Absolute classics

1st October 2004 at 01:00

Exaggerated sense of menace ***

Cool and crazy cats *****

Worthy speeches ****

Based on a novel by Evan Hunter, The Blackboard Jungle is a "social issues" movie that remains big on curiosity value for today's audiences.

It starts with an apology and a public service warning, while a caption indicates that the public-school system is in good shape but that juvenile delinquency needs urgent discussion. It all echoes the sensationalist promotion for Hunter's book: "violence and hatred among teenage hoodlums - the best-selling novel of a burning problem".

Here is a strange high school populated by actors in their mid-20s who spend their days smoking and wolf-whistling at girls in tight sweaters. The older teachers are cynical and encourage the new recruits - mainly war veterans - to compare their combat experiences with their new roles as New York pedagogues.

Workmanlike director Richard Brooks put the cast through their paces, and many went on to bit-parts in B-movies. First billing went to Glenn Ford as Richard Dadier, the new teacher struggling to win the respect of the not-so young hooligans. And as Artie West, Vic Morrow perfected his role terrorising classrooms, reprising it in the 1956 western Tribute to a Bad Man. But the real star was Sidney Poitier, who gives a shining performance as the tough natural leader that Dadier cultivates.

Dadier - "Daddio" to his students - wants to prove wrong the colleague who sees the school as a giant garbage can that is continually topped up by New Yorkers breeding like rabbits. But for him education offers a way to shape a young mind and a possible solution for the disruptive and apathetic students.

Screening cartoons, organising the Christmas show and a climactic fight with Artie West - these all help to win the students' loyalty.

Looking back over the 50 years since the film was released, it's clear that perceptions of school violence have stepped up a few gears. There is a near total absence of guns and racial unrest that would be unthinkable in Hollywood now. But if the "juvenile delinquency" all seems rather quaint here, it's worth reflecting that as the opening credits and public service warning about juvenile delinquency rolled to the sound of Bill Haley and the Comets' "Rock around the Clock", legend has it that teddy boys up and down the land responded by ripping out their cinema seats.

Graham Barnfield


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