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.
After earning a Best Actor Oscar for 'Elmer Gantry' in 1960, Burt Lancaster decided his next project would be 'The Young Savages,' a socially conscious drama about gang warfare in Spanish Harlem adapted from a novel by Evan Hunter, whose previous work, the better known 'Blackboard Jungle,' traverses similar territory. Though a bit heavy-handed in its depiction of ethnic tensions and troubled, dead-end adolescents, the film often brandishes a tough, uncompromising edge that helps mask the tale's inherent triteness. Lancaster's honest, impassioned performance goes a long way toward elevating the material, but the movie's true star is director John Frankenheimer, who flaunts considerable flair in only his second big screen assignment. From the opening frames, his muscular technique imbues 'The Young Savages' with essential grit and a driving pulse that rarely wavers throughout the movie's course. It's no wonder Frankenheimer would quickly become one of Hollywood's elite directors (a year later he would helm the political paranoia classic, 'The Manchurian Candidate') and eventually attain legendary status in the industry.
Examining similar themes as another, more noteworthy 1961 release, 'West Side Story,' 'The Young Savages' opens in much the same manner as that Oscar-winning musical, setting up a showdown between two rival gangs in the New York City slums. Yet instead of pitting the Jets against the Sharks, Frankenheimer's film chronicles the war between the Thunderbirds, a band of Italian-American thugs, and their Puerto Rican counterpart, the Horsemen. The members of each posse have been willingly brainwashed by a warped code of ethics and predatory mentality since they first ventured onto the city's dangerous streets, and both groups harbor a mutual hatred based on ethnicity alone. Tensions escalate when a trio of Thunderbirds brutally stab to death a blind Puerto Rican teen, sparking a firestorm of publicity, and it's up to assistant district attorney Hank Bell (Lancaster) to diffuse the ticking time bomb before it detonates. Under pressure from his boss to secure a quick capital conviction, Hank feels it's his duty to halt the rush to judgment and uncover the truth, especially when he learns one of the accused boys is the son of a former flame (Shelley Winters). Yet as Hank delves deeper into the two opposing communities, he becomes sympathetic to the very different plights of both camps, even as his involvement puts the safety of his neglected wife (Dina Merrill) and daughter (Roberta Shore) at risk.
Hank embraces his role as intrepid detective, but more than solving the criminal mystery, he seeks to uncover the psychological reasons behind the defendants' reprehensible actions. What he learns humanizes these young savages without absolving them of responsibility. And even though the Puerto Rican boy was attacked, his community cannot escape blame either. When all the truths are eventually revealed, they engender plenty of sympathy for all the involved parties, all of whom - in some way - are victims. Yet the truth also incites a hefty degree of frustration with a society that seems to perpetuate a neverending cycle of violence, but refuses to take the necessary steps to stop it.
As social issue films go, 'The Young Savages' is a minor entry, but it packs a bigger punch than one initially expects, thanks to a clever twist that puts a unique and heartrending spin on the story. Scenes in which Hank and his wife are terrorized by gang members seem purposely exploitative, but the opening murder scene is shockingly raw and disturbing, and Hank's interrogations in the courtroom provoke a couple of devastating revelations. Lancaster nicely balances sensitivity and concern with his patented macho bluster, and a more colorful performance than usual from the typically bland (yet breathtakingly beautiful) Merrill as his smug and snippy socialite wife add some domestic fireworks to the proceedings. Winters also makes a strong impression as the troubled and desperate mother of one of the hoodlums - she and Lancaster portray former lovers on screen and, in an odd coincidence, were former lovers in real life as well - as does a young-ish Telly Savalas in only his second motion picture as Hank's right-hand man.
The innovation of Frankenheimer, however, elevates the film above B-movie status. Reminiscent of a young Martin Scorsese, Frankenheimer favors off-kilter angles, fluid camera movement, and extreme foreground close-ups that create a marvelous sense of depth. The stirring opening sequence sets the tone, and an especially dazzling shot of the murder reflected in the victim's cracked eyeglasses directly recalls a similar image in Hitchcock's 'Strangers on a Train.' Though he honed his talents in live television, Frankenheimer instantly commands the big screen, and his confident approach helps the material achieve maximum impact. He and Lancaster apparently clicked, for the actor would go on to collaborate four more times with the director, in 'Birdman of Alcatraz,' 'Seven Days in May,' 'The Train,' and 'The Gypsy Moths.'
While not as powerful (or romantic) as 'West Side Story,' 'The Young Savages' is more introspective, as it strives to solve a social problem many cities still grapple with today. The material may not feel especially fresh and the answers it provides may seem simplistic by today's far more complex standards, but Frankenheimer's vigorous presentation goes a long way toward modernizing what's essentially a period drama. The film's laser focus, urban setting, and claustrophobic style create a sense of urgency that's highly effective, all while sucking us into a quagmire from which there is no escape...at least not in the forseeable future. Though it's far from a great movie, 'The Young Savages' has its heart in the right place, and there's a lot to be said for that.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Young Savages' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Like that famous line from 'Forrest Gump,' the video quality of Kino releases is like a box of chocolates - you never know quite what you're going to get. So I'm happy to report the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer of 'The Young Savages' is indeed impressive. Crisp and clear, with nicely modulated contrast, noticeable but not overwhelming grain, and excellent gray scale variance, the image possesses wonderful vibrancy, even under the harsh lighting of location sequences. For the most part, the source material is quite clean, and aside from a jarring white squiggly vertical line appearing briefly at the 1-hour-32-minute mark, only a few errant specks dot the canvas. There's a missed frame at about the 1-hour-8-minute mark, and some slight instability afflicts the picture from time to time, but the instances are brief and don't detract too much from the viewing experience. Blacks could be a tad richer, but still show up well, and fine shadow detail keeps crush at bay. Close-ups are exceptionally well rendered, allowing us to see the pock marks on Lancaster's face, and no digital doctoring seems to have been applied. For a 50-year-old film that hasn't undergone much restorative work, 'The Young Savages' looks quite good, and Kino deserves kudos for such a fine visual presentation.
A serviceable DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track supplies good-quality sound without any age-related hiss, pops, or crackles. A wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows without any hints of distortion, and the music by David Amram, who also scored Frankenheimer's classic 'The Manchurian Candidate,' fills the room with ease, thanks to solid fidelity and a pleasing depth of tone. Dialogue, of course, is the track's most essential element, and all conversations - with the exception of a couple of whispered exchanges - are clear and easy to understand, even when ethnic accents are employed. Unfortunately, typical of Kino releases, some sync issues occur early in the film, but thankfully clear up after a few minutes and the balance of the movie proceeds without incident. Such an occurrence, however, is the only real blemish on an otherwise solid track.
No supplements whatsoever, not even a trailer, are included on the disc.
Typical of the social message motion pictures of the late 1950s and early 1960s, 'The Young Savages' stands apart from the pack, thanks to the striking direction of a young John Frankenheimer, who innovatively employs his cameras to enhance the story's grit, urgency, and impact. A thoughtful examination of gang warfare and the toll it exacts on both perpetrators and victims, this taut tale also shines a light on the pervasive racial prejudice and negative cultural influences that shape urban society and spawn delinquent behavior. Burt Lancaster, Dina Merrill, and Shelley Winters all file believable portrayals that help the movie hammer home its message, and Kino's above-average video and audio transfers allow full immersion in the story. The lack of any supplements is a disappointment, but can't keep this engrossing film from receiving a recommendation.