At last, J.D. schlock aficionados can give the boot to Republic/LionsGate’s mediocre 2004 DVD of High School Confidential, one of the quintessential 1950s juvenile delinquent/drug scare exploitation movies, as Olive Films simultaneously releases remastered Blu-ray and DVD editions.
Jerry Lee Lewis is inexplicably shilling LPs and 45s from the back of a flatbed truck while belting the title tune (which charted at #21 on Billboard’s Hot 100) over the opening credits, and we’re immediately introduced to obnoxious punk Tony Baker (Russ Tamblyn, THE WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS, SATAN’S SADISTS), already maneuvering to become “top stud” of the local gang, the Wheelers and Dealers, on his first day at Santa Bello High School. Tony’s new in town, and living with his inappropriately affectionate “aunt” Gwen (Mamie Van Doren, 3 NUTS IN SEARCH OF A BOLT, THE LAS VEGAS HILLBILLYS), who’s constantly bothering him for “attention.” Tony trades some great hep-talk with J.I. Coleridge (John Drew Barrymore, THE NIGHT THEY KILLED RASPUTIN, WAR OF THE ZOMBIES), leader of the W&D, then flashes a huge wad of bills and puffs on a cigar in the principal’s office. Next, Tony cracks wise to prim, proper English teacher Arlene Williams (Jan Sterling, CAGED, THE ANGRY BREED), who falls for him, naturally, and J.I. presents an amusing jive-talk rendition of Columbus’s discovery of America to the class (“. . . just tool off the deep end and dig a little infinity”).
Tony, looking to “graze on some grass,” has plenty of cash but no connections, while J.I.’s girlfriend Joan (Diane Jergens, ISLAND OF LOST WOMEN, TEENAGE MILLIONAIRE) is jonesing for a few “sticks” but has no bread. At the local watering hole, run by Mr. August (Jackie Coogan, MESA OF LOST WOMEN, EIGHTEEN AND ANXIOUS), a beatnik poetess (Phillipa Fallon, THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ADAM AND EVE) recites the absolutely priceless “the future is a king-size drag” monologue backed by Mr. August’s jazz combo (“I had an uncle with an Ivy League heart, he had life with a belt in the back, he had a button-down brain . . . drag!”). Tony finally connects with Joan’s dealer Jukey, and is mysteriously released after a large baggie of weed falls out of his hubcap during a bust of an illegal hot rod race at the airport. Tony continues to maneuver his way up the supply chain and sets up a deal for a “can” of H with “the big man,” who turns out to be anti-alcohol (“that stuff is murder on the system”) and forces Tony to shoot up as a test before finalizing their deal. Hoods are dispatched to menace Joan, Arlene, and Gwen, Tony’s cover is blown (he’s really Mike Wilson, undercover narcotics detective!), and a violent clash between the high school kids and the drug peddlers ensues.
The plot of HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL is standard drug scare stuff, the reefers-to-heroin scenario stretching credibility even in 1958, and today it basically functions as a series of campy and amusing set pieces: the introductory scenes of Tony intimidating classmates, teachers, and administrators; J.I.’s beat history lesson; the strange interludes between Tony and Gwen; the drag race at the airport; Miss Williams’s “teacher’s conference” with Gwen; and Fallon’s poetry recital. And, of course, the icing on the cake, Tamblyn’s note-perfect “arrogant wise-ass” performance as Tony (until he’s revealed as a good guy, you’re really hoping someone will clock him) and the constant use of goofy late-1950s slang throughout (famously sampled by White Zombie on La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Vol. 1). One of my favorite exchanges: Tony to henchman Petey, “In my book, he’s a schmo!” They both nod in unison, “From Kokomo, yeah,” as if everyone knows that this is the standard response! While far from the first, having been preceded by the groundbreaking BLACKBOARD JUNGLE and a half dozen AIP and Allied Artists offerings, among others, HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL is possibly the best known and loved of the 1950s J.D. flicks, proving a popular title at university film society and midnight movie screenings since the dawn of the cult movie era in the 1970s.
Though pitched to MGM by screenwriter Robert Blees as a serious retelling of the exploits of real-life undercover narcotics agent Texas Joe Foster, who had successfully infiltrated a high school drug ring (and plays a bit in the movie as one of Mr. A’s henchmen), producer Albert Zugsmith told director Jack Arnold (THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS) he wanted a straight exploitation picture, and, through rewrites and casting choices, managed to shoehorn in plenty of risqué and exploitable elements, to the eternal chagrin of Blees. Most notably, increased emphasis was given to the apparently improper relationship between Tony and his “aunt” Gwen, which seems to confound nearly every viewer of the picture, and even had Tamblyn and Van Doren a bit mystified on the set. In the original script, Gwen is part of the undercover setup, posing as Tony’s aunt to avoid the suspicious appearance of a teenager living alone, but only a couple of offhand and easy-to-miss references to this connection remain in the finished film, giving her constant seduction attempts a creepy, incestuous undertone. In another scene, Gwen threatens to turn Tony in for possessing marijuana cigarettes, as if she doesn’t know that they’re both undercover narcs. Confusing, to say the least.
Zugsmith is quite an interesting character, and his work is ripe for rediscovery. Starting in the early 1950s producing zero-budget cheapies like CAPTIVE WOMEN, INVASION U.S.A., and PORT SINISTER, achieving success as a staff producer at Universal-International with THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN and SLAUGHTER ON TENTH AVENUE, among others, and progressing to perhaps his artistic pinnacle, Orson Welles’s noir masterpiece TOUCH OF EVIL, Zugsmith then began a long, slow descent into the cinematic gutter, producing and sometimes directing a series of juvenile delinquent/bad girl epics—including HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL, GIRLS TOWN, SEX KITTENS GO TO COLLEGE, PLATINUM HIGH SCHOOL, THE PRIVATE LIFE OF ADAM AND EVE, and COLLEGE CONFIDENTIAL—followed by the incredible CONFESSIONS OF AN OPIUM EATER, increasingly pushing the censorship envelope, even shooting additional nude scenes for foreign markets.
Zugsmith was also an early exponent of “stunt casting,” peppering his exploitation efforts with an eclectic assortment of blonde bombshells (Tuesday Weld, Irish McCalla, Yvette Mimieux, Fay Spain), TV personalities (Steve Allen and Jayne Meadows, Louie Nye, Elinor Donahue), musicians (Conway Twitty, Mel Torme, Dick Contino, Paul Anka), pop culture icons (Vampira, Rocky Marciano, Maxie Rosenbloom), Hollywood character actors (Mickey Rooney, John Carradine, Elisha Cook Jr., Herbert Marshall), gossip columnists (Walter Winchell, Sheilah Graham, Earl Wilson) and not-famous relatives of famous stars, such as Harold Lloyd Jr., Jim Mitchum, Mijanou Bardot, and Robert Montgomery Jr., almost always in character roles and not just appearing as themselves.
HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL, of course, exemplifies this practice, featuring Mamie Van Doren and Diane Jergens (blonde bombshells), band leader Ray Anthony (musician), car designer Woo Woo Grabowski (pop culture icon), Jackie Coogan and Lyle Talbot (Hollywood character actors), and Charles Chaplin Jr. and William Wellman Jr. (not-famous relatives of famous stars). No gossip columnists this time out. Actor-director Mel Welles (LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, ISLAND OF THE DOOMED) also appears in a bit and receives a “special material” credit for composing Fallon’s beat poem and penning Barrymore Jr.’s slangy history lecture, and Michael Landon, hot off of I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF, plays the clean-cut leader of the Rangers social group.
“Zug,” as he was affectionately known, wound down his career through the 1960s and ‘70s with a few more mainstream films, including a couple of kiddie matinee flicks (shades of K. Gordon Murray and H. G. Lewis), but mostly turned out twisted Adults Only/Sexploitation fare like PSYCHEDELIC SEXUALIS, SAPPHO DARLING, THE INCREDIBLE SEX REVOLUTION, VIOLATED!, and MOVIE STAR AMERICAN STYLE, OR LSD I HATE YOU. It’s a shame that only a handful of his 1950s and ’60s exploitation movies are available on home video.
As expected, Olive Films’s remastered 1080p 2.35:1 anamorphic Blu-ray is a vast improvement over Republic/LionsGate’s 2004 letterboxed DVD. The 2004 transfer never looked that great, even for the time, suffering from mis-framing, an overly contrasty, washed-out appearance, and muddy detail, and the Olive transfer completely puts it to shame, exhibiting deep, solid blacks, rich grayscale, and fine detail, even in the highlights where the 2004 DVD was often blown out. The framing preserves the full 2.35:1 CinemaScope matting (the 2004 DVD was closer to 2.00:1), revealing a thin band of additional picture information at the top of frame, and significant chunks on the left and right sides. Grain is tight and unobtrusive, with a nice filmic look, though there is noticeable but not overbearing sporadic light speckling and spotting. The DTS-HD Master audio is clear and full, with no anomalies to speak of. Save for the minor speckling, an extremely nice looking transfer, with no evidence of any heavy-handed DNR or other manipulation. Since this appears to be mastered from vault materials, it’s unlikely to ever get better than this. As is typical with Olive releases, there are no extras. (Paul Tabili)
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