Wednesday, March 22, 2006

A Siegel Film: Crime in the Streets (1956)

The third in a series of appreciations of the work of director Don Siegel, courtesy of the current retrospective of his work at New York's Film Forum.

In two days I have been loudly berated twice — twice!! — in the typically sedate confines of Film Forum theater 2. Yesterday, not three minutes into the Siegel short Star in the Night — ironically, a Christ allegory about the inherent goodness in humanity — a woman turned and screamed at me "CAN YOU STOP KICKING MY SEAT?!?" after accidentally bumping her chair while crossing my legs. Today, chuckling at the still-rolling Crime in the Streets credits, I heard from over my shoulder "Will you shut your mouth?" Then, turning around because I couldn't believe I'd been shushed for laughing — a behavior that is a widely accepted form of movie theater expression on the planet I come from — the gentlemen added "YEAH I'M TALKING TO YOU DICKHEAD!"

It's becoming clear that the works of Don Siegel attract a particular kind of audience, surlier than I expected, with a worldview that apes the director's own: that people are inherently and often irredeemably flawed, that kindness is repayed with misery, and that the normal operating system of the universe is one of revenge and murder. Crime in the Streets isn't anywhere near the top of Siegel's filmography, but it still features another unlikable, bloodthirsty protagonist (a delinquent teen played by a young and ferocious John Cassavetes) in a story of vengeance. Cassavetes' character is the leader of a gang of street toughs, who fight with other hoods for bragging rights and terrorize their neighborhood for fun. A social worker (James Whitmore), whose boxy haircut practically marks him as a square, tries to intercede before Cassavetes leads his gang of petty thugs into a life of murder.

Siegel staged Crime in the Streets entirely on one set comprised of one city block. Budget or schedule or convenience may have made that choice for him, but Siegel turned the restriction into a advantage. Cassavetes and his gang (which also includes Sal Mineo and Mark Rydell) turn to crime out of boredom and a perceived lack of a prospects. The confined setting literalizes their inability to see a world beyond their juvenile desires, while simultaneously evoking the sense of suffocation the teens must feel.

Cassavetes shines brightly in this dingy little picture, and even Film Forum's poor-by-their-standards print couldn't dim the terrifying intensity he brings to the role of a kid with nothing to do but hate everything around him. Forget that he's at least ten years too old for the part, forget that most of the movie he's acting tough in a V-neck sweater, he is stone cold mean. Which is something I suspect Siegel fans can appreciate.


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