The Delinquents (1957 film)
The Delinquents is a 1957 American drama film written, produced, and directed by Robert Altman in his hometown of Kansas City, Missouri during the summer of 1956 on a $63,000 budget. It's not only the first film Altman directed, but also the first to star Tom Laughlin.
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Robert Altman|
|Produced by||Elmer Rhoden Jr.|
|Written by||Robert Altman|
|Music by||Gene Garf|
|Edited by||Helene Turner|
|Distributed by||United Artists|
In suburban Kansas City, 18-year-old Scotty White and 16-year-old Janice Wilson are very much in love, but her parents stand between them because Janice is “too young to go steady” and Scotty “hangs out with the wrong crowd”. At the drive-in alone one night, Scotty gets wrongly targeted by a gang who are looking for the person who slashed one of their tires. Cholly, a hot-rod greaser who heads a gang of carousing delinquents, comes to Scotty's rescue. Cholly cooks up the idea of posing as Janice's new boyfriend and bringing her to meet Scotty the next night. The plan works well, and the teen crowd all meet at an abandoned mansion on the edge of town. However, the party gets out of hand with wild drinking and dancing, and Scotty and Janice leave to be alone.
Soon after, the police mysteriously appear and break up the drunken free-for-all. Cholly and his right-hand-delinquent Eddy suspect Scotty of tipping off the police, and the whole gang kidnaps Scotty the next day and force him to gulp down an entire bottle of Scotch when he won't admit to being the informant. In panic after Scotty passes out from drinking, the gang begins to drive him out to the country with the intention of abandoning him on the side of the road but on the way they pull into a service station to get some gas. Eddy decides to hold up the station, but Scotty unknowingly bungles it when he wakes up. Cholly hits the station attendant on the head with a gas pump, and the gang speeds off, leaving Scotty behind with the cash and the attendant. Scotty staggers home, finds the gang has kidnapped Janice, has several fights, and then has a switchblade fight with Cholly in a home kitchen. Scotty then goes to the police.
Elmer Rhoden Jr. was a Kansas City motion picture theater exhibitor, president of the prominent Commonwealth Theaters chain in Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, Iowa, Oklahoma, and South Dakota. Rhoden wanted to get into producing films. He had the distributing apparatus at hand and the necessary capital to invest. Although television was drawing viewers out of the theaters, teenagers still frequented theaters, and, soon, film producers realized that there was a large “teen market” they could tap into. During the mid-to-late 1950s, following the success of movies by American International Pictures aimed at the teenage market such as Shake, Rattle & Rock! and Hot Rod Girl, a huge wave of films, often referred to as exploitation films, were later produced by the major Hollywood studios and independents alike. Common subjects of 1950s teen films included juvenile delinquency, rock and roll, horror, science fiction, and hot rods. Rhoden Jr. was one of the first independent exhibitors to note these shifts in the film industry and was determined to make it work for his business.
Due to the “consent decree” component of the “Paramount Ruling”, the major studios were constrained from booking their own chains by this antitrust ruling. But the Commonwealth circuit and other small regional independent film companies, by virtue of not having previously existed as film producers, were exempt from this rule. It was the beginning of the days of the low-budget regional filmmaker, and Rhoden figured that if he budgeted his “teen-flicks” cheaply enough and peddled them to his own Commonwealth chain, he would be guaranteed a tidy profit. So, in the spring of 1956, he raised $63,000 with the help of other local businessmen in Kansas City, decided his first teen film would be about troubled teens, thought up a title for it and nothing else, and hired local filmmaker Robert Altman (who knew Rhoden Jr. casually and had been directing industrial films and documentaries for the local Calvin Company) to write and direct the film.
Rhoden approved the script and gave Altman the go-ahead on the casting, scouting of locations, and so forth. For much of the cast, Altman turned to the local Kansas City actors with whom he had worked in community theater and in industrial films, including James Lantz, Leonard Belove, and Kermit Echols, as well as his then-wife Lotus Corelli and his eight-year-old daughter Christine. However, hoping for a Hollywood-style film, Altman and Rhoden took a trip to California and cast for the three leads there. They came up with Peter Miller from Blackboard Jungle to play Cholly, and Richard Bakalyan to play Eddy. A young Tom Laughlin was cast in the lead role of Scotty, here making his film debut. Altman and Rhoden also came back from California with soundman Bob Post and camera operator Harry Birch.
Altman employed his friends and Calvin co-workers on the crew, including Reza Badiyi as assistant director/associate producer and his sister Joan as production manager. Altman scouted locations in Kansas City and chose to film in Loose Park, as well as at the Jewel Box Nightclub, one of his favorite hangouts, and also at several popular local teen hangouts including the Crest Drive-In Theater (which Rhoden owned) and Allen's Drive-In. Through Kansas City native George Kuhn, one of the actors in the teenage gang in the film, Altman secured the temporary use of two houses to be those of Scotty and Janice in the film. One of them was Kuhn's and his parents', the other was his neighbors'.
Altman filmed The Delinquents in three weeks during the summer of 1956. Although Rhoden was officially the producer, Altman did most of that type of work himself. As Altman said years later, “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”. Altman had the cooperation of local businesses as well as the Kansas City Police Department. Altman and Rhoden had actually gone to the police to make sure their portrayal of delinquents and their problems was accurate, and also contacted them in order to receive their cooperation for blocking off streets and using the police station for certain scenes. They also used real police officers as actors in the film.
Altman's film crew was made up mostly of his Calvin co-workers. Calvin photographer Charles Paddock was director of photography, and Badiyi was assistant director. Calvin artist and designer (and Altman's brother-in-law) Chet Allen was art director, and Altman's sister Joan served in a production executive capacity. Also with Altman's Kansas City crew were Californians Harry Birch (camera operator) and Bob Post (sound recorder).
Laughlin and Altman had conflicting theories of acting. To Altman, Laughlin was “an unbelievable pain in the ass”, guilty that he had not become a priest, “with a big Catholic hangup and a James Dean complex”. There was one particular incident where Altman was ready to shoot a scene in which Laughlin was supposed to appear physically exhausted, and Laughlin excused himself with, “I've got to get in the mood now”. Laughlin then insisted on running around the block a couple of times while cast and crew cooled their heels. Laughlin was attempting to do “everything he'd heard about James Dean doing”, but when Laughlin's attempts at method acting were not welcomed by the rest of the cast or crew, he wanted to quit the film. Altman then worked out a compromise for communication whereby Altman would tell Laughlin exactly what he wanted in any given scene. According to Altman, Laughlin “performed the last half of the picture under protest”.
Altman's experimental directing style was still developing, but one sign of his future directorial achievements can be seen in a story told by one of Altman's young cast members, SuEllen Fried, about the shooting of a party scene in the film: “He rented an old house off Walworth Boulevard 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”.
Finally, The Delinquents has also been noted (and praised) for its “technical excellence”, particularly the quality of the black-and-white photography. Director of photography Charles Paddock said that, just before beginning filming on The Delinquents, Altman advised him to watch the film The Asphalt Jungle and imitate that style of lighting.
The filming was completed by August 1956. In his contract with Rhoden, Altman had a clause stipulating that the film's post-production and editing would be executed under professional conditions in Hollywood. In late August, Altman and Reza Badiyi traveled across the country by car (Rhoden would not approve the air fare) to edit the film in California with Helene Turner. Fred Brown contributed the sound effects.
The finished film was picked up for distribution by United Artists for $150,000, who wanted a teenage exploitation film in order to compete with the other studios. United Artists altered the ending a bit and added a moralistic narration by a stock actor at the beginning and end. Altman did not find out until he saw a preview of the film, and was not impressed.
Release and legacy
The Delinquents received its "gala world premiere" in Kansas City in February 1957. The showing of the film was preceded by live music, a dance contest, and a parade of Corvettes carrying residents who had worked on the film. It was all covered by a live radio broadcast and the theater's house lights were brought out.
The film was rejected by the British Board of Film Classification in 1957. United Artists released the film worldwide the next month. The film's release was not wide, and it played mostly in drive-ins. However, it did gross $1,000,000 for United Artists. When Alfred Hitchcock saw the film, he was apparently impressed enough to give Altman a job directing episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which led to more television work for Altman over the next decade.
Rhoden produced one more film in Kansas City (The Cool and the Crazy) and was featured in TIME as one of the “new wave” of producers. He then produced a delinquency film in Hollywood, Daddy-O, but his mini-mogul reign was short-lived. A hard-living man, he died of a heart attack in 1959.
- "The Delinquents". The New York Times.
- Stafford, Jeff. "Cult Movies Showcase: The Delinquents". Turner Classic Movies. TCM.com. Retrieved February 20, 2010.
- "THE DELINQUENTS (REJECTED)". United Artists. British Board of Film Classification. February 5, 1957. Retrieved August 30, 2014.
- Burr, Ty (March 5, 2006). "Hollywood Outsider Finally Receives his Due". The Boston Globe. Retrieved February 20, 2010.