(director: John Frankenheimer; screenwriters: story “A Matter of Conviction” by Evan Hunter/Edward Anhalt/ J.P. Miller; cinematographer: Lionel Lindon; editor: Eda Warren; music: David Amram; cast: Burt Lancaster (Hank Bell), Dina Merrill (Karin Bell), Edward Andrews (R. Daniel ‘Dan’ Cole), Vivian Nathan (Mrs. Escalante), Shelley Winters (Mary di Pace), Telly Savalas (Police Lt. Gunderson), John Davis Chandler (Arthur Reardon), Stanley Kristien (Danny di Pace), Neil Nephew (Anthony ‘Batman’ Aposto), Jody Fair (Angela), Pilar Seurat (Louisa Escalante), Vivian Nathan (Mrs. Escalante), Luis Arroyo (Zorro), Milton Selzer (Walsh), Robert Burton (Judge), Chris Robinson (Pretty Boy Savoricci); Runtime: 102; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Harold Hecht; United Artists; 1961)

“It’s a West Side Story without the romance and music.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

It’s a West Side Story without the romance and music. An Italian gang faces off with a Puerto Rican gang on the mean streets of Harlem. John Frankenheimer directs a so-called thinking man’s urban social drama about gangs, juvenile delinquency and racism that is at times gritty but too often flounders and becomes too pat with long-winded speeches on social issues. It’s based on the novel “A Matter of Conviction” by Evan Hunter.

In the film’s stirring opening, three Italian teens, members of a gang called the Thunderbirds, dressed in black leather jackets, the 17-year-old Arthur Reardon (Chandler), the 16-year-old Anthony ‘Batman’ Aposto (Nephew), and the 15-year-old Danny di Pace (Kristien), cross over from their Harlem Italian neighborhood and angrily storm into Spanish Harlem. They savagely knife to death the blind 15-year-old Roberto Escalante on the stoops of his brownstown apartment building, as the victim’s 16-year-old sister Louisa (Seurat) watches in horror. The police immediately chase down the teens and arrest them, but don’t find the murder weapons because Danny’s girlfriend. Angela (Fair), recovers the knives from the trash bin and ditches them.

Hank Bell (Burt Lancaster) is a hard-nosed, ambitious, workaholic assistant District Attorney who grew up in the same slum neighborhood as the killers and is also of Italian descent. His working-class father changed his name from Bellini to Bell in order to Americanize it. He used to go out with Danny’s mother Mary (Shelley Winters), but she rejected him for another. Her marriage to a petty racketeer didn’t pan out and she lost control of her son; in the meantime, Hank married an attractive and idealistic Wasp who graduated from Vassar, Karin (Dina Merrill), and managed to escape from the slums to live with his 14-year-old daughter in an upscale neighborhood.

Complications immediately arise when Hank prosecutes the case and receives pressure from the newspapers to get tough with these delinquents. There are also calls of justice from the Puerto Rican gang that Roberto belonged to the Horsemen, and also a sob story from Mary for him to go easy on her son. Hank gets the permission of his boss, DA Cole (Andrews), a politically ambitious man who is being mentioned as a candidate for governor, to ask for the death penalty for all three. But in his intensive investigation he believes that it’s possible Danny didn’t actually participate in the killing, that Batman was too retarded to know what he was doing, and that Reardon led the others to do it because he suffers from delusions of grandeur and is a coward and a bully. The liberal shrink (Selzer) says that Reardon gets satisfaction by taking advantage of those who can’t fight back, as the psychologist reads off the usual explanations of a poor upbringing and deep psychological problems that were never treated.

The film loses much credibility in the improbable trial which leads to some hysterical venting by all parties. It turns this earnest melodrama into a long sermon about growing up on the streets deprived and of a challenge to the macho street credo these misfit youths live by as their reasons for hatred and joining a gang. Lancaster changes personalities and becomes an idealist during the trial and acts to help send Batman to a mental institution, Reardon to a long prison sentence, and hopes to eventually save the psychologically wounded but good-hearted Danny by getting him a minimum one-year sentence in a juvenile facility.

Hank in his search for the truth: gets beat up by one of the gangs (he was so pounded that he couldn’t notice if they were Puerto Ricans or Italian, which is supposedly the point that movie is trying to make that it doesn’t matter which ethnic group one belongs to– the problems are the same), his wife after coming out against the death penalty gets intimidated with a switchblade knife by two Thunderbirds in the elevator of her luxury building, the blind vic is discovered to be an important member of the Puerto Rican gang and his sister is a prostitute, and if that weren’t enough, the Thunderbirds try to drown a young Puerto Rican in the neighborhood pool that Danny saves. Telly Savalas made his film debut as a cynical police lieutenant who is tired of these juvenile delinquents being coddled by the courts.