A district attorney investigates the racially charged case of three teenagers accused of the murder of a blind Puerto Rican boy. He begins to discover that the facts in the case aren't exactly as they seem to be.Written by
Released six months before "West Side Story," this elegant story of New York gang violence in the ghettos of uptown Manhattan is as powerful, and as beautiful. And the title makes clear that the movie is pointing to a new social problem, the immigrant gangs (Italian and Puerto Rican in this case). But in most ways "The Young Savages" couldn't be more different.
At the heart of it all is district attorney Hank Bell, previously Bellini, played by Burt Lancaster in what struck me as possibly the most subtle role in his career. That's an absurd thing to know for sure, and Lancaster is so good so often it's easier to just say he is terrific, but if you know him from some noir films or from "Birdman of Alcatraz" or "Judgement at Nuremberg" you might know a more overtly dramatic actor. Here he is restrained in a perfect way, his pauses and his turned head adding depth to his apparent struggle with how to get at the truth as the events and the witnesses start to swirl out of control. A virtuosic performance.
The themes are hot topic issues layered with good old fashioned love and loyalty. Mostly we have first and second generation immigrant trying to define themselves, to stake out a place in the city, and to fend off competing immigrant groups and sometimes invade their territory. Bell's own Italian-American background makes him understand the problems of youth violence from the inside, but he has avoided being identified as Italian, and even his wife doesn't quite accept him as an immigrant, but wants to see him as more like her, a Vassar girl. Which he is not, even if sometimes he passes as a Yankee or as an old stock New Yorker.
Much of the movie is that wonderful quite and deliberate investigation of the crime, the facts, the witnesses, the evidence. And we see this through Bell's eyes. The last long section is pure courtroom drama, and it's as good as courtroom dramas get, gutsy and tense. In the biggest sense, real justice is achieved, even at the expense of some reputations or expectations around the D.A. (who of course is supposed to always want and get the death penalty). By the final turns of events, you see the story is really about a single man who struggles against his own bias and does the right thing, and does it well. Director John Frankenheimer once again pulls off a movie with social significance that doesn't forget it's roots in theatrical drama.
Cinematographer Lionel Lindon is an old pro, starting with some 1940s boilerplate movies sprinkled with some gems ("The Blue Dahlia" is a great one) and then scores of television shows. And the next year, 1962, he shot "The Manchurian Candidate" which succeeds partly for its amazing visual pizazz. Here, there are both moments of beauty and of cacophony. The fight scenes, and the dazzling murder that starts the movie off, are mini-masterpieces. But even quiet moments are given anxiety and drama by shooting at sharp angles or by moving in close. It's quite a beautiful experience to watch this, even as the events are tumultuous.
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