Violent Playground (1958)
Mike’s Take on Stanley Baker Movies ……….. Day 11
“Kids don’t walk no more. They roll.”
It’s hard not to think of the 1955 Glenn Ford/Richard Brooks hit, Blackboard Jungle when Violent Playground begins with a rock’n roll soundtrack playing over the opening credits of this Basil Dearden directed feature starring Stanley Baker. The subject material to follow won’t do to much to sway you from that initial thought process either.
Baker is playing to his strength here as a no nonsense police detective with little time for a social life being married to his job. When he’s pulled off a case involving a serial arsonist, he finds himself volunteered for reassignment as a Juvenile Liaison Officer. It’s all rather quite amusing as he begs his superior not to put him in that positon. ‘I don’t even like kids!”
His first call is for a pair of seven year old twins pinched for stealing lollipops. It turns out that the twins, one boy one girl are far more professional at thieving than Baker suspects and I have to wonder if the film would have been far more successful as an outright comedy. The fish out of water idea that always finds an audience when casting a tough, square jawed actor surrounded by kids. Arnold in Kindergarten Cop comes to mind. With a tweak, this one would have done well as a variation on the 1955 Heston film The Private War of Major Benson where Chuck is a by the book Major assigned to a boys military school. Cue the Heston cameo!
Where Heston found Julie Adams in Benson, Baker is going to discover that this set of twins have an older sister who catches his fancy played by lovely Anne Heywood. The comedy bits come to an abrupt ending when the other brother with a major chip on his shoulder turns up played by a young David McCallum. Maybe it’s just me but McCallum seems an unlikely choice as a Leo Gorcey type who runs a street gang who do his bidding. McCallum proves here that he who has the biggest bark will lead the gang of young toughs.
Perhaps it’s a cliché but like most any film rebel, McCallum has this hardened exterior that he displays to those with authority yet has a soft side that he’ll allow his sister and local minister Peter Cushing to see. He has the power to lead as well as being a track and field athlete yet it’s his inner demons and self destructive nature that make it hard for Baker and Cushing to get through to him. By this point in the film, Baker has taken a decided interest in the McCallum clan thanks to the older sister but it’s hard to hold that against him. Anne really is an eye catcher.
When another fire occurs in Liverpool where this film was made on location, Baker begins to suspect that our pint sized Little Cesar might be the Firebug that the police have been searching for. This isn’t going to do Baker any good in the romance department with McCallum’s sister who has slowly come around to admitting she might be interested in the stiff necked copper.
The final third of the film belongs primarily to McCallum as he proves to be a young man needing mental help. He goes over the edge attempting another fire and leaving one of his gang members dead at the scene which in turns leads him to taking a classroom of children hostage at the point of a gun when Baker corners him. This also allows Miss Heywood a fine scene as she confronts her brother and attempts to reconcile the standoff while police, Cushing and parents stand by to witness the outcome.
As far as the performances go, it’s hard not to point at McCallum’s. I say this as it’s the one that hasn’t aged well though it may have worked fine at the time. That’s not a knock against him, it’s just that times change and it comes off today as rather unbelievable as a whole. No different than say Vic Morrow in Blackboard Jungle. Still, once we get to the final showdown the film does pack a punch and when gunshots are fired resulting in the possible murder of a child, it still can shake the viewer. Or at least yours truly.
Working for the film is the backdrop location of Gerard Gardens in Liverpool. Not knowing if this is a tenement, it sure fit the bill on screen as a slum overcrowded with various working class families and kids. One thing the film does do and should be commended for is give different ethnic types roles including Michael Chow and Tsai Chin. Horror buffs will recognize Miss Chin from her stint as Fu Manchu’s evil daughter in the five films featuring Christopher Lee in the title role.
This was a first time viewing for me and overall the film plays to Baker’s strengths as a screen tough. It also gives us chance to see the genteel side of Peter Cushing that pretty much anyone who ever knew him claim him to be. Adding this title to my library here at Mike’s Take helped fill in the blanks on my list of absent titles in the careers of both stars. It was another of the recent titles I secured from overseas to play on that all region player I just had to have.