Now on Blu-ray: Robert Altman’s Directorial Debut ‘The Delinquents’

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The Delinquents

Everyone has to start somewhere. That includes legendary director Robert Altman. The great rebel of cinema got his start with 1957’s The Delinquents. In the late ‘50s, juvenile delinquency was hot button topic of discussion, and there were an array of social message pictures that attempted to address the topic in a sensationalized manner. Those no-goodnik kids undermined the principles of America as the older generation found themselves in a panic of the post-war youths riding in cars and listening to that raucous rock ‘n’ roll music. In hindsight, it’s funny that Robert Altman got his start making a movie that aimed to blow the lid off the scourge of juvenile delinquents, as he would go on to have an illustrious career of rebellious characters in movies that turned their back on convention. Now on Blu-ray for the first time ever thanks to Olive Films, The Delinquents allows viewers to see the origins of Robert Altman’s directorial style. While The Delinquents certainly isn’t an Altman classic, you can witness the seeds of a great cinematic mind that is on the verge of breaking out.

“This film is a cry to a busy world,” the self-important voiceover that runs through the credits tells the audience at the beginning of the film. The story is rather boilerplate for these types of pictures from that era: Scotty (Tom Laughlin) has been dating his high school sweetheart Janice (Rosemary Howard) for some time. There’s a few years difference in their age and Janice’s parents don’t want to the two to continue “going steady” while they’re each so young. Not long after, Scotty finds himself hanging out with Cholly (Peter Miller) and Eddy (Richard Bakalyn), who concoct a scheme where Cholly will pose as Janice’s new date and allow the two young lovers to spend their evenings together. But breaking one rule leads Scotty into a world where he’s surrounded by peers that break all the rules, and these delinquents will stop at nothing to play by their own rules, even endangering the safety of Scotty and Janice.

Attempting to find a loophole around the wishes of Janice’s father leads Scotty into a teenage nightmare of underage drinking, rowdy parties, and fights with switchblades. Eventually, Cholly and his gang push the limits of decency, kidnapping Janice and forcing Scotty to seek the help of the authorities in freeing himself from the clutches of this immoral gang.

A large portion of the juvenile delinquency panic at the heart of The Delinquents hasn’t aged well. It’s not a negative, just a reality that affects the entire subgenre of juvenile delinquency films. What stands out about The Delinquents is the fact that it’s directed by one of the greats of American cinema. The Delinquents doesn’t see Robert Altman playing around with the rules and form of cinema like he would with his later masterpieces, but it is very well constructed for a low budget movie of its era. A few of Altman’s trademarks are noticeable in his directorial debut, such as naturalistic dialogue with characters talking over one another. Altman also plays with exaggerated angles for emphasis as to the crooked nature of its delinquent characters. The camera peers down upon these characters from on high, filling the frame with rough teenagers and their bad attitudes.

The transfer of The Delinquents on the Blu-ray brings Altman’s debut to vibrant life with a meticulous restoration that highlights the film’s stark black and white photography. The grain of the old film stock is noticeable as there have been no attempts to smooth out the film’s textured look. For a low budget debut feature, Altman and cinematographer Charles Paddock really capture some striking images that never over or under exposed, typically an issue with low budget films of that era. This edition of The Delinquents by Olive Films really honors the images that Altman and Paddock captured and the film looks marvelous on Blu-ray.

Robert Altman moved on to make some of cinema classics in the decades following The Delinquents. But it all started here. The Delinquents isn’t going to rank among Altman’s best, yet there’s something about watching the first film of filmmaking legend. Aside from the outdated panic at the heart of its story, there’s something truly funny about a rebel making a movie condemning rebellion. Everyone starts somewhere.

The Delinquents
  • Overall Score
3

Summary

The directorial debut of the great Robert Altman, The Delinquents is a well constructed piece of cinematic panic over juvenile delinquency that is more notable for who was behind the camera than what is in front of it.

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