“This is one story. What’s to blame?”
Led by chief instigator Bill “Cholly” Charters (Peter Miller), a small gang of underage misfits pop into a Kansas City nightclub to score some illicit booze and stir up some unwarranted trouble; nothing major at first, just enough of a fracas to express their defiant attitude and assert their too-cool-for-school rebuke of authority. Fed up with the bartender’s refusal to supply said alcohol, Cholly hurls a bottle at the drum belonging to a band on stage, then proceeds to insult the lead singer. Once he and his compatriots have finally exited the premises, one of them propels a bus stop sign through the club window. They speed away, frustrated but elated. With the jazzy music, the dissident youth, and the hormonally-primed aggression, the hepcat rebelliousness is thus ignited, and it cruises throughout The Delinquents (1957).
But before things get too rowdy, an authoritative, moralizing voiceover offers words of caution, taking the wind out of the initially foolhardy sails. “The story you are about to see is about violence and immorality,” he says. “Teenage violence and immorality.” The exhorting lecturer sounds off about these “children” (most are at least 18 years of age) trapped between adolescence and maturity, about the lack of decency and respect in the world, about the need for reformative social, religious, and youth organizations, and so on and so forth. Most of this is done during the opening credits, getting the rhetorical spiel over with before the good times can start rolling again (a restatement of the path toward cultivation will return to bookend the film at its conclusion). In the 1950s, such declarations were frequently necessary for films like these, just as 1930’s gangster movies often had a printed or stated condemnation of their “bad guys.” After all, one can’t show this type of recklessness without, first, having the characters suffer the consequences, and second, making the viewer aware of its evils.
The Delinquents is primarily concerned with using good kid Scotty White (Tom Laughlin) to serve as the personified gateway into this life of teenage abandon. And the narrative and thematic set-up would therefore have us believe the film is about this naive innocent falling in with the wrong crowd, succumbing to temptation and surviving the ordeal to emerge a more refined individual. But that’s not exactly correct. Sure, Scotty feels some degree of wrongheaded indebtedness to Cholly and his posse, particularly after they get him out of pinch, a pinch one of the rabble-rousers got him into to begin with, but he never really attempts to join their clique as such. He’s more or less a hard luck case routinely in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people. Scotty doesn’t see the appeal in the life of Cholly and his pack, nor is he vindictively acting out against his own personal demons. What does get him into the tough spot is when the parents of his 16-year-old girlfriend, Janice Wilson (Rosemary Howard), scorn their young love, slamming the scandal of going steady, passing notes, and daydreaming about the names of their future children. Still, Scotty doesn’t lash out purely as a result of this censure, though he is devastated and vulnerable enough to make the wrong choices.
There is much about The Delinquents that feels almost comically dated, no matter how accurate it was at the time of its release. The psychology and conduct of Cholly’s squad is inconsistent and unconvincing; they try too hard to be hard but are kept continually impeded by the dictates of acceptable screen material. While their wickedness runs the gamut—boozing it up at the drive-in, puncturing the tire of an apparent rival’s car, burnouts on the White family’s lawn—they’re also a remarkably clean-cut and presentable band of troublemakers. As rough and tough as they like to act, they look like they just stepped out of a Happy Days reunion. At the same time, there is a bizarre back and forth of age regression and age advancement, where they’re impudent and childish one minute and too old and anguished for their own good the next. At least Scotty is constant. His good nature gets him disparaged as a “golden boy” by the extra-antagonistic Eddy (Richard Bakalyan), who never warms up to the idea of welcoming Scotty into the fold, but through it all, he remains a decent kid. He even hesitates to sneak around just so he can reunite with Janice, and though he ultimately does, it isn’t necessarily perceived as “bad,” but rather sort of sweet, almost a little admirable compared to the impulsive, brainless actions of the others.
As hackneyed as some of the behavior is, Miller gets the most out of his simmering, sneering, unnerving Cholly. With uncredited roles in two of the troubled-teen genre’s most emblematic works—Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause, both released in 1955—Miller actually exhibits some degree of bad boy charisma, at least early on, inducing the impression he might have a sliver of graciousness behind that mischievous veneer. Maybe, but much of that appeal fades when he and his cohorts break into a vacant house, throw a party, and he starts to put the moves on Janice, who instantly recognizes their cruel intentions even if Scotty is still blinded by gullible loyalty. As for Howard, this was her first and only role, which is just as well as she is the weakest link in the cast by far. She does deserve credit for this house party scene, though. She is scandalized by the drinking and smoking and making out, and if it weren’t for her horrified reaction, which the viewer is at this point guided to empathize with, these typical teen antics probably wouldn’t seem so awful. If anything, the film’s inflated iniquity gets in the way of its effectiveness, as when a few firebrands pass around and dramatically consume Old Taylor whiskey like it was newly scored heroin.
The primary reason to watch The Delinquents today is because it was Robert Altman’s feature film debut. But don’t get too excited; there is little to indicate his involvement. Where one finds the temporarily latent Altman touch is in two behind-the-scene anecdotes. One concerns Laughlin, who does a fine enough job here and would eventually become most famous as Billy Jack. Altman didn’t care for the budding young actor’s Method emulation. The time it took him to get in the mood slowed down production and, as would later be clear in Altman’s more accomplished pictures, that type of studied, affected performance did not suit his instinctive leanings. Along those lines, Howard recalls Altman setting up the house party as an actual gathering, having the actors interact just as they would in a real situation. He then moved the camera inconspicuously from room to room, attempting to capture the spontaneity of the situation. The laudable intention may have been there, but a sense of authenticity is scarcely noticeable. If not obvious on screen, these examples (Altman’s distain for Laughlin’s routine, the candid staging) do illustrate that the acclaimed director’s trademark formal preferences were simply lying in wait.
Banking on the popularity of comparable rockin’ teen pics that exploitatively played on the fears and joys of the post-war youth, Kansas City exhibitor Elmer Rhoden, Jr. wanted some timely and profitable fare for his theater chain. With a budget of roughly $45,000 to $63,000 (sources vary—on the cheap either way), Altman was brought on board. Having cut his teeth on documentaries and shorts since 1951 (his first movie, Modern Football, featured cinematography by Charles Paddock, whose black-and-white photography on The Delinquents is one of the film’s main stylistic assets), Altman cranked out the screenplay in less than a week. He employed a number of local actors from the area theater scene, as well as a few family members: Sissy, Scotty’s kid sister, whom he lovingly teases, tolerates, and trusts, is played by Christine, Altman’s eight-year-old-daughter, and Altman’s then wife, Lotus Corelli, plays Mrs. Wilson. Filming took just three weeks. After shooting at popular hangouts and in the homes of friends and cast members, the picture was complete by mid-1965, was picked up for distribution by United Artists (they’re the ones who added the didactic opening and closing diatribe), and premiered in Kansas City in February, 1957.
Available on a new Olive Films Blu-ray, which features the bare minimum of a sharp transfer and a trailer, The Delinquents served its purpose, and at a rapid 72 minutes, it basically still does. Its most important quality is that it positioned Altman for a bright future. It was good enough to even impress Alfred Hitchcock, so much so that the venerable master hired the young filmmaker to direct episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. From there, Altman was able to embark on an impressive run of television work until 1967, when he returned to the big screen with Countdown (1967), setting the stage for his more iconic and representative work to follow.
Owning perhaps to inexperience, or perhaps to the hasty production, the editing of The Delinquents is a little clunky, though it is a visually polished picture. The film’s biggest drawback, however, is the way it approaches its topical subject matter. What these delinquents do, they do for no apparent reason. And while that may be the point, the suggestion that this type of insolence infects with the destructive randomness of a disease (the voiceover man absurdly likens it to cerebral palsy and cancer), that doesn’t do much to offer up a thoughtful critique. The film gets slightly more dramatic and troubling when Cholly and his crew show how far they can go—forcing Scotty to get thoroughly liquored up, going on to assail a gas station attendant, and, most shockingly, sexually advancing on Janice—but unlike Rebel Without a Cause or The Wild One (1953), these hoods are superficial types, all textbook examples of the clichéd “Juvenile Delinquent” with no nuance whatsoever. Frankly, they’re mostly just a bunch of assholes. As a result, the film itself doesn’t come across as a judiciously conscious testimony about delinquency as a social condition. It’s more like a discounted Afterschool Special. Nevertheless, if it was good enough for Alfred Hitchcock, it’s good enough for at least one curious viewing.