John Frankenheimer made his leap from “Golden Age of Television” TV director to big screen Big Name director permanent with “The Young Savages,” a flinty, gritty courtroom drama dressed up as a street gang murder thriller.
He’d just turned 30 when he dove into this Burt Lancaster star vehicle back in 1960-61. And he never looked back, pounding through “All Fall Down,” “Seven Days in May,” “The Manchurian Candidate,” “The Train,” “The Fixer,” “Seconds,” the epic “Grand Prix,” “The Gypsy Moths” and the bomb “The Extraordinary Seaman” before the ’60s ended.
He went on to direct “The French Connection II,” “Black Sunday” and a genuine modern action “classic” — “Ronin” — before he was done.
“Savages,” a non-musical companion piece to “West Side Story,” has Lancaster as a one-time Italian street punk turned assistant DA, grabbing a political hot potato of a case — the broad-daylight/witnesses everywhere killing of a Puerto Rican kid, right in front of his sister on the stoop of his tenement.
ADA Bell has to fight his politically-ambitious boss (Edward Andrews), his “bleeding heart” wife (Dina Merrill), the court-appointed psychiatrist (Milton Selzer) and the rival gangs — the Thunderbirds and the Horsemen — to get at the truth.
His past is thrown in his face in the form of the mother (Shelley Winters) of the youngest of the three accused killers. She’s the fiance he outgrew as he worked and married his way out of the Lower East Side.
The mistrust and New York cynicism comes at Hank Bell from all sides.
The shrink — “I understand they’re building a kid-sized electric chair upstate!”
The wife — “Why don’t you just tell her you’re going to burn her son, for old time’s sake?”
The uncooperative cop (Stanley Holloway, briefly seen and unbilled) on the other end of the radio — “In which order do you want these requests turned down?”
Telly Savalas makes a ferociously dogged New York cop more than a decade before he took up the “Kojak” lollipop, Luis Arroyo becomes a Hispanic gang-banger archetype as Zorro, the smart, smooth and ruthless leader of the Horsemen.
And John Davis Chandler turned his leering, blond and clammy looks to a career of heavies as the ring leader of the Thunderbirds hit squad, striking the victim “in self defense. He had a knife!”
“He must’ve been better with a knife than anybody in the wooooorld,” Bell smiles, in that Lancasterian purr. “Roberto Escalante was BLIND!”
Frankenheimer stages the violence with an in-your-face verve, tilting and turning the camera in fights and foot-chases, hurling us into a brawl on a crowded subway car at one point.
He can’t do but so much with the courtroom portion of this saga, so his solution is to cut that to the bone. It feels truncated and half-abandoned for a reason.
There’s an unfiltered quality to the racial slurs slung about here. In 1961, you could make the case that Italian and even Irish slurs had something near-parity with Hispanic and African-American ones. Not any more.
The story is more melodrama than anything else, with the whole “used to be a couple” business with Winters, the tipsy wife’s liberal politics embarrassing the “job-to-do” ADA and infuriating the man’s all-powerful boss and the many wrinkles in the murder victim and his family’s “complicated” relationship to the gang warfare and vices of the day.
But “Young Savages” is more than just “West Side Story” without the singing. It took another Lancaster movie or two for the rest of Hollywood to catch on, but this kid Frankenheimer? He had style to burn and an eye for big, brawny material that only the big screen could do justice to.
MPA Rating: unrated, violence, smoking, drinking, racial slurs
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Dina Merrill, Telly Savalas, John Davis Chandler, Luis Arroyo, Pilar Seurat, Stanley Kristien, Neil Byrstyn, and Shelley Winters
Credits: Directed by John Frankenheimer, script by Edward Anhalt and J.P. Miller, based on an Evan Hunter novel. A United Artists release.
Running time: 1:43