The ‘50s, man, can you dig it? You think teenagers today are crazy? No way, not a chance. Back in the day, that’s when it was tough. 1984? 1975? Sure, it was tough then, but it all started in the ‘50s, when teenagers were invented. It was a blackboard jungle, and only the strong survived.
Parents? They didn’t understand. They couldn’t believe their little darlings would smoke the devil’s weed, or shoot smack into their precious white arms, or roll daddy’s car drag-racing. Cops tried to warn them, but could they get through? Not until it was too damn late.
Which brings us to what may be the most important movie ever made in the history of our great nation, High School Confidential! (1958). What better way to get through to parents and their kids than with the language of cinema? Oh, sure, it’s a movie full of hot chicks, tough guys, guns, drugs, cars, and Jerry Lee Lewis bangin’ on his piano, hell, it’s a big tickle from start to finish, but that’s not why it’s important.
It’s important because it exists to teach America a lesson it doesn’t want to learn: our kids are going bad, fast, and it’s up to us, the responsible ones, to save them, before it’s too late.
After Jerry Lee busts open the credits with his soon to be hit single, “High School Confidential,” a new kid shows up at school, Tony Baker (Russ Tamblyn, of West Side Story, The Haunting, and Twin Peaks fame, among many others), and man is he the most.
He wears amazing shirts, parks where he wants, hits up the prettiest girl in school, Joan (Diane Jergens), almost gets in a fight with her boyfriend, J.I. (John Drew Barrymore), who’s the leader of the school toughs, smokes a marijuana cigarette in the principal’s office, hits on his hot history teacher, Miss Williams (Jan Sterling), and fights off three tough guys in the gym with a switchblade. And that’s just his first day.
Tony uses so much hep ‘50s slang the adults don’t know what the hell he’s saying. He’s the baddest bad-ass anyone’s ever seen. He flunked out of his last school and is on his third attempt at a senior year. He lives with his aunt and uncle, he’s got tons of cash, and he’s looking to score drugs, like, now, man, you get me?
Miss Williams hauls Tony out of her history class, so J.I., having been shown up by the new punk, swaggers to the front of the room and proceeds to tell the classic ‘50s high school version of Columbus voyaging to America, but in the baddest beatnik slang you ever heard. Dig it:
High School Confidential! is a miraculous compendium of slang. I would have written it all down while watching, but I was laughing too hard.
When Tony gets home we meet his aunt. She’s in a towel and also she’s Mamie Van Doren with her rocketship boobs, her husband’s out of town, she’s drunk, and she throws herself at Tony. But he’s too cool for her.
Faster than you can blink, Tony’s meeting the dealers, scoring weed, stealing Joan from J.I., drag racing, getting arrested, and just about everything else you can think of.
Meantime, the local cops talk to the teachers about the epidemic threatening the youth. Why, in one school in Indiana, two hundred and fifty kids were found hooked on pot. One of them died moving up to the harder stuff! And he was only thirteen! Because that’s what happens. You start with the weed but you finish on the horse. If only America would wake up!
Joan, by the way, is desperately addicted to mary jane, but she’s out of money and she needs a fix, and bad. Tony helps her out. Tony plans to help everyone out. Makes a deal for a fine brick of heroin, to be collected at the local hang out, a jazz joint where a group of very classy white cats lays down the hot jazz, and one memorable chick throws down with this beatnik bit:
And, well, all kinds of craziness goes down after that. You won’t believe how it all wraps up. But you will recognize the important lesson you’re left with, oh yes.
High School Confidential! was directed by Jack Arnold, best known for the science fiction movies he made in the ‘50s like Tarantula, Creature From The Black Lagoon, The Incredible Shrinking Man, and It Came From Outer Space, every one a must-see. He made B-movies with real panache.
High School Confidential! may be cheap, exploitive, self-righteous, and ridiculous, but— but what? What better reasons to watch a movie? Dig it.