From “Crime in the Streets” to “West Side Story”

Watched a clumsy but fascinating film called Crime in the Streets. It started as a 1955 live TV play by Reginald Rose presented by the Elgin Hour, directed by Sidney Lumet. A young John Cassavetes starred as Frankie, a member of a street gang called the Hornets. Robert Preston was featured as an idealistic social worker who tries to reform him. Reginald Rose, the writer, is best known for writing 12 Angry Men for TV and film and helping to create the TV series, The Defenders. Not being able to find a recording of TV version of Crime in the Streets, I can’t comment on his original script, but clearly there was something there that attracted interest in expanding it into a film.  Perhaps the success of Rebel Without a Cause attracted interest in pursuing the trend of pictures about juvenile delinquents.  (Anybody remember Jerry Lewis’s The Delicate Delinquent?)  The connection would be made explicit by casting Sal Mineo, one of the stars of Rebel, as a similarly conflicted young man in Crime.
 
Originally, Lumet was going to make his feature debut with the film version of Crime, but he got sidetracked, and he later had the good fortune to make his feature debut instead with Rose’s 12 Angry Men.  Somehow, Don Siegel became attached as the new director. Siegel at his best (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Line-Up and The Beguiled) was a muscular, straightforward storyteller. But, despite some strong staging and camera work, he couldn’t overcome the preachiness of Rose’s screenplay. Cassevetes played Frankie again. Robert Preston, otherwise occupied when it came time to film was replaced by James Whitmore, who was stuck with the worst of the moralizing.
 
The set design is more interesting than the text. Siegel had one huge set built to convey the world of Frankie — a street, stores, an alley, fire escapes, Frankie’s apartment. (It couldn’t help but remind me of the settings of the film version of Elmer Rice’s Street Scene and Sidney Kingsley’s Dead End, both of which also dealt with crime in tenements packed with the poor.) With the exception of a few shots at the beginning, the entire film was shot on this set, and we get to know it in detail.
 
The script is awkward, earnest, clunky. What I found most interesting is how scenes from this resembled scenes in West Side Story. There is an extended passage in which the members of the Hornets mock the social workers who want to help them. You expect them to break into “Officer Krupke.”  The actor who on TV played a gang member called Glasses (because, yes, he wore glasses) was David Winters. Soon after, Winters played Baby John in the original stage production of West Side Story, and later played A-Rab in the film. I can’t imagine the resemblance of these scenes escaped him.
 
Also in the cast of both the TV and film versions was Mark Rydell, who later became a director who made some very good films indeed.  And, of course, Cassavetes wrote and directed some of the key American independent films.

About dgsweet

I write for and about theater. I spent a number of years as a resident playwright of a theater in Chicago which put up 14 of my plays, and I still think of Chicago as my primary theatrical home, though I actually live in New York. I serve on the Council of the Dramatists Guild. Between plays, I write books, most notably SOMETHING WONDERFUL RIGHT AWAY (about Second City), THE O'NEILL (about the O'Neill Center) and THE DRAMATIST'S TOOLKIT (a text on playwriting craft). I also occasionally perform a solo show called YOU ONLY SHOOT THE ONES YOU LOVE. I enjoy visiting theaters outside of New York. I can be reached at dgsweet@aol.com.
This entry was posted in 1950s TV Drama, Broadway, film adaptation, Golden Age of Television, movies, New York and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to From “Crime in the Streets” to “West Side Story”

  1. Richard L Warren says:

    Jeff, I love your intelligent, informed and detailed insights. Unfortunately I’m old enough to remember many of your references. Thanks.

  2. Kim DiJulio says:

    I was greatly moved by this film. Could have been recorded out of my kitchen; troubled young man, no direction, headed to drown in crime. I guess it never changes.

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