A teenage orphan must choose between his own integrity and the corrupted might of the law!
US / 90 minutes / bw / Columbia Dir: Alfred L. Werker Pr: Philip A. Waxman Scr: Richard Jessup Story: The Cunning and the Haunted (1954) by Richard Jessup Cine: Ernest Haller Cast: Sal Mineo, James Whitmore, J. Carrol Naish, Gene Lyons, Paul Carr, Thomas Carlin, Leigh Whipper, Stefan Gierasch, Victor Thorley, Roxanne (i.e., Dolores Rosedale), James Reese, Ruth Attaway, Leland Mayforth, Dick Wigginton, Stanley Martin, Josephine Smith.
Sixteen-year-old Leslie “Les” Henderson (Mineo) is one of the inmates at the Brockton Orphanage for Boys, somewhere in the Deep South. He wants to try for a scholarship to technical college with the aim of becoming an engineer. Like the other older boys, he acts as a big brother to a dormitory of the little kids.
His plans take a bit of a knock the day when he finds another older boy, Tom Bradley (Carr), bullying Les’s little friend Allan (Mayforth); even though Tom’s bigger, Les whales him, thereby earning a reprimand—and a week’s docking of his precious August vacation—from orphanage superintendent Gwinn (Reese). Les had been planning to go on his sailboat with friend Jimmy Brown (Wigginton) to the nearby deserted island of Warsaw for a few weeks’ camping. On the other hand, Les’s defense of the underdog, Allan, and his defeat of Bradley means he’s now accepted by staff and boys alike as one of the orphanage’s Big Fellas.
Bradley (Paul Carr) prepares to launch himself at Les.
Another of the Big Fellas is Johnny Clancy (Carlin). We know from the outset that Clancy is a bit of a snake. Called to do something about the punchup between Les and Bradley, he just watches the violence with a sadistic drool. Later he advises Les that he should, like Clancy himself, try to emulate the orphanage’s star alumnus, Max Cole (Lyons), who came to the place with nothing, managed on leaving to acquire a jalopy truck, and is now the multimillionaire owner of a trucking company. Go with the flow, advises Clancy. Never stick your neck out. Forget about kids like Allan, who’ll forget you as soon as you’re no longer useful to them. Always look out for number one.
Les knows this is bullshit. But as the movie progresses his certainty in this conclusion will waver, nigh-fatally.
Meanwhile he has to look after the little kids in his care. Here’s a conversation he has with Allan, whom he’s discovered weeping in bed after lightsout:
Allan: “I’m just scared all of the time.”
Les: “Of what?”
Allan: “Just about everything. I’m scared I won’t ever get nothing.”
Les: “You know something? Look, I’m scared too. Scared of the same thing. . . . It’s pretty terrible being alone and afraid in the dark. But thinking how it could have been only makes it that much tougher.”
Les (Sal Mineo) talks with his determinedly cute little buddy Allan (Leland Mayforth).
Les (Sal Mineo) comforts Allan, but perhaps is in need of comfort himself.
While trekking through the woods Les has become casual friends with Whittaker (Thorley), the guard in charge of a prison-camp gang who’re slowly and laboriously digging a ditch that seems to have no purpose; Whittaker’s always keen to scrounge from Les any fresh vegetables that the orphanage garden can spare.
One day, passing the prison gang, Les is saved from a rattlesnake by the quick-thinking bravery of a con, Rudy Krist (Whitmore). Soon Les has become friends, with Whittaker’s doubtful acquiescence, of Rudy and Rudy’s pal Doozy (Whipper)—the latter has been on the gang for 34 years. Les prattles to them happily about the plans he’s set up for his vacation with his bud Jimmy on Warsaw Island, little reckoning that Rudy might be storing up all this information for use during a planned escape.
Rudy (James Whitmore) prepares to kill a rattlesnake.
The first part of Rudy’s scheme is that he be made a trusty, like Doozy already is; this’d mean he could gain a few extra seconds in any escape attempt from the trench—a valuable few seconds, because Whittaker’s duty is to shoot dead any prisoner who looks like he might be making a break for it. Rudy sucks up to the prison boss, Plug (Naish), who threatens to blow his head off—and means it—but eventually grants him the treasured trusty status. Naish’s portrayal of Plug is perhaps the most interesting part of the movie: he depicts him as a twisted emotional cripple, hating himself and expressing that in the form of a sadistic hatred toward the prisoners under his rule. In the latter parts of the movie, as he and his fresh-faced but equally sadistic sidekick Young Billy (Gierasch) go hunting down the cons who’ve escaped, it becomes quite clear how sociopathic the pair of them are: they’re out for blood, not justice.
Rudy (James Whitmore) plots escape . . .
. . . with the aid of Doozy (Leigh Whipper).
Back at the orphanage, high-flying Max Cole arrives with his lovely wife Maureen (Roxanne) on a mission to inspire the kids. He susses Bradley immediately as the latest clone of a “slob” called Shank Lewis who was a contemporary of his here; Cole recalls Shank as the reason for his own success, because he resolved he’d never let himself turn out like Skank.
Clancy reckons he’s right in with Cole, who has next to promised him a job. Clancy feels free, therefore, to push Les at Cole as another hardhead—another promising kid whom Cole should employ. Cole takes it upon himself to give Les a bit of advice as to how best to advance himself in the world:
Max: “You know, this world is just full of guys just waiting to take over. Now, you take two guys. One gives and the other takes. Now, which one is going to end up the winner?”
Les: “But, now, ain’t that according to what you want to win? I mean, well, maybe the guy giving is getting a lot more out of it than the guy taking?”
Clancy (Thomas Carlin) tries to explain to Les (Sal Mineo) the way to get ahead.
Les is, in other words, beginning to see through Cole: the self-made millionaire may be a hero to all the boys in the orphanage, but he’s a pretty mottled hero. The other person beginning to realize that Cole is somewhere beyond flawed is Cole’s wife Maureen. When Les shows the businessman his sailboat and gets the response: “Boy, it isn’t much of a boat,” Maureen looks at her husband as if she’s about to strike him, and is manifestly on Les’s side when the boy counters with: “No, I don’t guess it is. But it’s mine.”
Max (Gene Lyons) and Maureen Cole (Dolores Rosedale/Roxanne) with Les (Sal Mineo) by his sailboat.
Later, when Bradley—the same Bradley whom Les whopped and Cole so openly despises—comes to Cole begging for the millionaire’s help in setting up a business marketing the lamps that Bradley has taught himself how to craft from driftwood, Cole takes a seemingly sadistic pleasure in humiliating the youth in front of Maureen. Soon after, he humiliates Clancy in front of Les.
Plug (J. Carroll Naish) sadistically threatens Rudy (James Whitmore).
There’s a pattern emerging. Plug is an overt sadist, a man who’d rather kill than think. His assistant, Young Billy, is cast from the same mold. Cole would never think of himself as in their category, yet his philosophy’s out of that same drawer. Rudy and Doozy are killers, likely not on the scale that Plug is a killer but yet, because their acts have been unsanctioned by the authorities, all the more despised.
Cole (Gene Lyons) mercilessly humiliates Clancy (Thomas Carlin).
Besides, is Rudy really so very bad? The story he tells Les is that he came to these parts as a stranger and set himself up with a fine woman; he was out with her in a bar one night when a drunk offensively came on to her. Rudy justifiably hit the drunk—but maybe a tad hard, because the man died. Les swallows the story hook, line and sinker . . . and so do we, because one of the great strengths of Whitmore’s performance as Rudy is that he comes across as someone whom it’s difficult to dislike. Even more so is this true of Whipper’s performance as Doozy.
Rudy and Doozy engineer an escape from the prison gang using a trick with live rattlesnakes that I confess I don’t fully understand. Doozy hides out with local shrimper Philomena English (Attaway) while Rudy hijacks Les’s sailboat . . . and Les.
Ruth Attaway as Philomena English, everyone’s favorite surrogate mom.
One of this fine movie’s subtexts is the business about what makes a man a man. This was clearly a preoccupation of the writer Richard Jessup, whose script, based upon his own semi-autobiographical novel, drew from his experiences as an institutionalized orphan. Bradley and Plug think that being a man is about imposing oneself upon others through the use of superior force—bullying, in other words, although Plug’s bullying is lethal. Cole’s version of manhood is much the same, albeit les violent in its expression; stamp on the face of anyone who might hamper your road to the top. Cole’s wife Maureen clearly has come to see manhood as strength through a recognition of compassion and human decency. And, however violent they might be, Rudy and Doozy have an idea of manhood that’s centered on dreams of domestic happiness with a “clean woman” and maybe the rearing of a few kids.
Somehow Les is expected to pick his way through all of these choices as he attempts to establish the adult human being he’s going to become.
Whittaker (Victor Thorley) warns Les (Sal Mineo) off the cons in the work gang.
Sal Mineo, who died at the depressingly young age of 37 in 1976, was probably best known for his role as Plato Crawford in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), for which he received an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor. (He got another for his performance as Dov Landau in Exodus .) He’s quite splendid in The Young Don’t Cry, too, except for a couple of minutes during which Les, having equated Rudy with the equally ruthless Cole, declares he’ll be a tough guy like them when he hits adulthood, caring nothing for others. We’re treated to a brief period of rank overacting before Mineo gets himself back on track.
Plug (J. Carroll Naish) begins to beat a helpless Les (Sal Mineo): some role model.
Arguably even better is Whitmore in his depiction of the con Rudy Krist, but what’s really impressive about the movie, in terms of its casting and the era in which it was made, is that it has two really meaty parts for black actors—roles that are more than ably filled by Whipper, as Doozy, and Attaway, as the wonderful Philomena, who’s befriended more of the boys from the orphanage than she can rightly remember and has never married because she has never yet met the man who could measure up to her. Both actors had very distinguished careers on stage as well as screen; Whipper was more successful in the latter medium, and made a breakthrough as the first African-American to be allowed to join the Actors’ Equity Association.
The soundtrack comes from the estimable George Antheil and for the most part is splendid. It has its clichéd moments, though, such as the way that, every time Philomena appears, the music seems to lilt into something like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” . . .
This is a contribution to Rich Westlake’s 1957 Crimes of the Century meme on his Past Offences blog.