June 10, 1956, release date
Directed by Don Siegel
Screenplay by Reginald Rose
Based on the television play by Reginald Rose
Music by Franz Waxman
Edited by Richard C. Meyer
Cinematography by Sam Leavitt
John Cassavetes as Frankie Dane
Sal Mineo as Angelo "Baby" Gioia
Virginia Gregg as Mrs. Dane
Malcolm Atterbury as McAllister
Mark Rydell as Lou Macklin
Peter J. Votrian as Richie Dane
Denise Alexander as Maria Gioia
Will Kuluva as Mr. Gioia
Steve Rowland as Glasses
Distributed by Allied Artists
Crime in the Streets is one of the most moving films noir I have ever seen. (Another one is On Dangerous Ground.) It’s a late-period film noir: It was released in 1956 (the classic film noir period is often described as lasting from 1940 to 1958). During the 1950s, several films took up the theme of juvenile delinquency, and Crime in the Streets is one of the most poignant examples.
During the opening sequence, the camera pans over an urban landscape, and one could argue that the city (really any city) is as much a character as one of the people in the film. Most of the rest of the film is shot on a set, but that doesn’t take away from the grittiness or the desperation that so many of the characters feel in this story. The acting and the writing certainly make the setting vivid. The jazz score is also used to accentuate the desperation and the violence. Frankie and his gang members use 1950s hip jazz talk that makes them seem set off from everyone else in their neighborhood.
Crime in the Streets investigates juvenile delinquency, corporal punishment for teenagers, and the reasons why young men turn to violence. Most of these themes are discussed by Ben Wagner, a social worker, with various characters in the film. For example, Mr. Gioia is in favor of corporal punishment; he says that it’s the only thing some teenage boys understand. Ben Wagner says that it makes tough, angry young men tougher and angrier. He would rather try to understand, sympathize, listen, talk. He tries to help Frankie’s mother, Mrs. Dane. She doesn’t know what to do about her son Frankie and admits to Wagner that she’s afraid of Frankie. He’s still living in the apartment but does nothing to contribute to the running of the household, and he won’t look for a job.
(This blog post about Crime in the Streets contains spoilers.)
Frankie is like a powder keg waiting to explode. His plan to kill McAllister is shocking even to most of his fellow gang members. Most of them don’t have the stomach to kill one of their neighbors. But Frankie presses on with his plan, which now includes gang members Lou and Baby. Lou and Baby are nervous, but Frankie is excited about killing someone. He claims that he’s never felt more loose and relaxed. He’s a difficult character to sympathize with, but Ben Wagner refuses to give up on him. One of the most important scenes in the film is when Wagner gives one of his big speeches to Frankie. He can guess what Frankie’s life is like because he was in the same situation: You’re eight years old, and your father walks out one day without kissing you goodbye and you never see him again. Then a baby shows up and your mother tells you you’re big enough to take care of yourself, and you go out to cry for the last time in your life. You’ve got to let someone love you or your nothing.
Ben Wagner’s words don’t seem to have any impact on Frankie. Frankie continues with his plan but with a change: He’ll cut up McAllister instead of killing him. When he’s in the middle of it, his brother Richie intervenes, and the two of them face off in the alley. Frankie threatens Richie with his switchblade. Richie tells him that they’re brothers and that he loves Frankie, and finally Frankie’s shell is pierced. They make peace and Frankie hugs his brother. Ben Wagner is at the end of the alley and grabs Frankie when he tries to run away; instead of getting angry, Frankie follows Wagner to talk to McAllister and the police officer at the end of the street, to accept responsibility for what he has done.