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I found this film on a well-known social media website. The Young Savages dates from the last years of the ‘Hecht-Lancaster’ partnership. It was produced by Harold Hecht and starred Burt Lancaster, though it was not made by their usual production company but one created for this project. Hecht and Lancaster had been working together as ‘independents’ in studio Hollywood since 1948. The film was distributed by United Artists, the ‘non-producing’ studio that prospered in the 1950s and 1960s. The director was John Frankenheimer who had previously made only one feature, but was well-regarded for his television work. He would go on to make three major features with Lancaster over the next two years, The Birdman of Alcatraz, Seven Days in May and The Train.

Burt Lancaster with from left Neil Nephew, John Davis Chandler, Stanley Kristien (playing Danny diPace)

The film’s source was a 1959 story by Salvatore Albert Lombino, published under his more well-known pseudonym ‘Evan Hunter’. The milieu was Hunter’s home turf (he is also well-known as the crime writer Ed McBain) and the realist, street-shooting was familiar for Frankenheimer on this black and white feature. The story is conventional – a gangland feud between the ‘Thunderbirds’ from the Italian-American community and the ‘Horsemen’ from Spanish Harlem. It was released at the same time as West Side Story, but the story and treatment are different. The story was adapted by Edward Anhalt and J. P. Miller. We see three Italian youths marching into Puerto Rican territory and going up to a young man on the steps of a tenement building, stabbing him to death and then running to escape. However, they can’t get far and the police corner them. The boys are aged 15, 16 and 17.

The opening sequence with the three youths moving swiftly through the streets is a bravura piece of filmmaking and includes a switch in the drum accompaniment (to bongo or conga?) when the tension increases and the youths take out their knives. The music score is by David Amram. Everything settles down after the murder and we meet the DA who is running for office and the Assistant DA who will be the prosecutor in the case. This is Hank Bell (Burt Lancaster) who we expect to be a ‘liberal’, but who will be put under great pressure, because of the election and the press coverage, to get a conviction for ‘first degree murder’. But he also has his own reasons for wanting to go in hard. Because of the seriousness of the crime, the case will be heard in the criminal court, not the juvenile offenders court. If Bell moves to secure a conviction for first degree murder he will be opposed at home by his wife Karin (Dina Merrill) who is an upper-class ‘Vassar girl’ and staunchly liberal. (Dina Merrill herself came from the wealthy Hutton family in New York.) But very soon it becomes apparent that Hank faces another problem. His own family background is Italian but his father changed the family name from ‘Bellini’ to Bell. This is known by many in the Italian community and inevitably it will bring pressure, especially when we learn that one of the three accused teenagers is the son of a single mother Mary diPace (Shelley Winters) who was once Hank’s girlfriend when he was a young man.

Shelley Winters as Mary diPace
Dina Merrill as Karin Bell

Hank investigates methodically and somehow negotiates all the tricks played by both gangs, including an attempt to frighten his wife. The final section of the film becomes a courtroom drama as Hank’s prosecution (of course) turns the case in an unexpected direction. There is nothing much in the script as such that could not have appeared in the police or courtroom TV series of the period (The Defenders with E. G. Marshall aired from 1961 to 1965 and Perry Mason ran from 1957 to 1966), though these series featured defence lawyers. Hank Bell is a prosecutor who acts more like a defence lawyer in questioning his own witnesses and the evidence produced. The story fits the general theme of films about ‘juvenile delinquency’ with in this case a racial conflict at its core. What makes the film different is Frankenheimer’s use of the camera. (Lionel Lindon was the cinematographer – he worked on two more Frankenheimer films but generally at this time he worked on TV shows.) The other important difference is Lancaster’s star power, supported by Shelley Winters. Telly Savalas appears as a Detective. The focus on the Lancaster character moves the narrative away from the ‘youth picture/delinquency’ angle and the youth gang drama to more of a character study. The ‘X’ certificate in the UK might have deterred some older audiences.

The mother of the murdered youth at his funeral

I don’t know how this film did at the box office, but clearly Frankenheimer became a major director of cinema films over the next few years and Burt Lancaster’s career certainly didn’t falter. He was in the ‘Top Ten males stars’ list of 1962. Here’s a trailer for a DVD release. The print appears to be in a 1.75:1 ratio, unusual for 1961: