THE YOUNG SAVAGES was the other 1961 production that tackled Spanish Harlem’s rival street gang’s. Unlike the smash West Side Story, this harsh black & white rumble didn’t employ music and dance to put across its message of urban strife. Grim from the get-go, it carries a definite wallop thanks to fine work from cast and director, yet was too downbeat to do better than 47th at the box office. Evan Hunter’s novel “A Matter Of Conviction” was adapted by Edward Anhalt and J.P. Miller as a vehicle for Burt Lancaster, obligated to do the low-budget, low-salary project as part of his contract to United Artists. Shot in just 35 days on location in the tough neighborhood it was set in, the social issue drama was wedged in between Burt’s big guns, just-finished Elmer Gantry and forthcoming Birdman Of Alcatraz. TV wunderkind John Frankenheimer directed. *
New York City, East Harlem. When a trio of young white punks brazenly stab to death a blind Puerto Rican teenager, they’re quickly arrested. Up from the same neighborhood, assistant district attorney ‘Hank Bell’ (Lancaster) finds a seeming slam-dunk case fraught with cross-currents. Former girlfriend ‘Mary diPace (Shelley Winters) is mother to one of the thugs. His socialite wife ‘Karin’ (Dina Merrill, socialite-turned-actress) evinces ‘bleeding heart’ sympathies not shared by street savvy ‘Detective Gunderson’ (Telly Savalas). The Puerto Rican gang ‘The Horsemen’ are in play, along with ‘The Thunderbirds’, the killer’s home crowd. Mixed motives, conflicting evidence, threats and assaults feed the politics and fuel the press coverage.
Well paced and photographed, the story arc covers a good deal of social issue ground reasonably well, the violent passages have disturbing impact, the acting throughout is strong. Though privately he wasn’t invested in the part, Lancaster delivers a thoughtful and persuasive performance, Winters doesn’t overplay (she and Burt have telling interaction), Merrill is more animate than usual. Pilar Seurat is soulful as the sister of the slain boy and the morally vacuous culprits are memorably put across by newcomers John Davis Chandler (viciousness incarnate), Stanley Kristien and Neal Burstyn (a sad history there). **
Grosses came to $5,000,000. With Edward Andrews, Vivian Nathan, Luis Arroyo, Chris Robinson, Larry Gates, Milton Selzer, Jody Fair, Robert Burton, Roberta Shore, Stanley Adams. 103 minutes.
* At first powerhouse Lancaster, 47, and arrogant Frankenheimer, 30 (described by screenwriter Miller as “a self-proclaimed genius…self confidence oozing from every pore”) were poised to clash, and the overall working environment was riven by discord. Lee Grant walked off after she and Lancaster didn’t click, replaced by Burt’s former flame Winters, who had a bitter on-set fight with him late in the shoot. Typical of too many directors, Frankenheimer’s modus operandi was in selecting someone to bully; Dina Merrill was his target, recalling he “nearly drove me out of the business”. Despite friction, Lancaster was impressed enough to have the director signed for Birdman Of Alcatraz, and they would go on to do Seven Days In May, The Train, The Gypsy Moths and The Island Of Dr.Moreau. Lancaster also gave a leg up to Savalas (39, his debut year in features) keying him to a supporting role in Birdman Of Alcatraz, which brought him an Oscar nomination. Not done, Burt was struck by the film’s 26-year-old acting coach who worked with the untrained street kids. Lancaster telephoned his former agent, Lew Wasserman, who’d become a production head, telling him “I’m sitting here with a young man named Sydney Pollack. I’m gonna send him to see you. I’ll be honest with you, Lew—I haven’t seen anything he’s directed but I’ve got a strong hunch about him and, in any case, he can’t be any worse than those bums you’ve got working for you now.”
** Personal aside— speaking of “who you know”, John Davis Chandler was a friend of my late brother-in-law and both my sisters. Patti and Sharon vouch that Chandler, superb at playing horrible villains, was a really nice guy with a great sense of humor.