powered by AFI
In the wake of two boxoffice hits, The Wild One (1953) and Blackboard Jungle (1955), the topic of juvenile delinquency and teenage gangs inspired a rash of films geared toward the youth market. While the majority of them were pure exploitation such as Rumble on the Docks (1956) and High School Hellcats (1958), there were a few attempts to treat the subject in the guise of a social problem drama, not unlike the two films that started the trend. One of the more earnest, well-intentioned efforts was Crime in the Streets (1956), which Don Siegel tackled after his highly influential sci-fi thriller, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, released earlier that year.
Originally produced for TV's "The Elgin Hour" and based on Reginald Rose's teleplay, Crime in the Streets was an early TV effort for director Sidney Lumet and the cast included John Cassavetes, Mark Rydell and Robert Preston. For the film version, Allied Artists tapped Don Siegel to direct and retained Cassavetes and Rydell from the orginal 60-minute production. Part of Siegel's challenge was to expand it to feature length which included the addition of new cast members Sal Mineo and James Whitmore, a replacement for Preston who had a Broadway commitment at the time.
Crime in the Streets is set in a rough urban neighborhood where the local residents are menaced by the Dukes, a street gang led by Frankie Dane (John Casssavetes). When Mr. McAllister (Malcolm Atterbury) witnesses a dockside rumble between the Dukes and rival gang, the New York Hornets, he reports it to the police and Lenny (James Ogg), one of the Dukes, is arrested for threatening a boy with a zip gun. When Frankie confronts McAllister for alerting the cops, the older man slaps Frankie and walks off, leaving the young punk to hatch a murderous revenge plot involving his cohorts Lou (Mark Rydell) and "Baby" (Sal Mineo). Social worker Ben Wagner (James Whitmore) learns of Frankie's plan to kill McAllister through Frankie's little brother Ritchie (Peter Votrian) and tries to reason with him over a situation that can only end in tragedy. But Frankie can't be influenced and is determined to have his revenge.
According to Siegel in his autobiography, adapting Crime in the Streets to the screen was no easy task: "It became absolutely essential that I make cinematic changes for the feature. Although I never me Reginald Rose, I heard from my producer, Vincent Fennelly, that Reginald was not happy with some of my changes...One thing was certain: I wasn't going to Xerox his teleplay on to the theatrical screen and make believe that I had made a feature. He and Sidney Lumet wouldn't have like it. Nor would John Cassettes and Mark Rydell, the two excellent actors who were in the original version."
For Siegel's screen adaptation, "Vincent Fennelly came up with a single set idea, Siegel recalled, "which would include both indoors and outdoors. Everything in the picture was shot on this one huge set, with the exception of the opening rumble, and that was shot outside the single stage we used on the Goldwyn backlot. Fortunately, we had two talented people who made it all work: creative sets from our art director, Serge Krizman, and inspired originality from Sam Leavitt, our cameraman. The complicated set cost about $35,000, but, more importantly, it enabled me to save a considerable amount of time in shooting."
Siegel also had to comply with Hollywood's self-appointed censorship board which took issue with several aspects of the screenplay. For one thing, they requested cuts in the opening rumble, stating that "it contains extremes of violence and brutality which would be at complete variance with the Code" and goes "far beyond the dictates of prudence and discretion." They also objected to the scene where the gang members discuss McCallister's murder and requested that "some dialogue be inserted...to debunk the idea that the boys who turn their back on the suggestion of murder are chicken. It would be all right for Frankie to make this charge, but it was agreed that somebody, perhaps Baby, will put the matter in its right light."
In truth, the most difficult aspect for Siegel in making Crime in the Streets was working with John Cassavetes and Mark Rydell, who had appeared in the TV version, and had their own ideas about crafting their screen performances. Both challenged him repeatedly on his creative decisions and if the end result has the feel of a filmed stage play, it is due to the theatrical nature of the original teleplay. Nevertheless, Cassavetes, in particular, is appropriately intense but he was already moving away from these type of roles and stated in an interview in 1957, "I'm not a torn-shirt actor. People had mistaken me for an intense, troubled specimen of modern American youth because during my first two years in television, I invariably had a knife in my hand. The fact is, I'm not a delinquent and I never have been."
Typical of most B movies of the period, Crime in the Streets was received with little fanfare by the public and the critical reaction was decidedly mixed. The New York Times called it a "cheap little slum-pent film" which had a "cramped and flimsy" look. The New York Herald Tribune, on the other hand, singled out Cassavetes for praise, remarking that he "plays the bitter youth with taut conviction," and Time magazine presented a more balanced view, calling it "a fairly serious little sociological thriller that is flawed by a streak of what might be called sentenement-ality: the idea that every garbage can has a silver lining."
Siegel's next feature after Crime in the Streets was the rarely seen Spanish Affair (1957), which he directed in Spain and was, by his own admission, one of his lesser efforts. Cassavetes, on the other hand, received wider exposure and positive critical notices for his next feature Edge of the City (1957), directed by Martin Ritt, in which he plays a neurotic dockworker befriended by Sidney Poitier.
Producer: Vincent M. Fennelly
Director: Don Siegel
Screenplay: Reginald Rose
Cinematography: Sam Leavitt
Art Direction: Serge Krizman
Music: Franz Waxman
Film Editing: Richard C. Meyer
Cast: James Whitmore (Ben Wagner), Frankie Dane (John Cassavetes), Sal Mineo (Angelo "Baby" Gioia), Mark Rydell (Lou Macklin), Virginia Gregg (Mrs. Dane), Peter J. Votrian (Ritchie Dane), Will Kuluva (Mr. Gioia), Malcolm Atterbury (Mr. McAllister).
by Jeff Stafford
Accidental Genius: How John Cassavetes Invented the American Independent Film by Marshall Fine
A Siegel Film: An Autobiography by Don Siegel