Tuesday, 9 February 2010

High School Big Shot (1959)

I do love juvenile delinquent movies, especially from the 50s, so High School Big Shot (made in 1959) seemed likely to be right up my alley. It’s really more a cross between a JD movie and a low-budget crime flick but it’s still pretty entertaining.

The action starts in an unnamed high school in an unnamed American town. Marv is a slightly geeky kind of kid (when I say kid you have to use your imagination since as is usual with these movies the actor looks like he’s pushing 30) and is regarded with distrust by the cool kids. And of course none of the pretty girls at the school will go out with him. To make things worse, his dad is an alcoholic who can’t hold down a job for more than a few days at a time, so Marv’s dreams of going to college seen unlikely to be fulfilled. His best hope is the dedicated teacher (there always has to be one of those in this type of movie) who is trying to arrange a scholarship for him.

So Marv is understandably surprised when the most beautiful girl in school, Betty Alexander, decides she wants to go out with him. Marv is soon head over heels in love, but it turns out that Betty is actually a Bad Girl, and she just wants him to write her assignments for her. Marv is happy to do so, because he still can’t believe his luck that she’ll even talk to him. Unfortunately the assignment he writes for her is a little too good, and the dedicated teacher figures out that Betty couldn’t possibly have written it. So Marv is in big trouble, especially when he admits to having written the essay.

Now his chances of a scholarship have gone out the window, but even worse, Betty won’t talk to him, except to explain to him that the one thing she ants out of a man is money, lots of it. As luck would have it, in the course of his part-time job as a shipping clerk Marv overhears some interesting information. A big shipment of heroin will be arriving on a freighter in a week’s time, and the crooked shipping agent will have a million dollars in cash sitting in his safe to pay for the goods. If Marv could just steal that million dollars, he could won Betty’s love.

As you may have figured out by now, while Marv is pretty smart when it comes to Shakespeare he’s not so smart when it comes to girls. He just can’t see that Betty really is a Bad Girl, and that her father was right when he described her as a No-Good Tramp. Marv’s plans for instant riches involve him with a couple of remarkably gentlemanly thieves, but Betty is intending to double-cross him so she can get the money and the boy she really wants, Vince. Vince is really dumb, but good-looking in a cheap hoodlum sort of way, and Betty thinks he’s hot stuff.

The movie gives us the sorts of moral lessons we expect in a 50s juvenile delinquent flick, but it also has quite an interesting visual style. Very bleak, with a certain film noir influence, although the very low budget probably contributed more to the look than anything else. As a crime caper movie it’s quite entertaining, with its more outlandish elements adding to the fun. This is not a movie to take too seriously. This is definitely B-movie material, from the lower end of the B-movie scale.

It also boasts an extraordinarily memorable femme fatale in young Betty. She really is the kind of girl your mother warned you about. There’s no subtlety at all to Virginia Aldridge’s performance as Betty, but it works in a sledgehammer kind of way. Tom Pittman (who sadly died in a car accident before the movie was released) makes a reasonably effective well-meaning but naïve film noir kind of protagonist, a basically good kid led astray by a ruthless young woman in a tight sweater. The sexual politics isn’t exactly subtle either, but this is a 1950s JD movie and the outrageously dated attitudes are part of what makes these movies campy fun.

It’s included in the Classic Teenage Rebels boxed set from St Clair Vision. Fairly dodgy public domain prints, but you do get 13 movies for a ridiculously low price, and so far all the ones I’ve seen have been quite watchable as far as picture quality is concerned. They’re the sorts of movies that are actually enhanced by a few scratches and a bit of graininess!

If you’re a fan of JD movies this one is worth a look.

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