Idealist teacher Richard Dadier gets a job in an inner city school. Among the junior hoodlums in his class are a knife-wielding gang leader and an alienated but redeemable smart black kid.
Based on a novel by Evan Hunter, this is a broad-strokes torn-from-the-headlines ‘social problem’ picture. The story of the tough, sensitive teacher in a school without hope who reaches out to a class of troublemakers and wins them over has become a Hollywood staple (Class of 1984, Dangerous Minds, Dead Poets Society) but this original version still backs a punch.
Ironically, it was a hit in 1955 at least partially because it was the first mainstream film to tap into rebel youth attitudes condemned in the story, using Bill Haley’s ‘Rock Around the Clock’ as a theme tune and littering the dialogue with hipster speak (bad boy Morrow is ‘hopped up on sneaky pete’).
Director Richard Brooks stages effective scenes of kids running wild: an attempted rape in the school library, a well-organised gang attack in an allley, a moment of anarchy as thugs smash a music-loving teacher’s irreplacable collection of jazz 78s and the final face-off in the classroom between switchblade-waving Morrow and English teacher Ford.
It isn’t afraid to go all-out for big emotions, contrasting Haley’s rocking with Poitier’s choir doing ‘Go Down Moses’, reaching for the American flag in the corner of a classroom to clobber a snivelling delinquent. Anne Francis is stuck with the stiff role of Ford’s wavering wife, but the leads are great (insolent maniac Morrow is the anti-James Dean and Poitier smoulders with charisma) there’s good work from character actors Louis Calhern, Emile Meyer and John Hoyt, plus snarling in class from future director Paul Mazursky and future MAS*H regular Jamie Farr (billed as Jameel Farah).
Originating the genre of 'dedicated teacher reaches troubled kids in a ghetto school', this is still affecting although heavy-handed.