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The vogue for senate subcommittees in the 1950s gave Columbia B-unit director Fred S. Sears a way out of the ghetto of low budget westerns, war movies and adventure tales he had directed for Columbia since 1949. The "Kefauver Hearings" that commenced in 1950 and inspired the classic On the Waterfront (1954) also begat Sears' The Miami Story (1954), which he shot on location in Florida, far from the Hollywood backlot. After the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency (of which Senator Estes Kefauver was also a member) declared in 1954 that comic books were a contributing factor to "the seduction of the innocent," youth crimes became the topic of the day. While Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Richard Brooks' Blackboard Jungle (1955) and John Frankenheimer's The Young Savages (1961) represent the artistic tent poles of this excitable subgenre, Sears' Teen-Age Crime Wave (1955) is considered to reside somewhere near the bottom of the barrel alongside the Ed Wood-scripted The Violent Years (1956) and Edward Cahn's Riot in a Juvenile Prison (1959). While Sears and writers Ray Buffum (The Brain from Planet Arous , Teenage Monster, 1958) and Harry Essex (Kansas City Confidential , It Came from Outer Space ) do exploit national fears about the rise of youth crimes, they also beg for a measure of understanding for the troubled youth of America and a sensitivity to what sociologists in the next decade would coin as "the Generation Gap."
Teen-Age Crime Wave (the onscreen title employs the hyphen, while posters and ad art did not) went before the cameras as Jail Bait, which is how the film was registered with the MPAA in March of 1954. In fact, the film pulls a bit of a bait and switch early on, hinting it will be the story of underage bad girl Terry Marsh (Molly McCart), first seen striking up a coy conversation in a dive bar with the middle-aged but ever-ready George Cisar (in a rare non-bartender role). Luring her patsy out onto the street, Terry reveals herself to be a shill for her J.D. boyfriend Mike Denton (child actor Tommy Cook in career-changing mode), whose attempt at robbery is foiled by the arrival of the cops and the arrest of both Terry and Jane Koberly (Sue England), an innocent whom Terry has dragged into the act. Even as both girls are remanded to a teen detention center, the story still seems to be Terry's... until Mike intercepts the car transporting Terry and Jane and the thing turns into a hostage scenario reminiscent of The Desperate Hours (1955). Holed up for several days in the rural farmhouse of elderly James Bell (The Leopard Man, 1943) and Kay Riehl (A Star Is Born, 1954), Terry and Mike smoke cigarettes, spit hipster rebop and engage in public displays of affection while the police (aided by Jane's father) comb the Antelope Valley to bring these troubled teens to justice.
Teen-Age Crime Wave makes a pretty good case for juvenile delinquency. The homes of the adult characters, the seedbeds of dissatisfaction and postwar alienation, are depicted as shadowy and joyless, the only source of light (apart from the occasional 40 watt wall sconce) coming from the glow of the omnipresent television. While the script isn't so glib as to pin the whole of the blame on bad parenting, one agent of law enforcement actually admits "I think we lock up the wrong people" before Mike puts a bullet in his belly. (Beyond this, the film shows a positively fetishistic fascination with characters being shot in the back.) Certainly, Mike and Terry are "dirt" but Sears and his writers offer hope for the likes of the restless but decent Jane while the film's Thanksgiving setting suggests the authorial intention is one of accommodation and reconciliation rather than alarmist finger-pointing.
However Teen-Age Crime Wave may have ripped its scenario from the day's headlines, it proved eerily prescient in anticipating the crimes of 20 year-old Charles Starkweather and his 14 year-old accomplice/girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate in January of 1958. With one murder already to his credit, Starkweather and/or Fugate slaughtered her entire family before hitting the road from Nebraska to Wyoming and racking up a total of eleven victims. The case inspired a number of feature films, among them the cult classic The Sadist (1963), Terrence Malick's Badlands (1973), the ABC TV miniseries Murder in the Heartland (1993) and Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers (1994).
Producer: Sam Katzman
Director: Fred F. Sears
Screenplay: Harry Essex; Ray Buffum (story, screenplay)
Cinematography: Henry Freulich
Art Direction: Paul Palmentola
Music: Mischa Bakaleinikoff
Film Editing: Jerome Thoms
Cast: Tommy Cook (Mike Denton), Molly McCart (Terry Marsh), Sue England (Jane Koberly), Frank Griffin (Benjamin David 'Ben' Grant), James Bell (Thomas Paul Grant), Kay Riehl (Sarah Wayne Grant), Guy Kingsford (Mr. Koberly).
by Richard Harland Smith
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