While Robert Altman is revered as the most prominent figure amongst the auteurs of the 1970s New American Cinema, he actually began his directorial career two decades prior. Leaving Hollywood to return to Kansas City, he made his debut with the independent production The Delinquents in 1957 out of the Calvin Company after spending the earlier part of the decade laboring over a number of short films. However, Altman would then shift to television for most of the 1960s, not mounting his sophomore effort until 1967 with the sci-fi film Countdown, and then not breaking into the zeitgeist until 1970 with his fourth feature, MASH. Compared to the rest of Altman’s significant filmography, his first endeavor feels like even more of a glaring outlier as it exists in the popular 1950s subgenre of propaganda films dealing with the next generation’s rejection and rebellion of their parents’ ideals in the post WWII American landscape. But while Marlon Brando (The Wild One, 1953) and James Dean (Rebel Without a Cause, 1955) were the iconic poster children of this generation in revolt, a whole slew of B-grade stars and their films (referred to as ‘teensploitation’) proliferated the drive-in landscape, which Altman’s treatment on delinquency as a rising epidemic most certainly belongs to.
If it weren’t for the heavy-handed agitprop bookending The Delinquents during the opening and closing narration, the film’s earnest narrative lessons on the dangerousness of bad company might have seemed less self-righteous and sententious. However, the sermonizing semblance of white patriarchy begs the flock to heed the dangerousness of those suspicious personalities who shun the teachings of their local church group, demonizing ‘delinquency’ as a disease akin to cancer, a gateway to even scarier moral and cultural purgatory, like the dread red Communism.
The ‘educational’ film does a fine job of reflecting the hypocritical mixed signals of the era as concerns the accepted heteronormative dating ritual. Scotty (Tommy Laughlin) is dismayed when his girlfriend Janice (Rosemary Howard) is forbidden to see him anymore. Not yet seventeen, Janice’s parents insist their daughter not settle down on a beau too soon, suggesting she see other young men before she decides on ‘the one.’ The young lovers balk at what they consider an inane demand, and commit to waiting until Janice is eighteen so they can resume their relationship freely. But when providence aligns Scotty with a group of ragtag miscreants led by the aggressive and unfavorably named Cholly (Peter Miller), the young man finds a way to spend time with Janice. Posing as a would be suitor for Janice, Cholly takes the young woman out so she can secretly see Scotty—but Cholly and his gang insist the lovebirds attend a drunken party at an abandoned house. Under duress, Janice insists they leave the shindig early. When the police bust up the party and arrest Cholly and co., the group blames Scotty, leading to a deadly showdown.
Altman does a decent job of capturing the aimless and limited perspective of self involved youth, and Tommy Laughlin gives a likeable performance as the daffy but moonstruck Scotty (a decade later, Laughlin would become notable as the heroic Billy Jack in the film The Born Losers, which would spawn three sequels). Rosemary Howard, in her only screen role, is a rather milquetoast dramatic catalyst, while Peter Miller and his gang of greasers (including Richard Bakalyan, a character actor who would later appear in Von Ryan’s Express and Chinatown) aren’t so much menacing as ceaselessly irritating.
Quality wise, The Delinquents is not far removed from a glut of other teensploitation items from the 1940s and 1950s depicting youths lost to vice in either the absence of parents (like 1944’s I Accuse My Parents). Altman’s name grants this a historical interest akin to 1958’s The Party Crashers, another teen gang saga maintaining curio interest for the presence of post-lobotomized Frances Farmer in one of her final screen roles.
Olive Films presents this curiosity in 1.66:1 (the label released Altman’s Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean a couple years prior). Sans any extra features, picture and sound quality are serviceable, even though Charles Paddock’s cinematography (his only feature) is visually in the same vein as other educational items from the period.
A must for Altman completests, The Delinquents may hold more interest for enthusiasts of early independent or propaganda films from the 1950s.
Film Review: ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆