Monday, July 19, 2010

High School Confidential (1958)

Directed by Jack Arnold
Starring Russ Tamblyn, Mamie Van Doren, Diane Jergens, John Drew Barrymore

"You got 32 teeth, you wanna try for none?"

Director Jack Arnold was a drive-in kingpin, known for his prolific output of 50's horror and sci-fi flicks - classic Cold War junk like It Came from Outer Space (1953), Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) and Monster on the Campus (1958). Likewise, producer Al Zugsmith knew how to dole out heaping helping of cheap kicks - his resume includes classic trash like Sex Kittens Got o College (1960), Female Animal (1958), and the notorious Fanny Hill (1964). Throw in bleach-blonde sexpot Mamie Van Doren and a cast of familiar names and faces - including Charlie Chaplin, Jr, Russ Tamblyn and Michael Landon - and it would be difficult not to end up with a crowd-pleasing bit of teenage nonsense. Given the era it was created in, you can forgive High School Confidential for it's final-act reveal as a an ill-conceived cautionary tale, because for a good hour or so, it's full-on gonzo, a delectable feast of impossible beatnik slang, improbable tough guys, drug-addled rich girls. nihilistic poetry slams, and the force of nature va-va-voom of legendary man-killer Van Doren.

Tony Baker (West Side Story's Russ Tamblyn) is the new kid in town, and on his very first day at school, he threatens to knock some dude's teeth out in the parking lot, hits on the first hot dame he sees, defies the local street gang, offers the principal's secretary a joint, and pretty much defies authority every chance that he gets. It's no surprise, really. Tony's a knockaround kid from Chicago, on his 7th year of high school - he kept back three times, and had to do two years in the army inbetween. Which probably makes him about 25 at this point. Anyway, Baker means to take over the school, but to do that, he'd have to join the Wheeler Dealers, but dig, Baker don't join no gangs, the gangs join him.

Tony's first class is with pretty-but-uptight Miss Williams (Jan Sterling). Naturally, he disrupts class with his antics, but Miss Williams is not having it, so she escorts him to the principal's office. Meanwhile, Wheeler-dealers boss JI (John Drew Barrymore, father of Drew) takes over the class to reinterpret teach's lesson in Lord Buckley-esque jive-speak. Unfortunately, JI is pretty much a square, so it sorta falls flat.

Meanwhile, skull-faced Principal Robinson has a talk with young Tony, but it does no good. He tells him that if there's any trouble, he'll call the juvenile authorities, which probably wouldn't be too effective for a dude that's already drinking age.

Tony goes home for a glass of milk and gets hit on by his sexy, boozy aunt Gwen (Mamie Van Doren). So that's weird.

And then she makes out with him, which is even weirder.

Tony doesn't dig the incest scene, though, because he's got his peepers locked on a blonde kitten named Joan (Diane Jergens), who just happens to be JI's best-girl. So this is all going to end badly.

JI corners Tony in the locker room with a bunch of his goons, but Tony pulls out a switchblade and everybody scatters.

So the jury's still out, really. Meanwhile, Miss Williams runs out of gas and accepts a ride home from Tony. He takes the opportunity to hit on her. She doesn't bite.

Meanwhile, we find out a shocking fact about sweet, innocent Joan - she's hopelessly addicted to reefer! What madness! Luckily, her dad's rich, so she's working a few scams to feed her habit.

And then JI and Joan hit the local hotspot, where The Poetess (Phillipa Fallon) does some awesome beat-poetry. Pounding the piano behind her is the sinister Mr. A, portrayed by none other than Jackie (Uncle Fester) Coogan!

Later on, Joan invites Tony to a pool party. He tells her he's looking to score some weed to sell, and she points him in the direction of one Jukey Judlow. And then they make out, since she's finally got a decent connection.

But when her heroin-addled pal Doris stumbles in, Tony gets all concerned-citizen on her. So that was weird.

Turns out Judlow's small time, so Tony has to buy in bulk from JI, who reports to Mr A. It's complicated.

Also, because it's 1958, there's a hot rod race. Also because it's 1958, the original teenage werewolf, Michael Landon, is driving one of the cars. It's all good times until the fuzz shows up. Even worse, they discover the giant bag of drugs Tony just bought from JI. Luckily for Tony, Mr. A pays his bail.

Concerned for her new student, Miss Williams pays a visit to Aunt Gwen. She chases her off. And then she busts in on Tony so she can watch him change. When he brushes her off, she threatens to talk to the cops about his fledgling weed business. Tony is not concerned.

Back at the club, Joan and Tony enjoy a coupla drinks and some tunes, but they're interrupted by JI, who tells Tony Mr A wants to see him.

On his way out the door, Aunt Gwen shows up with some shmoe to make Tony jealous. Aunt Gwen might be fucking crazy. He gets picked up by Bix (Ray Anthony), who has a car phone! 1958 was like the future!

Mr. A wants Tony to shoot heroin with him (what a party!), but quick-thinking Tony shoots the drugs into a rubber ball instead. Wait, what?

Turns out Tony is just a dirty narc! But now his case against Mr. A has hit a few snags. Like, for instance, the stoned-to-her-tits teenager in his bed.

Luckily, Joan's too dulled by pot to piece together what's really going on. Tony calls up Miss Williams and gets her to come over to tend to the wayward youth.

Then there's the constantly soused Aunt Gwen to contend with. She's not psyched about any of this.

Conveniently, she passes out on the floor.

So, off Tony goes to make the bust. But has Mr. A already sussed him out? Bix picks him up at the door, but is he taking him to Mr. A's place, or straight to the cemetery? And also, which one of these chicks is Tony going end up banging? And also, how did Joan get addicted to Marijuana?

Despite its totally squaresville moral message about the phantom destructive powers of pot, everything else about High School Confidential exudes a breezy cool, from the tongue-twisting beatnik slang, to the awe-inspiring coffeehouse poetry-slam, to Mamie Van Doren's gleefully over-the-top performance as a booze-powered sexual predator. While the stark photography and stage-y camerawork grounds it firmly in the 50's, like the Jerry Lee Lewis tune that it opens with, High School Confidential still rocks like crazy. Sure, it could have definitely used a little more Mamie - she's only on screen for about three glorious minutes - but this is still a classic slice of teensploitation. And that ain't no jive, Charlie Brown.

- Ken McIntyre

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