Ten Best Juvenile Delinquency Movies

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British quad movie poster: James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

Youth gone bad is a familiar theme in Hollywood. Here are ten classic juvenile delinquency movies that are sure to please film fans of the genre. Crazy, mixed-up kids! Please pass the popcorn, brass knuckles and switchblades…

Rebel Without a Cause (Warner Bros., 1955)

The big daddy-o among juvenile delinquency films, Rebel Without a Cause stars the incomparable James Dean as Jim Stark, with Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, Corey Allen, Dennis Hopper and Nick Adams also portraying troubled youth. There’s plenty of teenage angst and juvie action in this one, including underage drinking, gangs, tire-slashing, a knife fight pitting James Dean vs. Corey Allen, the infamous “chickie run” involving two cars careening toward a cliff and a police standoff at Griffith Park Observatory. Rebel Without a Cause roared into movie theaters on October 27, 1955. James Dean, however, was not at the premiere, having been killed in a car crash some four weeks earlier on September 30, 1955. “You’re tearing me apart!” an anguished Dean tells his “square” parents, Jim Backus and Ann Doran, in one of the movie’s famous scenes.

Director: Nicholas Ray

Review: “It is a violent, brutal and disturbing picture of modern teen-agers that Warner Brothers presents in its new melodrama at the Astor…Young people neglected by their parents or given no understanding and moral support by fathers and mothers who are themselves unable to achieve balance and security in their homes are the bristling heroes and heroines of this excessively graphic exercise.” – Bosley Crowther, The New York Times (10/27/55)

On DVD: Rebel Without a Cause Special Edition (Warner, 1999)

The Blackboard Jungle (MGM, 1955)

Based on the novel of the same name by Evan Hunter, The Blackboard Jungle premiered at New York City’s Loew’s State Theater on March 19, 1955. Glenn Ford stars as Richard Dadier, a U.S. Navy veteran who garners his first teaching assignment in the “combat zone” at a tough inner-city vocational high school. Playing the students in the film – with their real ages at the time listed in parenthesis (talk about no “child” left behind) – are Vic Morrow (26), Sidney Poitier (28), Paul Mazursky (25), Jameel Farah a.k.a. Jamie Farr (21), Danny Dennis (28) and Dan Terranova (25). The Blackboard Jungle shocked moviegoers of the era. One particularly disturbing scene takes place in the library, where a teacher is sexually assaulted by a student. The “kids” also trash the prized jazz record collection of educator Richard Kiley while Vic Morrow, as the sneering little punk Artie West, comes after Glenn Ford with a switchblade. The Blackboard Jungle, which also features Anne Francis, Louis Calhern and Margaret Hayes, gets off to a rousing start with a blaring rendition of Bill Haley and His Comets’ “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock.” But Happy Days this movie isn’t. “You ever try to fight thirty-five guys at one time, Teach?” Vic Morrow tells Glenn Ford. Calling all education majors!

Director: Richard Brooks

Review: “Glenn Ford, Morrow and Poitier are so real in their performances under the probing direction by Brooks that the picture alternatingly has the viewer pleading, indignant and frightened before the conclusion.” Variety (3/2/55)

On DVD: Controversial Classics Collection (Warner, 2005)

French grande movie poster: The Blackboard Jungle (1955)

Crime School (Warner Bros., 1938)

Humphrey Bogart stars as Deputy Commissioner Mark Braden, who takes over the reins of a troubled reform school from a sadistic warden. First, Bogie must win over the kids, who view him suspiciously as just another “screw.” The famous Dead End Kids join Bogart in the cast: Billy Halop, Bobby Jordan, Huntz Hall, Leo Gorcey, Bernard Punsly and Gabriel Dell. Gale Page plays Halop’s sister Sue and Bogie’s love interest in the film. One scene particularly stands out when an escaping Frankie (Halop) gets tangled up in a barbed wire fence during a driving rainstorm and is subsequently beaten with a whip. Ah, those Dead End Kids, with faces only a mother could love.

Director: Lewis Seiler

Review: “Typical Bowery Boys ‘juvi’ pulp – flirting with the dark side but they end up learning to be, basically, good eggs thanks to some positive intervention. Young Bogie and the lads fill their roles with usual charm.” Gary W. Tooze, DVDBeaver (2009)

On DVD: Crime School (Warner Bros., 2009)

The Cry Baby Killer (Allied Artists, 1958)

A 21-year-old Jack Nicholson, in his motion picture debut, appears as Jimmy Wallace – a.k.a. “The Cry Baby Killer.” Nicholson as the 17-year-old Wallace rumbles with a couple of bad-ass gang members over a girl (Carolyn Morrison). When one of the punks pulls out a revolver, it falls to the ground, with young Jimmy picking it up and plugging the two hoods. Thinking that he murdered the pair, a panicked Jimmy takes old Sam (Smoki Whitfield), Mrs. Maxton (Barbara Knudson) and her infant hostage as he seeks refuge in a storeroom. Lt. Porter (Harry Lauter) and his boys in blue respond to the hostage situation as a huge crowd gathers outside, with the cops eventually using tear gas to smoke Jimmy out.

Director: Jus Addiss

Review: “Jack Nicholson stars in his screen debut as Jimmy, a kid who accidentally shoots his ex-girlfriend’s slimy new boyfriend (Brett Halsey)…Cry Baby Killer is an OK juvenile delinquent movie that’s only notable for being Jack’s first movie. As cool as it is seeing him in such an early role, he unfortunately doesn’t get a lot of screen time.” – Mitch Lovell, The Video Vacuum (2010)

On DVD: The Cry Baby Killer Back-to-Back Jack Edition (Buena Vista, 2006)

Half sheet movie poster: The Cry Baby Killer (1958)

The Young Savages (United Artists, 1961)

Burt Lancaster stars as Hank Bell, an assistant district attorney in New York City who investigates the murder of a blind Puerto Rican boy by a trio of Italian-American teens. Racial tensions and gangs conspire to make this juvie melodrama a memorable one, with Dina Merrill, Edward Andrews, Vivian Nathan, Shelley Winters and Telly Savalas also in the cast. The troubled youths in the movie are portrayed by Luis Arroyo (Zorro), Richard Velez (Gargantua), John Davis Chandler (Arthur Reardon), Neil Nephew (Anthony “Batman” Aposto), et al. The movie is based on the Evan Hunter novel, A Matter of Conviction.

Director: John Frankenheimer

Review: “Poverty, ignorance, racial hatred, instability and insecurity are dutifully named and demonstrated as motivations behind the aggressions of the members of the Puerto Rican and Italian gangs (the Horsemen and the Thunderbirds) that constitute the rivals in this film. Director John Frankenheimer’s camera has described them realistically.” Bosley Crowther, The New York Times (5/25/61)

On DVD: Not commercially available

West Side Story (United Artists, 1961)

One of Hollywood’s greatest musicals, West Side Story stars Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno and George Chakiris as troubled youth in the Big Apple. It’s the Jets vs. the Sharks in this $6 million movie spectacular, with a stellar lineup of tunes and athletic dancing sprinkled among the gang rumbles, switchblades and romance. West Side Story scored big at the Academy Awards, winning ten Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Chakiris), Best Supporting Actress (Moreno) and Best Music. “Tonight,” “Maria” and “America” top the film’s impressive soundtrack. “When you’re a Jet, You’re a Jet all the way, From your first cigarette, To your last dyin’ day.”

Director: Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise

Review: “’West Side Story’ is a beautifully-mounted, impressive, emotion-ridden and violent musical which, in its stark approach to a raging social problem and realism of unfoldment, may set a pattern for future musical presentations. Screen takes on a new dimension in this powerful and sometimes fascinating translation of the Broadway musical to the greater scope of motion pictures.” – Whitney Williams, Variety (9/27/61).

On DVD: West Side Story Full Screen Edition (MGM, 2003)

Italian photobusta movie poster: West Side Story (1961)

The Delicate Delinquent (Paramount, 1957)

Jerry Lewis stars as Sidney L. Pythias, a youthful janitor who is picked up as a wannabe gang member during a police sweep. Officer Mike Damon (Darren McGavin) sees potential in young Sidney, who later enters the police academy and becomes a patrolman in his old neighborhood. But the rookie cop lands in hot water during a gang rumble when his service revolver is later identified as the gun that wounded young Artie (Richard Bakalyan) during the fight. Martha Hyer, Robert Ivers and Horace McMahon also appear in this comedy-drama, with Jerry Lewis and Darren McGavin turning in stellar performances.

Director: Don McGuire

Review: “With plainly the best of intentions, Jerry Lewis has made his first independent production a serious-message comedy. It is called ‘The Delicate Delinquent.’ It came to the Mayfair yesterday and the message is that it is better to be a respected policeman than a juvenile bum.” – Bosley Crowther (7/4/57)

On DVD: The Delicate Delinquent (Paramount, 2004)

Up the Down Staircase (Warner Bros., 1967)

Sandy Dennis gives a moving performance as Sylvia Barrett, a young English teacher who takes a job at a rough inner-city New York high school. The place of “higher learning” is Calvin Coolidge High, a dysfunctional institution where the bells ring at odd times, windows remain broken, school supplies go undelivered and the kids generally have no interest in their studies. Patrick Bedford, Eileen Heckart, Ruth White, Jean Stapleton and Sorrell Booke also appear, with Jeff Howard giving a good performance as troubled, dangerous teen Joe Ferone. In one memorable scene, a teacher is lauded for having served in the military police, something that will come in handy at turbulent Calvin Coolidge High School. “Disregard all bells,” Jean Stapleton’s Mrs. Sadie Finch repeatedly announces over the school intercom. Okay, but don’t disregard this picture, which won Sandy Dennis a Best Actress award at the Moscow International Film Festival.

Director: Robert Mulligan

Review: “Here is an honest film about one aspect of life as it is lived in our large cities. The school and the students come through with unmistakable authenticity. The camera is alert but not obtrusive, allowing the classroom to emerge spontaneously and not through stagy tricks, and everything is brought together by Miss Dennis’ quiet, natural, splendid performance.” – Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (7/25/67)

On DVD: Up the Down Staircase (Warner, 2007)

French lobby card: Sandy Dennis and Jean Stapleton in Up the Down Staircase (1967)

Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (New World, 1979)

The setting is Vince Lombardi High School, where rock ‘n’ roll-crazed students challenge the administration. The new principal is the uncool Miss Evelyn Togar (Mary Woronov), whose dislike for rock music sets up a confrontation with her charges. P.J. Soles, Vincent Van Patten, Clint Howard, Dey Young and the legendary punk rock band the Ramones all conspire to make executive producer Roger Corman’s Rock ‘n’ Roll High School a juvie classic. The soundtrack is absolutely rad, featuring such tunes as “Blitzkrieg Bop” (Ramones), “Teenage Depression” (Eddie & The Hot Rods), “Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room” (Brownsville Station), “School’s Out” (Alice Cooper) and “High School” (MC5). Ah, caught you singing along!

Director: Allan Arkush

Review: “’Rock ‘n’ Roll High School’ purports to be little more than summer fun, and, in its zanily unpretentious way, it is certainly that.” – John Rockwell, The New York Times (8/4/79)

On DVD: Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (Shout! Factory, 2010)

Hot Rods to Hell (MGM, 1967)

Fast cars, fast chicks and a pair of young hoodlums in a Corvette combine to make for a high-octane ride down juvie memory lane. Paul Bertoya (Duke) and Gene Kirkwood (Ernie) – along with party girl Mimsy Farmer (Gloria) – terrorize Dana Andrews and family (Jeanne Crain, Laurie Mock, Tim Stafford) on an isolated stretch of California desert highway. In their souped-up ‘Vette, the gang drives circles around Andrews in his square 1961 Plymouth Belvedere. But Andrews as the hapless Tom Phillips – with bad back, nagging wife, whining kids and all – manages to spring a vicious trap on the hot rod hellraisers.

Director: John Brahm

Review: “Neither ‘Hot Rods to Hell’ nor ‘Wild, Wild Planet,’ the double bill that opened yesterday in neighborhood theaters, is as bad as their labels portend. The first of these Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer color releases, heading the bill, is a harrowing account of the harassment of a nice, All-American family by some animalistic teen-agers, murderously careering around in flashy cars. This is a well-intentioned, but lumpy little picture.” – Bosley Crowther, The New York Times (8/10/67)

On DVD: Hot Rods to Hell (Warner, 2007)

Lobby card: Hot Rods to Hell (1967)

Twelve More Hollywood Juvenile Delinquency Film Classics

  • High School Confidential (1958)
  • The Principal (1987)
  • So Young, So Bad (1950)
  • Because They’re Young (1960)
  • High School Hellcats (1958)
  • Reform School Girl (1957)
  • The Incident (1967)
  • Teenage Gang Debs (1966)
  • High School Caesar (1960)
  • Live Fast, Die Young (1958)
  • Riot on Sunset Strip (1967)
  • The Warriors (1979)

British one sheet movie poster: The Warriors (1979)

Images Credit

  • All images courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries, Dallas, Texas
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