in the office with a joint and a knife, both of which he points at the principal. Oh, and he's already been kicked out of the only class we've seen him in, for trying it on with the teacher, whose car he presumably sabotages so he can give her a lift home. Meanwhile he's building his connections in the drug trade.

This is an amazing film. That doesn't mean it's a great work of art, because it certainly isn't, but within its own parameters (firmly a B movie), it's fascinating, and proves to be a telling snapshot of a moment in time. The people who populate the cast are either seriously good actors or they're so iconic that they don't have to be. Tony Baker is played by Russ Tamblyn, after Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Peyton Place but before Tom Thumb and West Side Story. The ultra-hip dialogue would have floored most people but he rides with it and actually carries the character. Most actors couldn't have done it. He's a good reason why this film works the way it does.

Backing him up on the acting front are people like Jackie Coogan as Mr A, the local drug lord and Jan Sterling, as the cute teacher he hits on, though she's capable of far better. On the iconic side of things, there's wild John Drew Barrymore (son of John, father of Drew) doing something close to an Elvis impersonation as J I Coleridge, and Mamie Van Doren, Universal's answer to Marilyn Monroe, as the aunt he stays with. The way she carries on around Tony is our first lead to what's really going on under the surface of the script. All is not as it would appear.

Intriguingly her real life husband of the time (the second of five), Ray Anthony, is also in the film. He looks like a cut price Cary Grant but he does his job well, surprisingly so for someone who was really a musician and only made seven films as an actor (over twice that as a performer). Other smaller supporting roles go to people like Charles Chaplin Jr; Michael Landon, early in his career, right after I Was a Teenage Werewolf; and Lyle Talbot, close to the end of his with only a year to go before Plan 9 from Outer Space.

The real star has to be Robert Blees, who wrote this thing, both as a story and a screenplay, along with a little help from Lewis Meltzer. It's a curious movie: part high school exploitation flick, part cautionary drug tale, with odd leanings towards the various youth subcultures of the time: drag racing, beatnik clubs and poetry recitals. Its biggest success is an unexpected one, as a glimpse into the mindset of late fifties America.

Partly it's the fact that all the schoolboys look like they're 25 and all the girls have conical bras. Mamie Van Doren looked like she was about to fall over more than once, and I'm not talking about her alcohol intake. Mostly it's about the drugs though. The way drugs are presented here is really no different to the way they were presented in the thirties in films like Reefer Madness, Marijuana or The Cocaine Fiends. The States seemingly hadn't progressed a step: marijuana was a dangerous addictive substance, an 'insidious menace to the schools of our country' and the youth of the day needed to learn to say no and stick to regular cigarettes instead.

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