Liner notes written (some time ago) for the never-released Voyager/Criterion Collection widescreen edition of High School Confidential.
©2002 Mr. Robert Lloyd

Behind these "Nice" School Walls


     For all the supposed order of the 1950s, it was at bottom an age of anxiety. Communists, dope fiends, beatniks, rock 'n' roll singers -- untidy forces threatened to rend the well-pressed social fabric. Not the least volatile of the era's dark agents could be found right at home, in the person of the hormone-addled American teenager.
     Where there's fear, there are movies. The Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause appeared in 1955, and soon the teens-in-trouble film had become as much of an epidemic as juvenile delinguency was supposed to be: within a few years High School Big Shot, High School Hellcats, Teenage Bad Girl, Teenage Crime Wave, Teenage Rebel and Teenage Wolfpack all came to the local Rialto. Many were made under the pretense of eternal vigilance, but everyone knew the real point was vicarious unwholesomenss, and that the films were aimed less at concerned parents than at their adolescent spawn, recoiling from the dullness of their elders' lives.
     "Today 85 percent of moviegoers are under 21," said producer Albert Zugsmith not long after the release of his High School Confidential, one of the best of the genre. "What these kids of today want to see is a dramatic solution of their own problems enacted by players of an age in which they identify themselves."
     Before Zugsmith entered the film business, he'd been a newspaper reporter, editor and publisher, as well as a press agent and broadcasting executive, and in Hollywood he combined a newsman's eye for a good story with a businessman's nose for a dollar. The films he produced, including Invasion U.S.A., The Beat Generation and Girls' Town, were rarely hailed as art (Orson Welles' Touch of Evil was a notable exception), but they made money. "I pick my title to get 'em into the theaters," he told Hedda Hopper. "I feel an obligation to give the public what it wants. High School Confidential was a true-to-life yarn and presented the dope problem in such a shocking fashion it scared the pants off those viewing it." The former reporter researched his subject, talking to teens and narcotics officers; beat poet Larry Lipton took him to pot parties in Venice, California.
     Even-handedly directed by Jack Arnold (The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Creature from the Black Lagoon), the film is awash in the requisites: hot rods, jackknifes, beat poetry, flouted authority, rock 'n' roll (Jerry Lee Lewis pounds out the title song from the back of a flatbed truck), a glimpse of teenage lingerie, extreme close-ups of tightly clad backsides. Yet compared to exploitation films of the high-tolerance '90s, High School Confidential is strangely austere and (with risible exceptions) effectively underplayed. Hardly a voice is raised, hardly a brow perspires. (Coolness was a virtue then.) Jackie Coogan is quietly sinister as the local drug lord. And Russ Tamblyn -- who, as Riff in the film of West Side Story, would create a punk for the ages -- is appealingly disrespectful as the new boy in town, spouting hip metaphors and showing a new side at every turn. Is he a self-important jerk? An aspiring pusher? Or just misunderstood?
     In fact, few characters in the film are what they first seem -- they're all keeping secrets, if only from themselves. This stab at complexity makes the movie less of a joke than it might have been. And though drugs are depicted as evil (a cautionary prologue was tacked on at the order of U.S. Commissioner of Narcotics H.J. Anslinger), sex and rock 'n' roll are virtually endorsed. "Don't tell me you never rode a hot rod or had a late date in the second balcony," sexpot Mamie Van Doren upbraids teacher Jan Sterling.
     Cast here as Tamblyn's "aunt," Van Doren (who'd modeled for pin-up artist Alberto Varga) doesn't advance the story so much as derail it. Less a character than a force of nature, she's on hand mostly to slink, purr, pout and wrap herself like cellophane around her unresponsive nephew. ("This is an aunt?" someone finally asks.) If anything in High School Confidential is gratuitous, it's Mamie; yet she's delicious every second she's on screen. "I was always playing weird types in weird pictures,' she later remembered. Several were Zugsmith productions.
     Predictably, the film raised hackles. Though Variety found the story to be told "skilfully and with compelling effect," other reviewers were as disturbed as Zugsmith expected them to be. Film Review declared, "The film is itself a social evil" and decried its "ghastly nihilism" and the suggestion that "the primitivism of urban polyglots has become the American norm." That's as half-baked as anything in High School Confidential -- and not half as entertaining.

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