Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

The Many Versions of Once Upon a Time in America

After going for more than a decade without making a movie, Sergio Leone finally completed Once Upon a Time in America in 1984.  As he was and still is my favorite director, it was with great expectations that I went to the theater to see it.  I was disappointed.  I couldn’t believe how flat and lackluster it was. That December, I watched Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert give their lists for the best movies of 1984 in their show At the Movies.  Siskel said his pick for the best movie of 1984 was Once Upon a Time in America.  I was stunned.  But he immediately explained himself.  He dismissed the theatrical release that I had seen as worthless, and said he was basing his pick on the version released in Europe. Ebert said he would have picked that movie to be the best as well, but he felt he was limited to movies as they were when they came to American theaters.

Soon thereafter, I saw the European cut on cable.  Unlike the theatrical release, which was 139 minutes long and told the story in chronological order, the European cut, which is 229 minutes, is filled with flashbacks and flashforwards, and includes the scenes in the opium den.  Furthermore, the European cut has a composition by Ennio Morricone, “Poverty,” that fills one with a feeling of loss, which is essential to the movie, but which was completely absent from the theatrical release. Suffice it to say that the European cut is every bit as good as Siskel and Ebert said it was.

After seeing the movie on cable, I decided it was time to buy a video cassette recorder so I could have my very own copy of the movie on video tape.  However, the version on video tape was in standard format, not widescreen.  Somewhat later, the movie was released in widescreen on laserdisc, which I bought.  In order to get the entire movie on that format, there were two discs, each of which had to be turned over to watch what was on the other side.  However, someone made a mistake in producing these discs, so that side one of the second disc, labeled Part 3, was the last part of the movie, which meant side two, labeled Part 4, needed to be watched first.  But the way this movie jumps around in time, you might not realize at first that you were watching the movie out of order.  If ever there was a movie where such a mistake should not have been made, this was it.

In any event, I knew from the credits that the movie had been based on the semi-autobiographical novel The Hoods by Harry Grey, a gangster who had written the novel while he was serving time in Sing Sing, so I looked for it in the bookstore.  Instead, I came across a paperback with the title Once Upon a Time in America.  It was my first experience with a novelization, a book that reverses the normal order of things and uses a movie as its source.  Someone decided to publish that instead of issuing a reprint of The Hoods.  In what follows, when I refer to the novel on which this movie is based, I am referring to The Hoods, not the novelization.

Recently, an “extended director’s cut” of 251 minutes became available on DVD.  In some cases, the additional material helps prepare us for stuff that comes later.  In others, it helps us to better understand what is going on.

According to Christopher Frayling, in his book Sergio Leone:  Something to Do With Death, Leone had ten hours of footage to start with, which he edited down to six hours, thinking about releasing the movie in two parts, but finally settled on a version close to four hours long [page 458].  There are rumors of a 270 minute cut that will probably never be seen, not even on DVD, because the actors never dubbed in their voices on the additional material [page 462].

And finally, there is the additional footage that existed only in Leone’s mind, as when he wanted the scene where Noodles (Robert De Niro) is making his way to an opium den in Chinatown to be filmed in Hong Kong [page 458].

The Basic Story

I have no wish to try the reader’s patience by presenting a complete synopsis, but only to mention what I think is absolutely essential for even a minimal discussion of this movie.  There are three time periods during which the action of this movie takes place. The movie is not explicit about the dates of the first two, and different sources vary slightly in this regard.  I have picked the dates that make the most sense.

1920.  Jewish teenagers in the Lower East Side of Manhattan are budding criminals in 1920.  They agree to put half the money they make in a suitcase, kept in a locker in a train station.  One of those young hoodlums, Noodles, is in love with Deborah, and his best friend is Max.  Noodles kills a rival gangster and then stabs a policeman, for which he is sent to prison.

1932-33.  Noodles gets out of prison in 1932.  He rejoins the gang, and they get into more serious crimes, such as the holdup of a wholesale jewelry establishment, where a woman named Carol (Tuesday Weld) is employed.  She is in on the heist, and during the excitement, she encourages Noodles to hit her.  He does that, and then he rapes her as well.  She eventually becomes the girlfriend of Max (James Woods).

The gang also makes a deal with Jimmy O’Donnell (Treat Williams), a union boss, helping him succeed in a strike.

When Noodles finds out that Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern) is leaving for Hollywood to pursue her acting career, instead of marrying him as he hoped, he becomes so angry that he rapes her.

Note 1:  The rape of Deborah is perhaps the most unpleasant, prolonged rape ever shown in a major motion picture, worse even than the rape of Carol, which was bad enough. Audiences and critics alike were scandalized.  Leone only made matters worse when he said the rape was “an act of love by a man who has lost the only thing he has ever wanted” [page 448].  And, indeed, such a remark would be regarded as outrageous by anyone that regards love as something beautiful, so that Noodles’ love for Deborah is being thought of as excusing what he did.  Instead, this remark is only intended to be an explanation, an explanation that also sees the ugly side of love.

Note 2:  The extended director’s cut introduces the character Eve as a woman Noodles picks up in a nightclub right after he rapes Deborah. He hires Eve to pretend to be Deborah and tell him that she loves him. In the European cut, she just seems to show up out of nowhere later on.  By “later,” I mean that in the chronological sense, not in the movie sense.  As far as the movie is concerned, she is the first person we see in the opening scene.

Max wants the gang to knock over the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, which would be suicide for all of them.  To keep that from happening, Carol tells Noodles to figure out some way to get them all arrested and put in jail, long enough for Max to forget about that crazy idea.  Noodles takes her advice.  He calls the police and tells them about a shipment of alcohol they will be transporting on the last night before the repeal of Prohibition.  Things go terribly wrong, and Max is apparently killed.

Note 3:  Lying in the street beside Patsy and Cockeye, two other members of the gang since boyhood, is a body, presumably Max, burned beyond recognition.  This is not meant to fool us.  We know that when someone in a movie is supposedly dead, but the corpse is disfigured beyond recognition, that person is probably not dead. This is only meant to deceive Noodles and anyone else in the movie who was not in on it.

Note 4:  The scene in Miami where Max announces that he has dreamed of robbing the Federal Reserve Bank of New York all his life is hard to accept because it is the first time anyone has heard about it. We should have been prepared for this, perhaps by having Max say something to that effect to Noodles when they were teenagers.  In fact, that is what happens in the novel.  This is also the scene where Eve shows up, seemingly out of nowhere in the European cut.  The extended director’s cut introduces us to Eve earlier on, but it does not include any earlier remark by Max about robbing the Federal Reserve Bank. One might suppose that such a remark was filmed, but never made it into the movie. However, in the scene where we first hear about Max’s lifelong dream to rob the Federal Reserve Bank, Noodles acts as though this is the first time he is hearing about it as well.

Noodles tries to ease his guilt by going to an opium den, which is part of a Chinese theater, where the audience watches a show consisting of shadow puppets.  An attendant fills an opium pipe for him, which Noodles puffs on and then goes to sleep. But he is awakened later by the attendant, who tells him a couple of gangsters are in the theater looking for him, because he ratted out his friends, and he needs to get away. He finds out from Fat Moe, Deborah’s brother, that the gangsters have already killed Eve.  Knowing he must leave town, Noodles goes to get the suitcase with the money the gang has accumulated over the years, but it is filled only with newspapers.

1968.  Thirty-five years later, Noodles returns to his old neighborhood, owing to a letter he received informing him that the bodies of his friends have been moved to another cemetery, but which really tells him that someone knows where he has been hiding all this time.  At the cemetery, inside a mausoleum, he finds a key to another locker at the train station.  It turns out to hold a suitcase full of money, with a note saying it is payment for his next job.

He finds out that Carol has been living in the Bailey Foundation, which is a rest home established by a Mr. Bailey, who is presently the Secretary of Commerce.  She tells him that Max wanted to die because there was insanity in his family, which he was afraid he had inherited and would go crazy himself some day.  So, he put the idea of informing on the gang in her head, so that he could commit suicide by cop.  While she and Noodles talk, he sees a picture of Deborah with a lot of other people at the Bailey Foundation on opening night, taken some fifteen years earlier. Carol says she is some famous actress, whom she does not know.  From there, Noodles locates Deborah, who is performing in Antony and Cleopatra.

Note 5:  In the extended director’s cut, we see Deborah’s performance as Cleopatra when she commits suicide, which in turn is a premonition of Max’s real suicide.

Noodles talks to Deborah after her performance.  He knows she has been living with Secretary Bailey for years.  Bailey has a teenage son, supposedly by a woman he married, but who later died. However, we can’t be sure this is true, and we wonder if he is Deborah’s son as well.  When Noodles sees Bailey’s son, played by the same actor who played Max when they were young, he realizes that Secretary Bailey is actually Max.

Having been sent an invitation to attend a party at Secretary Bailey’s mansion, Noodles decides to accept, even though Deborah pleads with him not to.  At that party, Max tells Noodles that he, Max, will be assassinated before he can testify in front of a Senate committee, so he says he wants Noodles to kill him instead, as a way of letting him have the revenge he deserves.  Noodles refuses even to acknowledge that he is talking to Max, calling him “Mr. Bailey,” indicating that he prefers to continue believing that he was the one that betrayed Max rather than the other way around. Noodles leaves, and as he walks down the street, he sees what appears to be Max walking behind a garbage truck that can grind up stuff. The grinder suddenly starts making a lot of noise, after which the man is nowhere to be seen.

Note 6:  In the theatrical release, there is no garbage truck.  Instead, Noodles hears the sound of a gunshot, from which we are to suppose that Max shot himself in the head.  As for the European cut, it is not certain that Max did get himself ground up in the garbage truck.  Twice before, Max pretended to be dead but really was not:  the first time, when he pretended to have drowned in 1920; the second time, when he pretended he had been killed by the police in 1933.  And now, in 1968, it may be that Max is only pretending to be dead for a third time.

Note 7:  The Hoods was published in 1952, and it ends with Noodles telling us how he got away, but can’t say where he has been hiding out all these years.  Consequently, the part of the movie where Noodles comes back in 1968 is not based on the novel.  And yet, according to Frayling, Grey told Leone that one of the liberties he had taken with the truth was in having Max be killed in the novel.  In actuality, he admitted, “Max” was still alive.  In fact, “Max” had recently wanted to pull off a holdup with Grey, but Grey’s wife threatened to leave him if he went along with it.  A few weeks later, Grey saw “Max” being arrested on television.  So, the idea that Max is really still alive, if not based on the novel, was the nevertheless inspired by Grey in a conversation he had with Leone.  [page 401]

Note 8:  Halfway through the movie, in the extended director’s cut, we see Noodles looking at the garbage truck.  Right after that, he sees a car that has been following him around suddenly explode, a car belonging to Secretary Bailey, but who was not in it at the time. This prepares us for the idea that there are people who want to kill Secretary Bailey before he can testify in front of a Senate committee, fearing he will confess to the various forms of corruption he has been involved in over the years, thereby implicating others.  The man behind this determined effort to kill Bailey/Max is Jimmy O’Donnell.  He indicates that Max’s son will also be killed if Max doesn’t cooperate by signing over most of his wealth, with twelve percent being left for his son if he does sign.  Max signs the papers.  Before Jimmy leaves Max’s office, he lets Max know that it would be for the best if he committed suicide.  He tells Max that he is going to join the party, and it will please him if he hears a gunshot before the party is over.


According to Frayling, the passage of time is the central theme of this movie [page 392].  This is not time understood as an abstraction, as merely that in which events may or may not occur.  Rather, time is to be understood existentially, in it’s significance for the person whose life at first is naively experienced, and then comes to be colored by memories, with regrets about the past and with a sense that the future is slipping away, with a feeling of time that has been lost.  This is why the flashbacks and flashforwards are essential to the movie, so that the significance of the present is bound up in things that happened in the past and will happen in the future.

When Noodles and his gang are just boys, but before they meet Max, they try to roll a drunk for his watch. However, Max manages to get to the drunk first and take that watch.  Then Whitey, a corrupt cop, whose beat is the gang’s neighborhood, takes the watch from both of them.  They get the watch back from Whitey when they take a picture of him having sex with Peggy, an underage prostitute. Max still has that watch when Noodles finds him again in 1968.  Needless to say, the watch is a physical representation of time.

As noted above, when Noodles and Max were young, he and the other members of the gang agreed to save half the money they made in suitcase, stored in a locker in the train station.  The key to the locker was given to Fat Moe.  He attached it to the key to his clock.  When Noodles realizes he needs to go into hiding, he takes both keys with him.  When he returns thirty-five years later, he hands Fat Moe the key to his clock, which he then uses to wind the clock for the first time in all those years. The idea, of course, is that it is as if time has stood still, in the sense that nothing of significance in their lives has happened during those years.  This is confirmed when Moe asks Noodles what he has been doing all these years, and he says, “I’ve been going to bed early.” Perhaps this is an allusion to Swann’s Way, the first volume of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, in which the opening line is, “For a long time I used to go to bed early.”

This theme is reinforced by various pieces of music in the 1968 section that have something to do with time:  “Summertime,” “Night and Day,” and “Yesterday.”


Early in the movie, Noodles remembers how he used to stand on a toilet and peek through a crack in the wall to watch Deborah (Jennifer Connelly, playing her as a teenager) dancing in the storeroom of her father’s kosher restaurant. There are stacks of flour in the storeroom, and the dust from the flour creates a haze, giving the scene a dreamlike quality.  At other points in the movie, Noodles looks at her through rising steam, creating a similar effect.  She dances to “Amapola,” a song comparing a pretty girl to a poppy, the flower from which opium is derived. Together these elements form a constellation of themes running through this movie: Deborah/dream/love/opium.


Deborah knows that Noodles is watching her, and so, on another occasion, she surprises him by opening the door of the restroom, saying, “That record’s just like Ex-Lax. Every time I put it on, you have to go to the bathroom.” It is important that she does not enter the restroom. Previously in the movie, in a scene that, quite frankly, grosses me out whenever I watch it, Noodles goes into the communal restroom for the floor of the tenement his family lives in. He sits down on the toilet. Peggy also lives with her family on that floor. When Noodles realizes Peggy is coming to use the restroom too, he unlocks the door so that he can expose himself to her.  Unlike Deborah, Peggy walks right in, and Noodles spreads his legs. He gets up from the toilet and starts making sexual advances. She says she is about poop in her pants, after which she plops down on the toilet he just got up from, telling him to get out. Throughout the movie there are innumerable references to garbage, excrement, and anal sex. Taken together, all this leads to an opposing constellation of themes: Noodles/reality/sex/filth.

The Beginning and End of Prohibition

As the movie jumps back and forth in time, it always seems to heading toward the end of Prohibition. When Noodles and Max first become friends, Prohibition has only recently become the law of the land. Their friendship comes to an end just before the repeal of Prohibition becomes effective, when Noodles believes he has caused the death of Max.

Furthermore, Noodles’ love for Deborah begins around the same time, in the early days of Prohibition, and his dream of marrying her comes to an end when he rapes her.  Elizabeth McGovern, who plays Deborah when she is grown up, said she understood that “the point of the part is that she is an imaginary woman” [page 446]. In brutally raping her, Noodles drags her out of the dream/love/opium constellation into his own world of reality/sex/filth.  The next day, he sees her sitting by a window of the train that will take her away, and when she sees him, she pulls down the shade, shutting him out of her life forever.  Just before she got on the train, we saw her picking up the December 5, 1933 copy of the New York Times, announcing the repeal of Prohibition, ending at 5:32 PM that day.  The beginning of Prohibition is the beginning of Noodles’ friendship with Max and his love for Deborah; the end of Prohibition is the end of that friendship and the end of that love.

The newspaper Deborah buys at the station is regarded by some critics as a goof, because in subsequent scenes, reference is made to the fact that Prohibition has not ended yet, though it soon will.  And then, when Max, Carol, Noodles, and Eve go to Miami, we see them reading the November 24, 1933 copy of the Miami Herald, which says that Prohibition will end in December.

However, a scene occurring many years later, in 1968, makes it clear that this connection to the end of Prohibition is not intended to be understood realistically. After Noodles leaves Max’s mansion, and we have seen the garbage truck move on down the street, this is followed by a bunch of revelers coming down the street in a car that appears to be from the days of Prohibition, as we hear the song “God Bless America,” sung by Kate Smith. The sounds they make and the background music are identical to what we heard at the beginning of the movie, as Eve prepared to enter the apartment she shared with Noodles. They are the sounds of people celebrating the end of Prohibition. In other words, even in 1968, it seems we are still approaching the end of Prohibition.

An Opium Dream

It still seems to be the end of Prohibition because what happens in 1968 is actually just a dream, a dream that is taking place at the end of Prohibition. As Frayling points out, one problem with this theory is that Noodles would not know about 1968 technology, like television [page 424].  But that can be justified as dramatic license:  1968 as we know it to be must stand in for 1968 as Noodles might have imagined it in 1933.

After Noodles rapes Deborah, he tries to forget what he did by spending time in an opium den. This is referred to, but not seen. We do see two scenes of him in the opium den, however, both of them being after he thinks he has killed Max. The first time is at the beginning of the movie, where we see him leaving; the second time is at the end of the movie, where we see him entering. Bookending the movie in this way, with the leaving being seen in the beginning and the arriving at the end, we are encouraged to see the movie as Noodles’ opium dream, an obsessive dream that could be starting all over again. The shadow puppets Noodles looks at after he enters the Chinese theater, while waiting to get into the opium den, reinforce the idea of a dream, of an illusion. As his dream takes place at the end of Prohibition, the scenes set in the future are not real, but only part of his wish-fulfilling dream. In that dream, he denies the reality of Max’s death, and imagines that it was really Max who betrayed him, stealing all the money the gang had accumulated. Furthermore, by having Deborah be Max’s lover, and possibly be the mother of Max’s child, his dream makes it appear that she betrayed Noodles, in a way that would make sense only to Noodles’ way of thinking, thereby alleviating his guilt over having raped her.

Note 9:  It is natural enough to suppose that the scenes that take place before Noodles goes to the opium den, right after thinking he has caused Max’s death, are veridical. However, his opium dream may even be encompassing earlier events, even those in 1920, memories distorted by the opium and his desire to understand the past in a way that absolves him of any guilt.  After all, the flashback to Noodles’ childhood days begins in 1968, when he stands on that toilet, remembering how he used to spy on Deborah.  If the 1968 portion of the movie is a dream, then the flashback in 1968, representing his memory, would have to be part of that dream.  A scene that was filmed, but not included in the movie, Frayling characterizes as “Noodles’ opium-rich flashback to himself, Max and the gang as children” [page 459].

When Max offers Noodles the chance to get his revenge for stealing all the money, taking his girl, and ruining his life, Noodles magnanimously refuses to accept this reality, saying that he prefers the delusion he has lived with all these years, the one in which he betrayed Max.  But this too is just part of the dream.  Having convinced himself that it was really Max who betrayed him, he gets the benefit of seeing Max ground up like garbage, while at the same time casting himself as the true friend after all.

Note 10:  Noodles never minded making a deal with the Italians when he was young, helping them save shipments of alcohol that had to be thrown overboard, but he never wanted to get involved with them in a big way, with Frankie (Joe Pesci) in particular.  And he didn’t mind assisting Jimmy O’Donnell and his union to win a strike, but once again he didn’t want to get involved with the unions in a big way, especially with “party leaders” like Sharkey, presumably communists, who were behind the labor movement.

Max, on the other hand, wanted to get involved with both Frankie and Sharkey, believing that more money and power could be acquired by being a part of the organizations these men represented. When Noodles said he didn’t want anything to do with these organizations, Max said, “You still think like some street schmuck.”

In the extended director’s cut, Jimmy O’Donnell, speaking on behalf of those very organizations that now want Max out of the way, puts pressure on Max to give up his wealth and his own life as well.  This is another aspect of the wish-fulfilling dream that Noodles is having, one that vindicates him, proving that he was right all along to avoid entanglements with politicians and the syndicate.

In the final scene, which is in the opium den, we see Noodles take a puff on the opium pipe. The expression that suddenly appears on his face is one of happiness, but it is only the false kind of happiness that opium provides, a temporary illusion in a world of filth.

Cinematic Influences

In Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), a previous movie by Sergio Leone, there are quotations of old movies, especially Westerns.  According to Frayling, there are many such connections for Once Upon a Time in America as well.

First of all, the Noodles of the novel was influenced negatively by gangster movies:

Noodles was at pains to distance himself throughout the book from phoney ‘moving picture holdupnicks,’ ‘loused-up stories of hoodlums’ and the fast-talking heroics of Hollywood professional criminals.  [page 383]

Leone didn’t care for the novel as literature, but in his conversation with Harry Grey, he became aware of cinematic influences on the author himself:

And yet, as Sergio Leone was quick to notice, the book seemed to have been written by the screenwriter of a low-grade ‘B’ movie.  The first-person narrator even reminded him of a Hollywood voice-over:  ‘The grotesque realism of this elderly gangster who, at the end of his life, couldn’t stop himself using a repertoire of cinematic citations, of gestures and words seen and heard thousands of times on the big screen, stimulated my curiosity and amused me.  I was struck by the vanity of this attempt and by the grandeur of its bankruptcy.’  When the fable takes over from the actual life of the author, ‘that could be a great subject for a film.’  [page 384]

Frayling then goes on to point out connections between events in the book and classic gangster movies produced in the 1930s and 1940s.

The novel in turn had some influence on Leone’s previous films, the harmonica in Once Upon a Time in the West stemming from Cockeye’s harmonica in the novel, though that became a pan flute in Once Upon a Time in America.  The conflict between Noodles and his brother regarding their sick mother is reflected in the conflict between Tuco and his brother, Father Ramirez, in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), regarding their parents.  Juan’s dream of robbing the bank at Mesa Verde in Duck, You Sucker (1971) corresponds to Max’s dream of robbing the Federal Reserve Bank. [pages 387-88]

Just as the basic structure of Once Upon a Time in the West was based on Johnny Guitar (1954), the basic structure of Once Upon a Time in America, according to Frayling, is Citizen Kane (1941):  Noodles corresponds to the investigative reporter trying to get to the bottom of a mystery; Carol, who is a resident in the Bailey Foundation, a rest home for old people, corresponds to Jed Leland; Fat Moe corresponds to Bernstein; Deborah to Susan Alexander; and Max, as Secretary Bailey, corresponds to Charles Foster Kane [page 421].

Within that basic framework, quotations from gangster movies abound, as noted by Frayling:

In some sense, the trappings of the genre were a ruse, as Leone was at pains to point out:  ‘It is not a film about gangsters.  It is a film about nostalgia for a certain period and a certain type of cinema and a certain type of literature.’

Nevertheless, the ‘citations’ were certainly there:  from the Chinese theater (The Lady from Shanghai, 1948) to the contract killing (The Killers, 1946) to the gangster revisiting his childhood neighborhood (Angels with Dirty Faces, 1938; Dead End, 1937); with one protagonist feeling nostalgic about the anarchic early days (High Sierra, 1941), the other becoming increasingly megalomaniac (White Heat, 1949), and both having to confront a complicated new world of unions and politics (Bullets or Ballots, 1936).  The suitcase at the train station recalled Cry of the City (1948) and The Killing (1956); Noodles’ relationship with Deborah resembled Eddie Bartlett’s with Jean Sherman in The Roaring Twenties (1939), and the elderly Noodles’ arrival at Senator [sic] Bailey’s Long Island party mirrored Police Sergeant Bannion’s arrival at the affluent mansion of Mike Lagana, head of the crime syndicate, in The Big Heat (1953).  [page 422]

One connection that Frayling fails to mention is Cody Jarret’s fear of inherited insanity in White Heat, which may be why Cody preferred literally going out in a blaze of glory, just as Max feared going insane and brought about his own end, in which he too was burnt to a crisp.

The opium dream itself has its citation, “reminiscent of John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), where Walker’s (Lee Marvin) tale of revenge may be just wish fulfillment as he is left for dead on a deserted Alcatraz.” Leone preferred the ambiguity of a double reading, as what actually happens, and as opium dream [page 424].

The citations listed above are mostly conceptual, as opposed to those of Once Upon a Time in the West, which are in some cases conceptual, but in many cases visual, so that if you have seen the movies being quoted, the images alone will establish the connections.

Frayling provides even more connections, too numerous to go into here.  Suffice it to say that in this movie, art reflects life, life reflects art, and then art reflects life reflecting art.

Lured (1947)

Lured is about a man who likes to send the police cryptic poems about certain women before they disappear.  Only after these women have been reported missing are the police able to figure out that they were the ones in the poems.  So far, eight women have vanished in this fashion.

Sandra Carpenter (Lucille Ball) is a dime-a-dance girl, or rather, since the story is set in London, make that a six-pence-a-dance girl.  A coworker tells her she has answered an ad in the personal column from a good-looking man from a good family, and that she is going to quit her job and go away with him.  Sandra tells her that is dangerous, but her friend says she is not worried as long as she has her bracelet with elephants as a good-luck charm.  The next night, her friend disappears.

Sandra goes to Scotland Yard and talks to Inspector Temple (Charles Coburn). They soon realize that Sandra’s friend is the woman in the most recent poem, which referred to elephants.  Sandra agrees to work for Scotland Yard as bait by answering every ad in the personal column that seems as though it might be from the man they are looking for.

Just before Sandra’s friend disappeared, she had made an appointment to audition for Robert Fleming (George Sanders), who is looking for dancers for one of his night clubs.  He has a partner, Julian Wilde (Cedric Hardwicke), who functions as his secretary and accountant, and who lives in the same house with Fleming.  Eventually, Sandra and Fleming fall in love and plan to marry.  But before that happens, she answers several ads with no result.

Finally, she goes to work as a maid where she is introduced to Dr. Nicholas Moryani (Joseph Calleia), who is looking for women willing to go to South America.  The women are forced to become night club hostesses or servants.  But after Temple has him arrested, he says that Moryani would not have bothered with cryptic poems in carrying out his enterprise, and the killer or abductor they are looking for is still out there.

After incriminating evidence is found in Fleming’s desk drawer, he is arrested.  But the real killer turns out to be Julian, of course.  He killed the women because he was jealous that they preferred Fleming over him.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this movie is the way it gives people acceptable motives by the censorship standards of the day, when we can readily discern the real motives that are at work.  In various ways, Julian is coded as a homosexual.  His last name is Wilde, the same as that of Oscar Wilde, the notorious homosexual of the nineteenth century.  He often holds a cigarette between his thumb and several fingers rather than between his index and middle finger, the way most people do.  It has an effeminate look.  And reading poetry was another subtle indicator of homosexuality in old movies.  In other words, Julian killed beautiful women because he hated the fact that Fleming was attracted to them instead of to him.

Also, the idea that the women were shipped all the way to South America just to be hostesses and maids is laughable.  Such women would have been forced into prostitution.

Judgment Night (1993)

In Judgment Night, we find that Frank (Emilio Estevez) is a married man with a recently born baby. That means it is time for him to settle down and forget about going out with the guys to have a good time. After all, his wife is stuck home with the baby, so why shouldn’t he be forced to stay home too? Instead of doing the right thing, however, he goes out with his three bachelor friends to see a boxing match, and for this sin he must pay. But if Frank must be punished for leaving the little lady at home with the baby, we know that his friend Ray (Jeremy Piven) is going to get the cinematic death penalty, because he has a pistol stashed in his RV.

They get stuck in traffic and take a shortcut through the Chicago slums, see a man murdered, and must flee from the killers who don’t want any witnesses. Since the police seem to have abandoned this part of town, we find it hard to understand what the killers are worried about. Fortunately, they are worried, because that means the rest of the movie consists of the four friends being chased through the slums or trying to take a stand and fight back.

With few exceptions, if a civilian in a movie has a gun that he bought himself, he must die, and that is what happens to Ray. However, civilians are allowed to use a gun effectively if they did not buy it themselves, but either someone else buys it for them or they opportunistically pick up the gun of the person who owned it, and that is what happens here. Ray’s friends pick up his gun and use it to fight the killers.

Frank manages to survive the evening, but he has learned his lesson, vowing to stay home with the wife and baby from now on.

Gloria (1980)

From the very beginning, Gloria strains credulity. Jack Dawn (Buck Henry) is an accountant who works for the mob.  He has been keeping a record of certain transactions so that he could inform on the mob to the FBI.  He tells the mob about these secret records he has been keeping, but then says that he was just kidding. There is simply no way to make sense of why he would do that.  But once he has let the mob know about these secret records, he should have called the police and then the FBI to get in the witness protection program, which is presumably what he was planning on doing anyway. Instead, he gives the book to his son, Phil (John Adams), as if he is doing him a favor.

All right, Jack is stupid, and we will let it go at that. Gloria (Gena Rowlands) lives in an apartment on the same floor, and Jack sends Phil over there with the book.  Gloria used to be a mistress of a mobster, so she knows the score.  The simplest thing for her to do is to just hand over the book to the mob right away, but inexplicably she does not. She is not willing to go to the police for help, so what does she think she and Phil will do with the book? The reason she says she cannot go to the police for protection is that the mobsters are her friends. But when a car full of mobsters pulls up next to her while she is walking along the street, saying they want to talk to her, she pulls out a gun and shoots all five of them. I guess it is all right to kill your friends, but not to get the police to protect you from them.

When Gloria eventually hands over the book, the mobsters say they still need to kill the kid, to make an example of him. The problem with that is that it is a cliché that the Mafia leaves the women and children alone, primarily because killing family members invites retribution. So, this determination to kill a young child is not believable.  After all, they had already made an example of Phil’s family, killing his father, mother, sister, and grandmother.

Gloria decides to take Phil to Pittsburg with her. But then it occurs to her that the Mafia is probably in Pittsburg too. No kidding. The thing for her to do would be to go to some small town no one has ever heard of in another part of the country, like Kerrville, Texas, population just over 20,000.  But that never occurs to her.

Finally, just as the plot makes no sense, the dialogue between Gloria and Phil is unnatural. I could feel the heavy hand of John Cassavetes, who directed this movie and wrote the script, making it all up with little regard for realism.

Blackboard Jungle (1955) and Lean on Me (1989)

If you ask most people which movie the song “Rock Around the Clock” makes them think of, it will not likely be the movie of the same name made in 1956.  In that movie, a lifeless, ridiculous plot acts as a frame story to showcase some rock-and-roll bands when that kind of music was becoming popular in the 1950s. Young people in their rebellious stage like to shock their elders, so naturally we have a scene in which Bill Haley and the Comets perform at a prestigious and very proper girls school, scandalizing the matronly chaperones. The Comets wear suits, singing songs without suggestive lyrics or hip movements, but no matter, because the beat alone is indecent. So the movie has it both ways, allowing teenagers to enjoy the fantasy of shocking their elders, while the real elders watching the movie in the theaters would be reassured that rock-and-roll was quite harmless.

But there was another movie, made a year earlier, that most people associate with that classic number, and that was Blackboard Jungle.  The movie begins with an exculpatory prologue.  Such prologues were supposed to justify the depiction of immoral or degenerate behavior by the need to bring such matters to the attention of the public as a necessary first step to remedy the problem.  These prologues were disingenuous, to say the least, about as convincing as a statement expressing concern about the prevalence of pornography in our society and the need to make the public aware of the harm that it is doing, and then using that statement as a prologue to Behind the Green Door (1972).  These prologues disappeared after the Production Code was replaced by the ratings system in the late 1960s.

They are to be distinguished from the ex post facto prologues that now appear before the presentation of movies that never had them when first seen by the public.  The first one I recall seeing was for The Godfather Saga, which aired on television in 1977.  NBC added a prologue saying something to the effect that not all Italian-Americans were a bunch of gangsters. These prologues are not always in the form of the written word, but sometimes take the form of a discussion providing the proper social context and obligatory denouncement of the attitudes and values embodied in these films.  TCM did this for The Birth of a Nation (1915) about twenty years ago.  Notably, HBO recently chose to do this for Gone With the Wind (1939).  This was brought about by an opinion piece penned by John Ridley, who wrote the screenplay for 12 Years a Slave (2013).  He felt it would be unseemly to allow people to watch an unvarnished presentation of Gone With the Wind when they should be watching his 12 Years a Slave for their enlightenment and moral improvement.  But you can’t talk people out of enjoying a great movie.  Ridley’s movie may have truth on its side, but people will still be watching Gone With the Wind long after 12 Years a Slave has been forgotten.

The prologue of Blackboard Jungle justifies the movie we are about to see by deploring the scourge of juvenile delinquency and by the need to make us aware of its existence.  But while the words on the screen are somber and serious, what we hear while reading them is an exciting drum solo.  And as noted above in discussing the movie Rock Around the Clock, just that rock-and-roll beat alone was enough to worry the chaperones at a high school dance.  The animal rhythm induces movement in our bodies, making us want to get out of our chairs and dance, just as teenagers did in the aisles when this movie first came out.  Before the prologue has even finished, juvenile delinquency has been glamorized.

Then the movie proper begins and so does the song.  It fades out a little with the end of the credits.  We see Richard Dadier (Glenn Ford), who has just gotten off a bus.  In the background, we see children in bathing suits playing in the water issuing from a fire hydrant that has been opened.  One child, in a bathing suit, who seems to be about six years old, sees his mother and runs toward her.  She is angry.  “Come here!  What’s the matter?” she says as she grabs him while shaking her other upturned hand at him.  “You wanna be a bum?  Come here!”

We can hardly think of this child as a juvenile delinquent.  But the scene is emphatic by position, the mother’s words being the first bit of dialogue in this movie.  Her hand gesture and her use of the word “bum” lets us know she is Italian.  This is the first indication that juvenile delinquency is an ethnic problem.

Dadier crosses the street, and we get our first glimpse of North Manual High School, a vocational school where he hopes to get a job.  It is behind an iron fence, looking like the bars of a cage.  The school is for male teenagers only, but as the music picks up again, which has now become impossibly diegetic, we see two pairs of male students dancing what at that time was called “the bop,” but which is essentially jitterbug or swing.  In some movies, two boys dancing together would have homosexual implications, but that is not the case here.

In fact, it is Dadier who is marked as effeminate, when Artie West (Vic Morrow) whistles at him as one would at a pretty girl.  The fact his name is presumably French, being pronounced \dah-dē-ā\, doesn’t help, for it feeds into the prejudice, often seen in the movies, that anyone who is French cannot be a real man.  Even to be able to pronounce French words correctly is enough to create suspicion about someone’s manhood.  That is why John Wayne’s characters might be able to speak Spanish or the Comanche language fluently, but he always made a point of mispronouncing any word or name that was French.  It also doesn’t help that Dadier’s name sounds like the slang expression “Daddy-O,” which makes him the butt of much humor later on.

All the other guys on the grounds are moving with the music, including those shooting craps.  They are an ethnically diverse bunch, consisting of Irish, Italians, Puerto Ricans, and African-Americans.  Except for the black students, most of them have greaser haircuts.  A pretty blonde comes walking down the street, passing by the iron bars of the fence, trying to ignore the students.  One student uses a trashcan lid to keep the beat of the music, while others leer, whistle, and gesture.  One guy in particular has a bottle of soda pop, which he holds at his crotch, as he might an erect penis.  As she walks by, he flips some of the liquid out, simulating an ejaculation.

Dadier enters the school and goes to the offices, hoping to get a job teaching English.  That’s another effeminate indicator.  Maybe things have changed by now, but back in the 1950s, most English teachers in high school were women.  And this was a choice made by the screenwriter, or rather, Evan Hunter, the author of the novel this movie was based on.  He could have had Dadier teach mathematics or one of the manual trades like carpentry, but he deliberately picked English instead.

Dadier is nervous and unsure of himself while being interviewed by Principal Warneke, who notes that Dadier went to college at a “girls school,” which is another hint at his effeminate appearance and manner.  Dadier explains that exceptions were made for veterans after the war, his having served in the Navy.  It might be thought that Dadier’s masculinity is being redeemed somewhat by the fact that he fought in World War II, but if this were the point, the script would have had him say he was in the Army or the Marines.  Instead, there is an association of homosexuality with the Navy, so his service in that branch does nothing to counteract the suggestions of effeminacy.  Of course, Dadier is played by Glenn Ford, so we in the audience have no doubts about his manhood, but the people in the movie don’t know that yet.

Dadier speaks in a voice so soft that Warneke, speaking loudly and holding a ruler, almost as if he is going to swat Dadier with it, suggests he won’t be heard at the back of the class.  Dadier notes that he did some acting on the stage in college, and he could be heard on the back row.  As a demonstration, he quotes lines from Henry V:

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger….

That’s all Dadier quotes, but the rest of the speech goes on in that vein, encouraging the men to “Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage.”  Warneke notes that the speech is apt for the job, and Dadier is hired.  When Dadier asks about the discipline problem in the school, Warneke bristles at the suggestion, saying there is no discipline problem.

Dadier goes to meet the other teachers, who have collected in the gymnasium, one of whom is Jim Murdock (Louis Calhern).  His twelve years of teaching at that school have dispelled any illusions he might once have had about education.  He is now the school cynic.  We see him idly hitting a punching bag, saying he’s getting ready for the fall term.  One of the other teachers sneers at Principal Warneke’s denial that there is a discipline problem at the school, to which Murdock replies that there is no discipline problem at Alcatraz either.  Another new teacher suggests instilling obedience in these students with a ruler, reminding us of the one Warneke was holding, but Murdock says if you try that on one of these students, he’ll take the ruler away from you and beat you to death with it.  When one teacher suggests the possibility of teaching in an all-girls school as a safer alternative, Murdock advises him to think of those twenty-year jail sentences that go with it. He apparently has a dim view of any man’s ability to resist the advances that would inevitably be made by those love-starved girls.

This school, he says, and those like it are the garbage can of the educational system.  It’s the job of the teachers to keep a lid on that garbage can for a few hours a day so women can walk the streets without being attacked.  This recalls the earlier scene where a student repeatedly banged the lid down on the garbage can to the beat of the music while the pretty blonde walked by, just outside the iron bars of the fence.  At this point, another new teacher, Lois Hammond, says there must be some students who want to learn.  She is good looking and wears a tight sweater.  Murdock says she’s just asking for trouble, being dressed like that.

When Dadier says to him, “Say, these kids, they can’t all be bad, can they?” Murdock replies, “No. Why?”  Later in the movie, a teacher notes with surprise that these students don’t even know their multiplication tables, to which Murdock replies, “The only thing they know how to multiply is themselves.”  When asked how these students are ever graduated, Murdock says, “Graduated?  They just get to be eighteen.  Then they’re thrown out to make room for more of the same kind.”

As Dadier looks over the classroom he will be teaching in, he meets Josh Edwards, his opposite in terms of the masculine-feminine dimension.  For one thing, his name tells us he is Anglo-Saxon, not French.  For another, he teaches mathematics.  Again, things may be different now, but in the 1950s, most mathematics teachers in high school were men, just as most English teachers were women.  Finally, his reference to landing in Salerno tells us he was in the army during the war, as opposed to Dadier’s being in the navy.  And yet, he comes across as weak.  He is naïve, idealistic, and excited about teaching the students he just knows will be eager to learn.  We feel a sense of dread, knowing that he is doomed. And indeed, he is foolish enough to bring in his irreplaceable collection of swing records to play for the students, being sure they will enjoy them.  In a way, he is right.  They really enjoy it when Artie West starts whirling the records around the room, smashing them into pieces.

That night, Dadier has dinner at a restaurant with his wife Anne (Anne Francis), who is four-months pregnant.  She is worried, since she already lost one baby.  He tells her that there is nothing to worry about, that the baby will have her looks and his brains.  It’s amusing to hear how innocently those sexist lines were delivered in old movies.  After dinner, they step outside, just as some teenagers come drag racing down the street, sideswiping a car and flipping it over on its side just feet from where Dadier and Anne are standing.  This is the first indication that it’s going to be a struggle getting her through her pregnancy in this neighborhood.

When school begins the next Monday, everyone assembles in the auditorium.  At the microphone is Mr. Halloran (Emile Meyer), the one teacher in the school that seems to belong there.  He comes across as being so tough that none of the students would dare mess with him.  To get things started in that noisy room, he yells, “Shut up!”  And when he says “first,” he pronounces it \foist\.  The joke is that he is the one that teaches public speaking.  But in that school, that is just the kind of public speaking that is needed.

Dadier escorts the students in his homeroom class to the classroom, making the mistake of giving them orders, like, “No talking,” that they know they can flout with impunity.  Halloran would have yelled, “Shut up!” but Dadier is no Halloran.  A teenager of slender build comes out of the restroom with tears coming down his face.  When Dadier asks him what the problem is, he looks at all the toughs standing around and says, “Nothing.”  Dadier decides to go into the restroom to see what is going on.  Just before he walks in the door, we hear Gregory Miller (Sidney Poitier) asking another guy why he made the kid cry, so we know Miller is the good guy in this school.  But Dadier doesn’t know it yet, and he has an ambivalent attitude toward Miller, not being sure what to make of him.  He has no ambivalence about Artie West, however, with whom he shares an increasing mutual animosity.

Murdock gave the new teachers two rules to live by:  Don’t be a hero, and don’t turn your back on the class.  But Dadier breaks the second rule as he writes his name on the blackboard, with an explanation as to how to pronounce it.  Suddenly, a baseball is thrown at him so hard that, though it misses him, it breaks the slate of the blackboard.

By the end of that day, Dadier violates Murdock’s first rule, the one about not being a hero, when he saves Lois from being raped by one of the students.  Trying to get away from Dadier, he crashes through a window, but Dadier drags him back in.  The student’s face is cut in various places.  That night, when he tells Anne about what happened, she says that Lois was just asking to be raped, given the way she was dressed.  Dadier must have described that tight sweater.  By the next day, the story of how Dadier beat up that kid has lost nothing in the telling, leading all the students to become especially hostile to Dadier.  West arranges for his gang to beat up Dadier, with Edwards as collateral damage, causing Dadier to miss a week from teaching class.  He refuses to quit, however.  We understand that.  Dadier is the kind of man we expect to fight back.  What we don’t understand is why Edwards still ends up bringing in his collection of records.

Dadier is taken on a tour of another school by its principal, who was one of his professors in college. What a bunch of polite, well-mannered, well-dressed students they are, attending to their lessons, right after singing “The Star Spangled Banner.” Now, I’m not going to say that all these students had ancestors that came over on the Mayflower, because I did spot one black student and maybe one that was Italian.  The students are seen doing their Latin lessons and carrying out experiments in the chemistry laboratory.  But more important than the fact that most of the students are white and intelligent is the fact that the school has both boys and girls in it.  Girls are a moderating influence on boys.  That is why I always shudder when I hear people argue that students do better when they attend an all-boys or all-girls school. The girls may do better in an all-girls school, but without girls around, boys become even more brutal than they already are.  I learned that every school day during the inevitable hour of physical education, always the low point of my day.  Anyway, the principal offers Dadier a job teaching at that school.  I would have gotten on my knees and wept tears of gratitude, but Dadier does the manly thing and returns to his “jungle.”

A police detective tries to get Dadier to identify the students that beat him up, wanting him to press charges.  We don’t know whether he really couldn’t see who it was in the dark, as he says, or whether he has decided to handle the situation himself.  In either event, he doesn’t seem up to it, for he starts losing his temper, even to the point of snatching the ruler out of Warneke’s hand when accused of using racial epithets in the classroom.  It was in the context of a discussion about insulting others with ethnic slurs, in which he gave explicit examples. We believe his protestations of innocence when he claims that he has no prejudices, but was only trying to make a point.  And yet, when he unfairly accuses Miller of reporting him to Warneke, he says, “You black…,” before catching himself, horrified to realize that he harbors those deep-seated prejudices that he thought he was free of.  As a further indication that he is losing it, he berates the other teachers for being more concerned with avoiding trouble than with actually teaching, though he admits he isn’t doing any better than they are.

There is a whole subplot concerning Lois, who wants to have sex with Dadier.  She is rather obvious about it, and West makes use of this by sending letters to Anne and calling her on the phone, telling her that her husband is having an affair with Lois, which isn’t true.  She becomes so stressed out, she goes into labor, and the baby is born premature.  While Anne is in the hospital, Dadier finds out about the letters, making him so angry that he wants to quit.  He vents his spleen to Murdock, who tries to argue him out of quitting, saying Dadier was finally getting through to the students, that they were even doing better in his class.  And there is a similar reversal with Anne, who is still in the hospital.  She wanted him to quit and get a job teaching at the good school, but just as he’s trying to tell her he is going to quit, she tells him she’s glad he didn’t quit, that she was wrong. Then the doctor comes in and tells them their baby son will be fine.  It is New Year’s Eve, and we sense that Dadier, having reached bottom, is now on his way back up.

I noted above that there were several indicators that Dadier was effeminate.  Had the baby been a girl, that would have been another such indicator.  I knew a guy once whose wife had a baby girl. Upon hearing about it, a woman he worked with said to him, “You mean you weren’t man enough to have a boy!”  Not many would admit to having the prejudice this woman did, but deep down, a lot of people regard the sex of a baby as a reflection on the father’s manhood.  There is even a crazy theory to rationalize these feelings, based on a study of rats. It goes something like this:  alpha males will tend to have male offspring, since they will also be alpha males, and thus get access to all the females; beta males, on the other hand, will tend to have female offspring, since females will get pregnant no matter what.  That way the reproductive potential of a male rat’s offspring will be maximized regardless of whether he is an alpha or a beta.  Whatever the validity of that study, when it comes to humans, the sex of a baby is just a matter of chance.  But in a movie, the sex of a baby is a choice made by the screenwriter.  The fact that the screenwriter chose to make the baby a boy is another indication that things are about to turn around.

The problem is not solved by making the school go co-educational like the good school. Rather, the movie’s solution is to concentrate all the evil into Artie West, and then get rid of him.  The detective that tried to get Dadier to press charges after he was beaten up gives a sociological explanation for juvenile delinquency, saying that these teenagers were just little children during the war, when their fathers were in the army, and their mothers were working in the defense plants.  No home life, no church life.  So, they formed gangs as a kind of family.  The result was that the gang leaders have taken the place of their parents.  And in this school, that means West.

It turns out that West wouldn’t have been bothered by Dadier’s pressing charges anyway.  The way West sees it, if he obeys the law, he’ll get drafted and maybe get his head blown off in some war; if he breaks the law and spends a year in jail, the army won’t want him.  That’s the way to stay alive.

When Dadier returns to school with the beginning of the new year, the moment for the showdown has arrived.  When West flagrantly copies answers from another student’s paper, Dadier tells him to bring the paper to him.  West refuses.  Miller tells him to bring Dadier his paper, as if to say, it’s not worth making a fuss over.  West calls him “black boy,” telling him to mind his own business.  They both rise out of their chairs, ready to fight.  This is the first time we have see a break between the two of them.

Up till this point, we have been hearing the buzzing of the machine shop in the class above them. But now things become silent.  You would think that silence in a movie would best be represented by the absence of sound, but it is best represented by sounds we ordinarily would not hear.  The most well-known example is that of crickets, which is often employed humorously.  Here it is the slow tick of a clock, one tick every second.  The tension builds as Dadier, having indicated to Miller that he should let him handle things, moves toward West, telling him they are going to the principal’s office. West pulls out a wicked-looking, six-inch, switchblade stiletto and flicks it open.  This is just another way that this movie, while supposedly condemning juvenile delinquency, is actually glamorizing it.  There probably wasn’t a male teenager in the audience at that time who didn’t wish he had a knife like that.  In any event, the students get out of their chairs, moving toward the periphery of the room, trying to stay out of the way.

Miller warns Dadier, “Take it easy, chief!  He’s crazy.  He’s high.  He’s floating on Sneaky Pete wine.”  Another student, Morales, says with alarm, “He’s going to kill him.”  It is at this point that most of the students in the class realize things are going too far.  One exception is Belazi, who tries to sneak up on Dadier from behind, but Miller punches him in the gut, taking him out.

Suddenly, we see another black student standing next to Miller, as Miller tells someone in West’s gang that he can have a gang fight, if he wants one.  If you weren’t playing close attention, you wouldn’t have noticed that there were two other black students in the room other than Miller.  The view of the classroom never had them in the frame, except in this scene.  But now it occurs to us that, though there are several black students in the school, yet none of them are bad.  Before the Christmas show, which Dadier was in charge of, we saw a group of them singing “Go Down Moses,” also known as “Oh!  Let My People Go,” a spiritual expressing a connection between the slavery of blacks in America and the slavery of the Hebrews in Egypt.  But that was about all we see of them. None of them were part of the gang that beat up Dadier and Edwards, for example.  This should not surprise us. Perhaps starting with The Negro Soldier (1944), the movies began portraying African-Americans in a more positive light, giving them roles of people with the same intelligence and moral character as whites, allowing them to break out of such categories as coons, bucks, and toms.

Let’s take another look at the four ethnic groups in this movie.  Each one has a representative character:  for the Irish, West; for the Italians, Belazi; for the Puerto Ricans, Morales; and for the African-Americans, Miller.  The order in which I have listed these four groups corresponds to increasing degrees of discrimination experienced by them during the 1950s.  Because the Irish and the Italians were experiencing the least amount of discrimination at this time, the movie felt safe in having all the juvenile delinquents come from these two groups.  The converse is not true, however. Not all the Irish and Italians are bad students.  Santini, for example, is Italian, but he is a nice guy, and he is the one that takes out Belazi with the flag pole when Belazi picks up the switchblade after Dadier knocks it out of West’s hand.  And the kid that was crying on account of being bullied, early in the movie, appeared to be Irish.

As the representative of the Puerto Ricans, Morales is likeable, harmless, and funny.  And he is the one that, after picking up the switchblade when dropped by Belazi, drives it into the top of a desk and then breaks off the blade.  In general, as with the black students, none of the Puerto Ricans are portrayed as juvenile delinquents.

Belazi aside, not even West’s gang wants anything to do with him once West pulls out that switchblade.  Realizing he is alone, West begins to show fear.  When Dadier gets hold of him and starts banging him against the blackboard, right near the spot where the baseball West threw at him broke the slate, West says repeatedly, “Not here!” for he feels humiliated and doesn’t want the other students to witness this.  When it is over, Dadier takes West and Belazi to the principal’s office.  As they leave the room, West puts his thumb to his mouth, an infantile gesture.

That’s a little too much. Leave the poor guy some dignity!  I would rather West have taken his beating like a man, but I suppose the movie needed to put him down in a big way.

In the final scene, we see Dadier and Miller outside North Manual High School, having a friendly conversation.  Dadier has decided to keep teaching there, and Miller has decided to stay until he graduates.  Then we hear “Rock Around the Clock” start up again as we watch Miller walking on down the street, looking cool.  Dadier smiles and then heads for home.

Another movie about a tough school is Lean on Me.  It was made in 1989, long after the term “juvenile delinquency” had become quaint.  There is a prologue at the beginning of this movie too, but it is not exculpatory, just a statement to the effect that what we are about to see is a true story.  When the movie proper starts, we see Joe Clark (Morgan Freeman) teaching class at Eastside High School in 1967. His students are intelligent, well-groomed, and well-behaved. The boys wear dress shirts with neckties.  This could easily be the good school that Dadier went to visit right after he was beaten up.

Clark quits because the teachers union has sold out to the school board or something vague like that. Twenty years later, he is the principal of a grade school, where gum stuck under the desk is what passes for a discipline problem.  Back at Eastside High, however, the situation has become so bad it makes the one in Blackboard Jungle look like the blackboard tropical rainforest. The students are the meanest, most vicious bunch of high-school hoodlums ever displayed on the big screen.  So, whereas in Blackboard Jungle, there was a contrast between two different schools at the same time, here the contrast is between the same school at two different times.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot to mention one more difference:  much like the good school in Blackboard Jungle, all the clean-cut, intelligent students in Eastside High in 1967 were white; most of the students in the school twenty years later are black, many are brown, and a mere handful are white.

When I first started watching this movie, I wondered if it had been produced by the Ku Klux Klan, because it comes across as a racist’s worst nightmare, a depiction of what happens when you let the you-know-what take over. But since the story is true, I guess those were the facts, and the people making the movie just went with it. And it helped that Clark was African American himself, which offset the racist implications. And while we are on the subject, you know that grade school with the chewing gum problem?  All those children were white as well.

Anyway, when Clark is asked to become the principal to help improve the students’ test scores, I wondered how he could possibly do anything with them. Well, I don’t want to take anything away from Clark, but not only does he have a bunch of burly security guards with him when he arrives, but on the second day, he also expels all the troublemakers, about three hundred of them.  And he carries around a baseball bat like some kind of Buford Pusser from Walking Tall (1973), which is definitely a step up from Warneke and his ruler.  Anybody could straighten out a school with dictatorial powers like that. Think how much Dadier could have accomplished in Blackboard Jungle if, backed up by his own goon squad, he could have expelled West and his gang on the second day of class.

And teachers that don’t do exactly what Clark tells them to do are suspended or fired at will.  By the time he is through, this school doesn’t even have a chewing gum problem.  In the end, the remaining students, who are still mostly black and brown, are seen to be basically good students that end up doing well on their test scores.  This counteracts the initial impression that Eastside High was having problems because the student body no longer consisted of white students only.  But if the movie has ceased to be an argument for white nationalism, it has now become an argument for fascism.

Toward the end, a girl tells him she is pregnant, and he tells her he will talk to her about it later. We never hear that conversation or find out what she did about it. That way those who are pro-life can imagine her keeping the baby or giving it up for adoption, and those who are pro-choice can imagine her having an abortion. Hollywood has always known how to have things both ways.

By the way, just in case you are wondering what happened to all those students that were expelled by Clark, they all got themselves enrolled in North Manual High School.

Dirty Harry (1971)

The title character of Dirty Harry, Inspector Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood), is a well-known cliché in the movies: a police detective who chafes under all the rules and regulations that get in the way of his catching criminals. For example, in the movie Dragnet (1954), Officer Frank Smith (Ben Alexander) asks his partner Sergeant Joe Friday (Jack Webb) why the laws always protect the criminals, to which Friday responds, “Because the innocent don’t need them.” This attitude is rather widespread, unfortunately. An innocent man, the thinking goes, would never insist on having an attorney present while being interrogated by the police, would never demand to see a warrant before letting the police into his house, and would never plead the Fifth Amendment and refuse to testify at his own trial. Only criminals do that sort of thing.

For people who think that way, Harry Callahan is their kind of cop, because he never lets something as fussy as a bunch of rights get in the way of catching the bad guys. In one scene in the movie, the district attorney tells Harry he violated several of the suspect’s rights, namely the ones embodied in the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. Harry says, “I’m all broken up about that man’s rights.” The district attorney responds that he should be, because the man will have to be released as a result, none of the evidence collected without a warrant being admissible, because that is the law. Harry says, “Then the law is crazy!” Harry then asks of the deceased victim, “And Ann Mary Deacon, what about her rights?” Thus does Harry give voice to much of the frustration felt by the audience that criminals have rights at the expense of the rights of their innocent victims.

The district attorney in that scene refers to the Miranda ruling, which requires that a suspect be informed of his rights to an attorney and the right to remain silent. Before the Miranda ruling it used to be habeas corpus that conservatives hated. In the movie Scarface (1932), for example, Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) is arrested and then released on what Tony jokingly refers to as a writ of hocus pocus.

The circumstance in which Harry violated all that suspect’s rights involved torture, and this movie brings out all the necessary conditions for torture to be justified in a movie. When depicted in film, torture is usually portrayed as something evil, something done by Nazis, for instance. But Dirty Harry is one of the first movies to present torture as being good. Early in the movie, the “Scorpio Killer” has buried a little girl alive with only enough oxygen to last her a few hours, and then demands ransom for her release. Harry agrees to deliver the money. When he does, the serial killer announces that he intends to let the little girl die. When Harry catches up with him, he tortures the killer until he tells him where the girl has been buried.

Even if we disapprove of torture in real life, we cannot help but approve of Dirty Harry’s actions while watching the movie. And this is for five reasons: (1) We are certain the man is guilty. Dirty Harry knows, as do we, that the man he is torturing is the Scorpio Killer. (2) The punishment fits the crime. The Scorpio Killer is evil, and clearly deserves the pain Harry inflicts on him. (3) There is a time element. In just a few hours, the girl will die, so the information must be extracted from him immediately. (4) The situation is ad hoc. Although early in the movie a doctor jokes about Harry beating a confession out of a suspect, it is our sense that he does not routinely torture criminals. (5) The torture is effective. We find out later that the girl was already dead, but Harry does get the information concerning where she is buried.  More on this topic is covered in my essay “The Evolution of Torture in the Movies.”

A few years before Dirty Harry was produced, another movie employing a similar type of police detective was Madigan (1968). Early in the movie, another detective says of the title character (played by Richard Widmark), “Madigan doesn’t always go by the book, but he’s a good cop,” thereby spelling out the cliché referred to in the opening paragraph, which is inept, dramatically speaking. Fortunately, Dirty Harry does not tell us Harry is that kind of cop. It shows us through his words and actions. That is just one of the reasons why Dirty Harry is a great movie, while Madigan is just second rate.

But it does raise the question, will we ever see a movie about a police detective who never violates a suspect’s rights, who never uses undue force, who never enters a suspect’s house without a warrant, and who believes that it is more important to obey the law than catch the bad guys, and as a result, the criminals often escape justice? In other words, will we ever see a movie in which someone says, “Detective Fussbottom is a bad cop, but at least he always goes by the book”? Probably not, but if we ever do see such a movie, it will have to be a comedy.