4.11.2011

Patriotic noir?

Two successive shots from the climactic scene of Richard Brooks' classic Blackboard Jungle (1955), in which an American flag becomes a symbolically loaded means of taking down greaser punk Belazi (Dan Terranova). It's one of several surprisingly, bluntly patriotic moments in this gritty, often cynical film, which perhaps inaugurated the inner-city-school sub-genre. It's a notoriously difficult film to classify. There's an affinity with film noir here, whether you choose to define noir as a period (it came out the same year as The Desperate Hours and Killer's Kiss) or a style (it's got a seedy urban setting, a knife fight in an alley, a femme fatale-ish teacher, and scenes that deal explicitly with such then-taboo topics as rape and miscarriage). There's also a strong social-drama bent to the film, dealing as it also does with juvenile delinquency, integration, racism, and the underpayment of teachers (an issue that also inspired Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life). It's curious, though, for a social drama to be so dark, or for film noir to put such faith in any kind of American institution or social system, or even in the very notion of "reform." Perhaps this was the "lateness" of film noir starting to show. But if Blackboard Jungle is an example of "late noir," it also marked some beginnings: it's often credited as the first Hollywood film to feature rock music (it's still somehow shocking to hear "Rock Around the Clock" playing over credits where one would typically hear an orchestra with strings), and it offered a breakthrough performance for Sidney Poitier (almost thirty years old at the time, but passing for a teenager; pictured). And whereas noir tends to leave one feeling queasy and generally beaten down, we end here with a sly but exultant reprise of Bill Haley and the Comets as Poitier and Glenn Ford shake hands and part ways, smiling across a divide.

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