‘Crime in the Streets’ is melodrama at its best

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Crime in the Streets

Directed by Don Siegel

Written by Reginald Rose

U.S.A, 1956

Magic can be created on a studio set. Today, in 2012, filmmakers, critics cans fans alike take great pleasure in watching films which are said to have been filmed on location. Said decision to shoot a picture in a real world surrounding naturally adds a layer of believability to the film’s aesthetics, helping the audience take in the information. In comparison, shooting on a studio lot, especially for scenes which are supposed to take place outdoors in the real world, which was the case for many older films, can be distracting, especially for modern audiences. Two things may be written in response to that criticism. First, if the director shoots the film well enough, the artificiality of the set can be used to an advantage. Second, if the story at its heart is strong enough, it should not matter where a film is shot anyways. Unlike most film noirs reviewed in this column, Crime in the Streets, from Dirty Harry director Don Siegel, was realized entirely in an artificial environment.

Two rival gangs of delinquent youth approach each other. Slowly, cautiously, they size up their opponents before each charges into the other. The brawl is furious and many are injured, but it is Frankie Dane’s (John Cassavetes) band who emerge victorious. Frankie is a real tough cookie, strong willed, fiery and incapable of accepting genuine criticism. Shortly following this street battle, Frankie, Lou Macklin (Mark Rydell), Angel ‘Baby’ Gioia (Sal Mineo) and the others pick on the lone rival gang member they captured during the skirmish, but this one is on his own. The poor sap is helpless against Frankie’s small army, who threaten the boy at gunpoint. A passerby, Mr. McAllister (Malcolm Atterbury) notices this intolerable situation, notifies the police, which promptly has the firearm wielding youth tossed into jail. Frankie, not one let such things slide, lets Lou and Baby in on a terrible plan he has concocted: they are to avenge this matter by killing Mr. McAllister, who happens to live in the same apartment building. As Frankie’s rage grows greater, the efforts of people like social worker Ben (James Whitmore) and Frankies own mother (Virginia Gregg), who seek to help the young man, appear increasingly futile.

It quickly becomes apparent from the opening minutes of Don Siegel’s emotional firestorm of a picture that Crime in the Streets is going to play out differently than most other noirs. The very opening shot of the film is a thing of beauty, with the camera slowly advancing towards the opposite end of an alleyway where a dozen gang members or so have climbed over the wall and menacingly advance towards the viewer. The shot is aesthetically pleasing for its composition as it is effective in conveying the very thing director Siegel wants to the audience to experience: dread about the oncoming battle. Perhaps more than in any of his other films, Siegel adeptly goes for every single little emotional beat that each scene clearly aims for. The man’s reputation grew exponentially some two decades later with the legendary Dirty Harry movie which, incidentally enough, was also about a character who felt it best to disobey the law rather than abide by it, but a case can be made that Crime in the Streets represents the director at his sharpest, with complete mastery of the story and all the gut wrenching emotions that explode throughout. Does this have to do with the fact that the entire film was made an a studio lot, thus awarding Siegel and his crew absolute and utter creative control over the proceedings instead of depending on the good will of mother nature or other natural big city limitations? It certainly is tempting to answer yes.

In addition to Siegel’s obvious talent as a storyteller, the beauty of Crime derives from the Reginald Rose’s script, which unabashedly embraces the emotional resonance the story as to offer. A seemingly fitting mood for a movie about gangs could have been very cold and heartless, inviting viewers th experience the harshness of their pitiful lives. This film is not satisfied with just that surface level exploration of the world these degenerate teens and young adults dwell in. Of course they mean nothing but trouble, which in turn produces a series of harsh encounters with rivals and their own family members, that much is clear. Crime is smarter than to remain content with that, going one step further and delving into the trials and tribulations experienced by those who wish to see one character in particular, Frankie, renounce his dark path and become the good person they believe he can be. This is where the film’s true heart less, much less so in Frankie’s attempts to murder Mr. McAllister, although the central character’s internal strife does eventually bleed into the climactic assassination attempt. On the one hand, there is the protagonist’s mother, superbly played by Virginia Gregg, who brings a sad realism to her Mrs. Dane. She works all day at a diner, rushing to and from from table to table, only to come home to an ungrateful, borderline vicious son whose fall to the dark side she has witnessed first hand. After years of arguing with Frankie about his inclusion in gangs and its negative influence, she has finally given up. The younger brother, Richie (Peter Votrian), is still innocent and good natured, which only accentuates the stress on Mrs. Dane, for her greatest fear is that somehow Richie will get hurt by Frankie, or worse still, fall under the latter’s influence. The performance is as captivating as it is depressing, the viewer being privy to the violent melodrama that unfolds on a daily basis in the Dame home. Then there is Ben, a kind man with a warm heart who spends time with the kids and young adults in the neighbourhood, providing them with any emotional support they may need. In essence, he is there to be their friend and help them find the light. His interest in Frankie is stronger because Frankie is clearly the loosest cannon of the bunch. Whereas Mrs. Dane is beaten down by her son’s insolence, Ben has more energy to spare in trying to understand Frankie. They have a testing relationship, albeit a reasonably one sided one given how Frankie would rather have nothing to do with this nosey social worker. All in all, Crime is a remarkably touching. Melodramatic? Yes, although that word has undeservedly earned a negative reputation. Crime is all melodrama and is great because of it.

The picture’s richness also springs from the set on which it was filmed. Given that the story’s setting is limited to one city block, with only one small bit of a street and a few interior scenes required, the production designers take advantage and go all out with their design. The artificiality allows full creative control for Siegel and company, which itself is an amazing asset. None of that would mean very much had the set in question be of poor quality. Thankfully, what is revealed before the eyes of the viewer is incredibly detailed and very true to life, rarely, if ever appearing too fake even though one can tell that the film was bot shot on a real location. Siegel’s camera takes tremendous advantage of the near limitless possibilities, including long tracking shots from across the street, shots from street level, shots from a few stories up, shots from Frankie’s balcony looking down on the sidewalk where his friends hang out and vice versa, etc. Simply put, the film looks stupendous.

Lastly, but certainly not least, is the score, provided by Franz Waxman, which employs plenty of jazz riffs. Jazz is a difficult musical genre to understand. So much of it is free flowing, which tremendous coll and thunderous energy mixing into a single tune (if jazz pieces can even be called ‘tunes’), and that sense of the unexpected brilliantly compliments Frankie’s story, the protagonist himself being an extremely volatile individual, whose ups and downs and be as fluid as the disparate tones of a single jazz piece.

Crime in the Streets looks, sounds and feels different from most noirs. For those reasons, it makes for a difficult recommendation, since anyone expecting something along the lines of tradition will undoubtedly be caught off guard. For those on the hunt for something with a different spin, one cannot go wrong with Don Siegel’s film.

-Edgar Chaput

2 Comments
  1. Edgar Chaput says

    Your knowledge continues to impress. I had no clue about the technicalities regarding that ‘Dirty Harry’ scene you refer to. I won’t view it in the same light from now, that’s for sure. You must do a whole lot of reading, far more than I could ever hope to accomplish. As always, thanks for reading my reviews!

  2. Bill Mesce says

    Edgar —
    While I haven’t seen this one, I’ve long been a fan of Siegel. Throughout the 50s, as he toiled among the ranks of B directors, he had a gift for taking his small budgets and making them seem bigger through a combination of cleverness (he did a movie in the 40s with Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre where he covered up the lack of background by having the fog machine work double time)and concentrating — as apparently he did here — on human drama (remember: this was the same guy who around this same time shot INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS). He also had a good eye.
    I was surprised to learn in his memoir that the bank robbery street shoot-out in DIRTY HARRY was shot on the lot because the street had been dressed and shot so well.
    Thanks for another good one, Edgar.

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