THE DELINQUENTS
(1957, Written & Directed by Robert Altman)
Olive Films Blu-ray, $29.95, DVD $24.95
72 min. / B&W / 1.66:1 / English Subtitles

The 1950s were a tough decade for theatre owners; TV was “free” and stealing their business as thousands of theatres closed across America. A dip in box-office receipts hit at the same time studios were raising the rentals to try and keep afloat as the Hollywood studio system fell apart. A handful of independent theatre owners tried their hand at producing their own films to increase profits; the best-known of these is probably Robert Lippert, written about extensively here in the Balcony, but let’s not overlook Elmer Rhoden, Jr., who with this film gave film debuts to two men who became quite big deals in the movie business.

Kansas City native Rhoden headed the Commonwealth Theatre chain and after a false start in 1955 with a hillbilly musical called Corns A-Poppin turned to the more exploitative idea of juvenile delinquency films, eventually turning out a trio of them, all Kansas City set, that are highly regarded by fans of the genre.  

For the first of the trilogy, The Delinquents, Rhoden turned to a local filmmaker, Robert Altman (who’d co-written Corns-A-Poppin) and handed him the director’s chair and a budget of about $60,000. Altman pounded out the script in less than a week, cast locals, including his wife and young daughter, as well as two KC police officers who absolutely could not act, and then went to L.A. to find Tommy Laughlin (future Billy Jack), Dick Bakalyan (future Chinatown), and Peter Miller, who’d recently done Forbidden Planet. All of ‘em were too old for HS delinquents, but what th’ heck: sometimes you just have to let art flow over you.

Nice guy Scotty (Laughlin) and his girlfriend are “befriended” by a gang of guys who are just not quite right, and find themselves sucked into a dark night of assault, robbery, tomfoolery, and rudeness to their elders (and frankly, the elders aren’t much better – Kansas City 1957 doesn’t seem like a very hospitable place).

Million-dollar Dialog:

Scotty to distraught girlfriend, who’s been roughed up at a boozy party: “As soon as you were done dancing with Cholly, I was gonna take you home!”

She: “I don’t think you were MAN enough to leave!”

 

Enough action to satisfy anyone, plus a nice opening number from a jazz trio called The Bill Nolan Quintet Minus Two (most of the rest of the music is stock stuff you’ll remember from Ed Wood movies), and a dizzyingly memorable party scene in which Altman told the cast to drink up and have fun and pretend the camera wasn’t swooping around. Sufficient to say, The Delinquents is no M*A*S*H or McCabe and Mrs. Miller, but it’s a well-done, suspenseful little melodrama, beautifully shot by Charles Paddock, one of Altman’s crew members from his industrial film days. Producer Rhoden sold the film to United Artists for a nice $150,000 fee (UA softened the blow by adding didactic narration to open and close the film, assuring us that nice, clean-cut kids who went to Sunday School wouldn’t dream of acting like the kids in the movie, nope, huh-uh), and used the money to make two more exploitation classics, The Cool and the Crazy and Daddy-O, distributed by American-International Pictures, which by then had taken the lead in releasing films for the drive-in trade. Mr. Altman went on to earn five Academy Award nominations for Best Director, but never made another film quite like The Delinquents, that’s for sure.

Olive Films has a beautiful encoding of this rare film, and includes the quite bombastic trailer. For cinema historians, one of those most important releases of the year; for anyone simply looking for a good slice of low-budget 1950s potboiler, The Delinquents is a gem. Balcony recommendation: watch it with Olive Films’ earlier release of High School Confidential for a great rowdy teenager double-feature.