High School Confidential (1958)

Own it!

review by Scott Hamilton and Chris Holland
See also:

Switchblade Sisters

Glen or Glenda?

Don't Mess With My Sister!

High School Confidential

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Our rating: three LAVA® motion lamps.

"Faster! I can almost read the next
Burmashave sign!"
A special place in the hearts of b-movie buffs will always be reserved for the 1950s teenage rebel sub-genre. There's something endlessly entertaining about squeaky-clean white-bread adolescents who cop tough-guy attitudes with outdated slang and impeccably maintained haircuts. Some films are more effective than others at conveying genuine teenaged angst without spilling over into camp or melodrama, but even the reprehensible members of this cinematic clique usually manage to provide an entertaining mix of swaggering hip-cats, oh-so-square authority figures, and bullet bras. There are a very few of these movies that actually manage to be boring, and we're happy to report that High School Confidential isn't one of them.

New-kid-in-town Tony Baker (Russ Tamblyn) doesn't even make it into the school building before he starts shaking things up. His choice of a parking spot displeases a member of the school's top gang, but Tony seems to take pride in the fact. Sure enough, Tony sweeps through the school's ranks like a brush fire, spurning the approval of teachers and students alike. Within the first five minutes of his arrival in class, he not only threatens the leader of the Wheelers and Dealers (J.I., played by John Drew Barrymore) but also lands an appointment with the principal. The principal, who looks like Les Nesman's grandfather, is comically unprepared to deal with the young hellion. In no time at all, Tony uses his bad-ass attitude, wads of cash, and a switchblade to establish himself as the Big Man on Campus.

"The next one of you to mention
War of the Gargantuas gets it!"
After forty minutes or so, the picture and Tony simultaneously reveal their dirty little secrets. Tony isn't just interested in being gang leader and stealing J.I.'s girl Joan (Diane Jergens) -- he wants in on the school's flourishing marijuana trade. Similarly, High School Confidential isn't content with merely presenting the dissatisfied youth of 1950s America. Can it be? Is this film going to trump Huey Lewis by three decades with a "hip to be square" anti-drug message?

You better believe it, Daddy-o.

A number of clues point to Tony's true origins: his impossibly young (and mildly nymphomaniac) guardian Aunt Gwen (Mamie Van Doren!), his all-too-decent treatment of teacher Arlene Williams (Jan Sterling), and his sudden concern for Joan's friend Doris as she enters the first stages of heroin withdrawal. "If you flake around with the weed," mutters Tony, "You'll end up using the harder stuff." Tony's own refusal to toke up ("It's strictly business with me!") makes guessing his true role in the film a little too easy.

Philip Morris introduces new
chocolate and vanilla cigarettes.
Tony is of course a baby-faced undercover policeman, working his way up the pusher's ladder in the hopes of meeting "Mister A," the local head honcho of narcotics distribution. Tamblyn does look slightly younger than his actual age of twenty-four, but it's not as if he needs to -- co-stars like Barrymore (who was twenty-eight) and Michael Landon (twenty-two) don't make for particularly convincing teenagers.

With the application of currency and his participation in a drag race which results in the young narc's apparent arrest, Tony convinces J.I. to arrange a rendezvous with Mister A. If you can keep from busting a gut when the dangerous drug lord turns out to be Jackie Coogan (TV's Uncle Fester from The Addams Family) then you're made of sterner stuff than we are. Coogan may fool around with heroin syringes and handguns in this picture, but the timbre of his voice and the mental image of an illuminated light bulb between his lips wipes out any chance he had of convincingly playing a hard-edged gangster -- at least in retrospect.

"You just keep that bathing suit on
honey, Mr Klaw will be here soon."
If Uncle Fester were the only liability in High School Confidential, we might be inclined to give it higher marks. The story has some merit and the production seems competent enough, but the enterprise is marred by the warring sides of the film's dual personality. The picture's "serious" side shows us scenes in which earnest cops try to convince disbelieving teachers that a school populace with a casual dope habit will eventually give the phrase "high school" new meaning.* The film's "cool" side slings out '50s slang with an almost desperate gusto, as if it can hide its goody two-shoes message with a thick attitude laminate. Particular mention must be made of the beat poetry scene, in which a striking turtle-necked young woman expectorates her vision of the future in an impressive monotone, accompanied by a jazz trio.

We cough blood on this Earth
Now there's a race for space
We can cough blood on the moon soon
Tomorrow is Dragsville cats,
Tomorrow is a king-sized drag.

"I see you, uh, hate doctors."
The two actors who aren't simply soaking in the melodrama are its biggest stars (at least they were at the time), Tamblyn and Van Doren. Tamblyn's juvenile delinquent becomes more likable as we learn his motivations; by the end you can almost smell the gun oil mixing with Brylcream. Without him, High School Confidential would have no credibility at all. Mamie Van Doren, on the other hand, almost belongs in another movie. Strumpets of this type were seen in noir detective pictures and screwball comedies, but in teen rebel films this role was usually played as a teenaged bad girl, not an adult floozy. Fortunately, the filmmakers (including director Jack Arnold, responsible for such classics as It Came From Outer Space and Creature from the Black Lagoon) recognized that passing this actress off as a youngster would have been plainly ridiculous. As ostentatious and misplaced as she might seem, even boozy, flirtatious Aunt Gwen is a welcome addition to an otherwise flavorless picture.

Own it!

Review date: 04/26/2005

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*A particularly amusing scene of constabulary resolve follows the drag race scene as a grizzled desk sergeant relays to a young beat cop his keen perception of the parental attitude:

The other parents will soon be here jumping all over us. "Not my child, oh no, it's a horrible mistake!" They won't believe the truth because they don't want to, until it's too late. And then they'll call us bums because we didn't warn them in time.

Now that you've had your dose of 1950s law-enforcement smugness, go back!