The Delinquents | Critical Review by Todd McCarthy

This literature criticism consists of approximately 7 pages of analysis & critique of The Delinquents.
This section contains 1,878 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Todd McCarthy

SOURCE: "The Delinquents (Robert Altman) (1974)," in Kings of the Bs: Working Within the Hollywood System, edited by Todd McCarthy and Charles Flynn, E. P. Dutton and Co., Inc., 1975, pp. 215-19.

In the following review, McCarthy states that, "Decidedly a minor work by a major artist," The Delinquents proves that Altman can tell a straightforward story without stylistic mannerisms.

A reasonable number of people must be aware that Robert Altman directed films before M∗A∗S∗H, but most would probably be hard pressed to come up with many titles. Some may have seen That Cold Day in the Park and a few watchful airplane passengers and television viewers might have noticed that Altman directed Countdown (with some uncalled for assistance from Jack Warner). The elongated Kraft Suspense Theatre episode Nightmare in Chicago, a definitive documentary of the city's Edens Expressway if nothing else, can claim a few partisans on the underground Chicago-Madison critical axis, and if Altman's and George W. George's distinctive and evocative The James Dean Story were rereleased today, the combined Dean and Altman cults might even help Warner Brothers turn a profit on the film (it was a dismal flop when originally released in the summer of 1957, two years after Dean's death).

But the real skeleton in Altman's closet is another film that was released in 1957, but was considerably more successful. It's The Delinquents, which Altman, ever the auteur, wrote, produced, and directed in his hometown of Kansas City during the summer of 1955 on a $63,000 budget. As Altman puts it,

Well, this guy back there said he had the money to make a picture, if I'd make it about delinquents. I said OK and I wrote the thing in five days, cast it, picked the locations, drove the generator truck, got the people together, took no money, and we just did it, that's all. My motives at that time were to make a picture, and if they said I gotta shoot it in green in order to get it done, I'd say, "Well, I can figure out a way to do that." I would have done anything to get the thing done.

Altman may have been glad to get the thing done, but today he doesn't seem all that glad to have people see the film. At the 1973 San Francisco Film Festival tribute to Altman, an enthusiast asked how The Delinquents might be seen today. The director replied that he possessed a print, but that, if he had anything to do with it, the young man would never see the film. Although delivered offhandedly, this is quite a severe judgment on a work that, although by no means a great, undiscovered classic, is certainly nothing to be embarrassed about, even for one of the greatest American film-makers, Altman: "I'm not embarrassed about it. But nobody knew what they were doing. I don't think it has any meaning to anybody."

He probably didn't know what he was doing, but in those five days that he wrote the script, Altman was unobtrusively laying the groundwork for a vast number of the teen problem (or problem teen) pictures that were to follow. By the time The Delinquents was finally released, of course, everyone from Sam Katzman to AIP to Jerry Lewis had jumped on the j.d. bandwagon, but in early 1955, The Wild One and The Blackboard Jungle had only just been released and Rebel Without a Cause was still in the shooting stage. (The Delinquents was even pre-rock 'n' roll, and part of its score consists of some smooth Kansas City black jazz, with some on-camera work by the late singer Julia Lee.) The youth exploitation field was untested and uncharted and, if he wanted to, Altman could lay claim to having invented, in one picture, many of the conventions (and, soon afterward, clichés) of this subgenre.

The setting is WASPville, U.S.A., that clean-cut community small enough to get by with only one drive-in and one high school, but big enough to have two sides of the tracks. On right side of tracks, good, straight but troubled boy and sweet, innocent but ripe girl are very much in love but her parents stand between them since she's "not ready to go steady" and he "hangs out with the wrong crowd." Forbidden to see his sweetheart, boy implores hot-rodding pal to pick up his girl for him. Pal gets duded up, leads girl out from under noses of suspicious parents, and whole teen crowd meets for party at abandoned mansion outside town. Filter cigarettes and 3.2 beer cause party to get out of hand, reunited lovers leave to be alone, fuzz mysteriously appear and break up drunken free-for-all. Apprehended toughs suspect boy of snitching, kidnap him next day and force him to gulp down whole bottle of Scotch when he won't admit to being informant. Taking besotted boy for ride, toughs bungle gas station holdup and speed off, leaving boy behind with cash and dead attendant. Boy finally staggers home, learns gang has abducted girl, tracks down and beats up toughest tough, learns girl's whereabouts, saves her from clutches of gang, and walks off to confront police, who will surely clear him of gang's crimes.

The Delinquents is framed with sanctimonious narration about how "This story is about violence and immorality," and how "We are all responsible. Citizens must work against the disease of delinquency by working with church groups, community groups," ad infinitum, ad nauseam. Altman claims that this was added by United Artists when the company picked up the film for release (UA paid $150,000 for the film and grossed nearly $1,000,000 with it), but it is curious that a preachy narrative is also the prime weakness of The James Dean Story. Aside from this, however, and an occasional line, delivered by the girl friend to her parents, such as, "Why can't you leave him alone?" (perhaps the definitive line of all 1950s teenpix), the film is relatively passive and undidactic in its attitude toward the spectacle of youth led astray. Even then, Altman seemed drawn toward an improvisational approach, and the casual sound of the dialogue reduces the frequency of overblown melodramatic moments. And although not withdrawn to the extent that it is in Thieves Like Us, the camera normally records the violence in The Delinquents from a distance, often from a high, overhead angle, thereby implicating neither the viewer nor even society-at-large in the misdeeds of the characters (even so, critics at the time felt that The Delinquents was an extremely violent film).

The players, who include Altman's daughter and then-wife, were all found in Kansas City, with three major exceptions. The film gave Richard Bakalyan his first stab at playing the greasy punk who makes life miserable for everyone in town, and he did it so well that he was typed forever. Peter Miller, fresh from The Blackboard Jungle, was also brought in from California. Tom (Billy Jack) Laughlin, who apparently had a considerable James Dean complex, played the troubled young man and the mere mention of his name makes Altman cringe even today:

Tommy Laughlin was just an unbelievable pain in the ass. Unbelievable. He's a talented guy, but he's insane. Total egomaniac. He was so angry that he wasn't a priest. Big Catholic hangup. I found out that this Laughlin Kid was doing all the things he'd heard about James Dean doing. Like he'd run around the block when he was supposed to be exhausted and he'd say, "OK, I'll sit down there on the fireplug and when you hear my whistle, you start rolling your cameras." Otherwise, he wouldn't do it. In fact, he did the last half of the picture under protest. He'd say, "OK, tell me what you want me to do." And I'd say, "Well, I want you to …" He'd say, "No, tell me exactly what you want. I'll do it just the way you want it. I'm not going to act in this picture. I'm just here because I have to be." And I said, "OK, I want you to fall out of the car like this," and I'd fall out of the car. "Then I want you to take your right hand and move it up and put it on the gravel. Then I want you to look up a minute …" He couldn't remember it, but that served his purpose and he'd do it. And he was as good at doing that as when he was really working in the first part of the picture.

Although extremely mannered (he couldn't keep his eyes fixed in one place for more than two seconds), Laughlin gives an adequate performance and manages to make his relatively thankless character somewhat less bland than it might otherwise be. In movies of this sort, the scenes involving the romantic leads are usually so vacuous that, after initial laughter, one begins counting the minutes until the toughs return to liven things up. In The Delinquents, there is at least a modicum of concern generated for the admittedly pasty lovers; even in the campiest of moods, one cannot wish total degradation upon them.

In what so far must sound like a perhaps passable but hardly distinguished film, there are two notable features—its technical excellence and its paradoxical relationship with the director's subsequent work. Altman served his apprenticeship making industrial films and documentaries in Kansas City and his know-how in lighting and in photography is impressively evident in his first dramatic film. The quality of the black-and-white image is brilliantly sharp and rich, far better than any produced in similar fare (under studio conditions) by AIP, Allied Artists, or Columbia, and astonishing in a film made independently for so little money.

One need take little more than a casual look at Altman's recent work to realize that the director is fascinated with the conventions of genres. Today, particularly in McCabe and Mrs. Miller and The Long Goodbye, he works within established generic frameworks, but subverts and plays upon the conventions, simultaneously expressing his feelings about his characters and the history of the genres' development. In The Delinquents, he plays it straight. Foreshadowing, to a remarkable extent, his attitude toward the hoodlum's violence in The Long Goodbye, Altman says of his first film, "My main point was to say that kids like this don't plan anything. They don't say, 'Tomorrow we're gonna go knock off the filling station.' They say, 'Hey, there's a filling station, let's go in there and mess around.' And it happens. It's not a premeditated kind of thing. It's just a restlessness kind of thing, I think."

It's this restlessness, principally expressed through the edgy, nervous performances, as well as a fatalistic ambivalence about the plight of the lovers, and a reluctance to implicate society too heavily in the misguided lives of the characters, that sets The Delinquents apart from other examples of its genre and reveals that at least some thought went into its creation. Like much of Nicholas Ray's work, it leaves one unsettled and off-balance emotionally. Decidedly a minor work by a major artist, The Delinquents could nonetheless furnish proof to those still skeptical of his abilities that Altman can, if he wants to, tell a straightforward story without stylistic mannerisms. Happily, he's doing a lot more than that today.

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This section contains 1,878 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Todd McCarthy
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