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Shot on a low budget of between $45,000 and $63,000 in and around Kansas City, The Delinquents (1957) is one for the film history books. On the surface, it looks indistinguishable from other drive-in movies about hot-rod gangs, misunderstood teenagers, and wild parties. But the film has a fresh, improvisational style (note the opening sequence in a Kansas City nightclub), and check out those credits. It not only marks the directorial debut of screenwriter Robert Altman but it also features Tom Laughlin (future star of Billy Jack) in his first major role. Alfred Hitchcock was so impressed with The Delinquents that he offered the young director some work, which led Altman to direct a few half-hour episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
According to writer Patrick McGilligan in his biography, Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff, there was immediate tension on the set of The Delinquents: "It was not a marriage made in heaven: the square, free-wheeling Altman and the bohemian, mercurial Laughlin, both of them future counterculture heroes. Altman has described Laughlin during the filming as "an unbelievable pain in the ass," totally egomaniacal, guilty that he had not become a priest, with a "big Catholic hang-up" and a James Dean complex.
"For one thing, remembers cameraman Charley Paddock, Altman and Laughlin had conflicting theories of acting. Altman would be ready to shoot a scene in which Laughlin was supposed to appear physically drained, and Laughlin would excuse himself with, "I've got to get in the mood now." Then Laughlin would insist on running around the block a couple of times while cast and crew cooled their heels.
"Altman was not the only one to dislike Laughlin's "living-the-part" pretensions. The crew gave him a wide berth. Laughlin wanted to quit the film halfway through the filming, before Altman worked out a compromise for communication whereby Altman would tell him exactly what he wanted in any given scene. "And he was as good as doing that as when he was really working in the first part of the picture," Altman has said. The director also added that Laughlin performed "the last half of the picture under protest."
Under these circumstances, it's not surprising that Altman has a low opinion of The Delinquents. He freely admitted in one interview that "Nobody knew what they were doing. I don't think it has any meaning for anybody." One could argue, however, that the film is an impressive first feature, particularly in light of its brief shooting schedule. According to the director in Robert Altman: American Innovator by Judith M. Kass, an investor in Kansas City "said he had the money to make a picture, if I'd make it about delinquents. I said okay, and I wrote the thing in five days, cast it, picked the locations, drove the generator truck, got the people together, took no money, and we just did it, that's all. My motives at that time were to make a picture, and if they'd said I gotta shoot it in green in order to get it done, I'd say, 'Well, I can figure out a way to do that.' I would have done anything to get the thing done."
Altman biographer McGilligan wrote that "except for Laughlin, the filming was full of spontaneity, good humor, and happy incident. It was like a party, cast members say - and indeed, in the movie was Altman's first life-is-a-party sequence, an otherwise minor scene that, for Altman, was a kind of signature. Parties, often filmed at Altman's own house, have found their way into virtually every other Altman production over the years.
"SuEllen Fried, then a dancer associated with the Resident Theatre (in Kansas City), was playing a small part. 'He rented an old house off Walworth Boulevard,' she recalls, 'and told us to pretend we were having the wildest party of our lives, while he moved the camera from room to room and just filmed whatever was going on. We didn't know when the camera was going. We were just having a wild party.'"
Yes, indeed. There are plenty of wild moments in The Delinquents but, after all, what are a bunch of thrill-crazy hoods supposed to do on a boring Saturday night in Kansas City? See these kooky kids joyriding, robbing a gas station, playing chicken with switchblade knives, and getting busted by the cops. It's all in a night's work.
Producer: Robert Altman, Elmer C. Rhoden Jr.
Director/Screenplay: Robert Altman
Art Direction: Chet Allen
Cinematography: Charles Paddock, Harry Birch
Film Editing: Helene Turner
Original Music: Bill Nolan
Principal Cast:Tom Laughlin (Scotty), Peter Miller (Cholly), Richard Bakalyan (Eddy), Rosemary Howard (Janice), Helene Hawley (Mrs. White).
By Jeff Stafford