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In broad daylight, three hoodlums attack a blind man on the steps of his apartment and stab him to death. When the police catch the three suspects - members of an Italian gang - Hank Bell (Burt Lancaster), an ambitious assistant D.A., agrees to prosecute the case as a favor to his employer, Daniel Cole (Edward Andrews), who is running for Governor of New York. Cole demands a conviction as proof of his commitment to fighting crime but Bell, who grew up in the slums where the murder occurred, discovers that the case is more complicated than it appears. For one thing, one of the accused is Danny di Pace (Stanley Kristien), the son of his former girlfriend Mary (Shelley Winters). And the victim, Roberto Escalante (Jose Perez), was not the innocent he appeared to be - he harbored weapons for a rival gang. Extra pressure is brought to bear on Bell by his wife who feels the defendants are being used as political scapegoats and that her husband is shirking his true social responsibilities. In the course of the highly publicized trial, Bell uncovers the true murderer while making an important decision involving his own career.
Based on the novel A Matter of Conviction by Evan Hunter, The Young Savages (1961) was the first collaboration between director John Frankenheimer and actor Burt Lancaster (they would go on to make four more films together including Birdman of Alcatraz, 1962). Like other powerful social dramas of the late fifties/early sixties (12 Angry Men (1957), the TV series, East Side, West Side), The Young Savages addressed issues which undoubtedly appealed to the liberal Democrat in Frankenheimer and Lancaster yet the film was not a labor of love. "What had happened," according to the director (in Frankenheimer: A Conversation), "was that the production company of Hecht-Hill-Lancaster had got itself deeply into debt they'd had to agree to do four very inexpensive pictures, with Burt Lancaster getting $150,000 instead of his usual price of $750,000. He'd just come off Elmer Gantry , and the last thing on earth he wanted to do was this movie."
The screenplay for The Young Savages was written by Edward Anhalt, who was partially responsible for Frankenheimer being hired as director. He had recommended him to executive producer Harold Hecht who was sufficiently impressed by the young director's acclaimed work on such Playhouse 90 TV productions as J. P. Miller's The Days of Wine and Roses. Ironically, Frankenheimer brought in J. P. Miller to rework Anhalt's script, resulting in a shared screen credit even though the two writers never met or collaborated. "I rewrote it like one jump ahead of them," Miller recalled (in Against Type, the Biography of Burt Lancaster by Gary Fishgall). "I was writing it while they were shooting it. I was dictating to two secretaries part of the time. And they would come up and say, 'What are the sets like for tomorrow? What are we going to build tonight?'"
For the sake of authenticity, most of The Young Savages, which was set in Spanish Harlem, was shot in and around West 117th Street, Central Park and Lancaster's former neighborhood which had special significance since his character, Hank Bell, also came from the same impoverished background and community. At first Frankenheimer had some trouble convincing Hecht to let him shoot on location as opposed to using back lots in Hollywood. "I had to keep trading with him to get what I wanted," Frankenheimer recalled. "He wanted Paul Anka as one of the delinquents so he could sing the title song. To beat that idea I agreed to use a girl he also wanted in the picture. I wanted Lee Grant very, very badly, so I agreed to use Dina Merrill, whom he wanted in the picture. Ironically after the first day of shooting in New York I had to let Lee Grant go, and I hired Shelley Winters in her place."
The reason Grant was replaced, according to Gary Fishgall in Against Type, was because she hated working with Lancaster. Even Frankenheimer had problems with the actor, stating "...we just didn't get along...halfway through the film Burt and I had an argument and I wouldn't back down and it ended badly. Hecht said, 'You just blew any chance you ever had of doing Birdman.'" When Lancaster saw the final cut of The Young Savages, however, he changed his mind about Frankenheimer, realizing the young director was enormously gifted. Soon afterward, he fired his director on Birdman of Alcatraz and replaced him with Frankenheimer who guided him to an Oscar®-nominated performance in that film.
Shelley Winters had her own history with Lancaster. They had been lovers for a brief period around 1948 but had not been in contact with each other since that time. "Our strange relationship culminated in a dreadful real-life scene on the final day of shooting," Winters revealed in her autobiography, Shelley II: The Middle of My Century. "We did the scene on the back lot, quite late in the afternoon. In it my character denounces his for having deserted and betrayed the poor people he has said he became a lawyer to help and protect. He denounces me in legalistic language for having neglected my young son and allowing him to become a murderer and criminal. After a few low-key rumbles, Frankenheimer decided not to rehearse the scene. I just ran through my cues and lines with Sydney Pollack...We got into the scene, and suddenly we weren't acting any more. We both began to break from the dialogue and call each other terrible names...It got so bad that the crew, embarrassed, left their stations, and a security guard heard us a block away and came running with his gun drawn. Frankenheimer had turned off the camera and yelled, "Cut," two hundred feet ago, but we were almost ready to tear each other apart physically. When we ran out of breath, Sydney Pollack stood between us, and then we both left the set and climbed into our respective cars and drove away." Later the two actors were called back to reshoot the scene, which went without incident, but Winters later commented, "I didn't know what Burt and I had been screaming about - was it the scene in the picture, or were we blaming each other for what had gone wrong in our lives in the last decades?"
For Sydney Pollack, The Young Savages marked an important turning point in his career. A personal friend of Frankenheimer, he had been hired initially to help coach the nonprofessional street gang members with their dialogue scenes; his true ambition though was to become a director. Lancaster recognized Pollack's talent with actors on the set and later recommended him to Lew Wasserman, the head of MCA. That introduction led to Pollack directing television movies for MCA and eventually to directing Lancaster himself in The Scalphunters (1968) and Castle Keep (1969).
Due to its edgy subject matter, The Young Savages had limited appeal for broad audiences but it performed well in urban areas and most reviews were positive. Variety called it "a kind of non-musical east side variation on "West Side Story." It is a sociological cussword puzzle, a twisted riddle aimed at detection of the true motivation for juvenile crime..." The review also praised Lancaster's performance and noted that "the picture is inventively, arrestingly directed by John Frankenheimer with the aid of cameraman Lionel Lindon. Together they have manipulated the lens to catch the wild fury of gang pavement warfare." The Young Savages marked Frankenheimer's second film after his unhappy experiences on his debut five years earlier, The Young Stranger (1957).
Seen today, The Young Savages is still relevant though Pauline Kael's assessment of it in 5001 Nights at the Movies nails the film's main weakness: "You're awfully conscious that the picture means to be hard-hitting; it sometimes succeeds, but a lot of it is just worthy." Still, many things from the movie continue to linger after it's over - the startling opening sequence, the gritty urban setting, the music score by David Amram and John Davis Chandler's chilling screen presence (he plays gang leader Arthur Reardon). He may have been a victim of typecasting but his gallery of psychotic villains have enlivened many films from his scene-chewing role as Mad Dog Coll (1961) to Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country (1962) to his homicidal drug dealer in The Hooked Generation (1968).
Producer: Pat Duggan, Harold Hecht
Director: John Frankenheimer
Screenplay: Edward Anhalt, J.P. Miller, Evan Hunter (novel)
Cinematography: Lionel Lindon
Film Editing: Eda Warren
Art Direction: Burr Smidt
Music: David Amram
Cast: Burt Lancaster (Hank Bell), Dina Merrill (Karin Bell), Edwards Andrews (R. Daniel Cole), Vivian Nathan (Mrs. Escalante), Shelley Winters (Mary di Pace), Larry Gates (Randolph).
by Jeff Stafford