High School Confidential! (Jack Arnold / U.S., 1958):

The ending announces the "authentic disclosure of conditions," the concluding punchline to this coruscating gagfest, as astringent a vision of the late-'50s as Frank Tashlin's are opulent. Tashlin immerses himself into pop inanities, Jack Arnold surveys them from a caustic distance, scientifically -- rock 'n' roll, teen slang, drag races are studied like the intergalactic visitor of It Came From Outer Space, though here They Come From Within. Blackboard Jungle provides the linchpin, the opening credits dispel realism: Jerry Lee Lewis ravishes a piano on the back of a flatbed truck, twentysomething high-schoolers follow the Pied Piper, lithe Russ Tamblyn rolls in as the new big man on campus. Tamblyn lights up a reefer in the principal's office, lays down the law for the hopheads with his switchblade; progressive teacher Jan Sterling insists he's not such a bad boy, even as he pursues the school's seedy underbelly to offer himself as drug-pusher. A put-on, nihilistic portrait, with Mad magazine's influence prominently noted: Tamblyn drinks milk in a spotless suburban kitchen, in walks "auntie" Mamie Van Doren in a bathrobe, later seen stretching across a bed while her object of desire gets dressed behind a closet door. John Barrymore, Jr. channels his father (and anticipates the George Washington monologue in Dazed and Confused) for his reinterpretation of "the New World bit," the past filtered through lingo. As for the future? "Tomorrow's a drag, man," goes a beatnik chick, Jackie Coogan supplying the honky tonk accompaniment. It takes perverse verve to put Charles Chaplin, Jr. with Coogan, for The Kid is now "Mr. A," bald and sinister, orchestrating the narcotics ring under the malt shop, complete with squirming junkie on the couch. Arnold calibrates the hysteria shrewdly, the tawdry wackiness traced through the Ben-Hur dragster rush and into a final cafeteria melee; joints are torn in half, identities are revealed amid clouds of spilled heroin, and the kids sail with knowing absurdity in their convertible toward the new decade, the parents' warning ("Children, behave") left behind. With Diane Jergens, Ray Anthony, Michael Landon, Lyle Talbot, and William Wellman, Jr. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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