The Young Savages (1961)

The Young Savages
Directed by John Frankenheimer
Written by Edward Anhalt and J.P. Miller from a novel by Evan Hunter
Contemporary Productions
First viewing/Netflix rental


Dear kindly Sergeant Krupke, / You gotta understand, / It’s just our bringin’ up-ke / That gets us out of hand./ Our mothers all are junkies, / Our fathers all are drunks./ Golly Moses, natcherly we’re punks! – “Gee, Officer Krupke” from West Side Story, lyrics by Steven Sondheim


This A-list juvenile delinquent drama can’t quite decide what it wants to be.

A turf was has broken out in East Harlem between the Thunderbirds, an Italian gang, and the Horsemen, a Puerto Rican gang.  As the story begins, three Thunderbirds are seen walking purposefully through town en route to brutally killing a blind Puerto Rican teen who had been sitting on his front stoop playing the harmonica with other family members.

DA Dan Cole thinks the aggressive prosecution and conviction of the boys for first degree murder will be a valuable campaign asset.  Assistant DA Hank Bell is enthusiastic about taking the case but must disclose that he had a teenage romance with the Mary, the mother of one of the boys (Shelley Winters).  Bell’s wife (Dina Merrill) sees something sordid in making the case political and in seeking the death penalty for offenders so young.

Mary is certain that her boy could not have participated in the killing and Bell goes out to personally investigate the crime, along with the circumstances of the accused and the victims.  None of it makes a pretty picture.  An eventful trial ensues.

This film ticks all the boxes for an early sixties social drama with its focus on political corruption and misunderstood youth.  I thought the message was muddied, however.  The movie never really decides how it feels about these boys.  The acting is solid, if not spectacular.


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