Sunday, 1 December 2019

SOCIAL UNREST GANGS AND GUNS : IVESON REVIEWS THE 1958 BAKER : CUSHING AND MCCALLUM DRAMA 'VIOLENT PLAYGROUND'


EVERY CITY HAS ITS DANGEROUS YOUTH! Stark explosive drama - as the CAMERAS LAY BARE the heart of a big city and probe the secrets of its Violent Playground  . . . 

MARK IVESON REVIEWS 
Starring Stanley Baker, Anne Heywood, Peter Cushing, David McCallum Directed by Basil Deardon
 


IT IS ALWAYS a pleasure to watch a Peter Cushing film for the first time, especially if it’s not horror related, and this gritty, if dated slice of social commentary is an interesting part of the actor’s movie portfolio.  


AFTER HIS TELEVISION success, Cushing’s burgeoning film career quickly gathered momentum with several high profile supporting roles. Had Hammer not intervened to make Cushing a star in The Curse of Frankenstein (1956), he would have still commanded some excellent film work throughout the late fifties, and in a variety of cinema genres.



VIOLENT PLAYGROUND is a British attempt to imitate the style of America’s popular juvenile delinquent films that included The Blackboard Jungle (1955), Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Crime in the Street (1956). It’s an important movie because it effectively presents the struggles of post war Britain, and is further emphasised by the striking use of locations, in this case the city of Liverpool. Val Guest later made excellent use of Manchester in Hammer’s Hell is a City (1960), and Sidney Hayers did the same for Newcastle in Payroll (1961). Interestingly enough, none of these films feature regional accents! 



THE SOCIAL REALISM in Violent Playground also pre-dates Jack Clayton’s Room at the Top (1959), a pivotal film that created the documentary style ‘kitchen sink’ drama that was influential in British cinema during the early sixties, and was followed by Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1961), John Schlesinger’s A Kind of Loving (1962) and Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life (1963).




THE PLOT:
DETECTIVE SERGEANT Jack Truman (Baker) is investigating the activities of an arsonist known as ‘Firefly.’ He is suddenly dropped form the case to be appointed juvenile liaison officer at a local inner city estate populated by mainly Irish families. Truman does not relish his new job because, being a bachelor, he knows nothing about kids.



A MEETING WITH twins Patrick and Mary Murphy (Fergal and Brona Boland, in their only film together) brings him to the attention of older brother Johnny (McCallum), leader of a street gang whose own activities seem to run parallel with his earlier investigation into arson attacks. The situation is further complicated by Truman’s emotional involvement with the twins’ older sister and guardian Cathie (Heyward). Also on hand is the tough but kindly priest (Cushing), who is aware of Johnny’s traumatic early life. This chain of events soon spiral out of control.


VIOLENT PLAYGROUND is a film of its time. It has dated, and some scenes are melodramatic, but it pulls no punches in showing the gritty realism of a working class area, and the increasing criminal activities of a younger generation left with no direction in life.  


THERE IS NOTHING feel good about the subject matter, and it is all down to producer Michael Relph and director Basil Deardon, who would later tackle the taboo subjects of racism in Sapphire (1959) and homosexuality in Victim (1961). The film has a nostalgic feel; all plain clothes cops wore trench coats and trilbies, the delinquents are a tad too well scrubbed and the ladies wore headscarves, but there are no stereotypes. 


THE CHINESE brother and sister (brilliantly played by real life siblings Michael Chow and Tsai Chin) are not ‘me so solly, no speaky English’ characters; it’s actually quite refreshing to see Tsai Chin not playing a double-agent or sinister daughter of a master criminal! Everyone is clearly defined and this is further enhanced by excellent performances from a well chosen cast.


PERHAPS THE MOST DISTURBING scene is where Johnny (why are all bad boys called Johnny in these movies?), armed with a machine gun, takes a class of school kids hostage. This uncomfortably echoes the recent shootings that have occurred in the States. It still makes for a tense and uncompromising climax. Basil Deardon directs with a sense of unease, and had it not been for the studio insisting on a happy ending, it could have ranked as a classic piece of British cinema. 



AS PREVIOUSLY STATED, the performances are excellent. Stanley Baker is his usual charismatic self, showing typical urban intensity mixed with the quiet authority of his position within the community. There is also a genuine chemistry between Baker and Anne Heywood, who is equally compelling in a somewhat underwritten role. 




SUPPORTING PERFORMANCES are of a typical high standard. Clifford Evans provides a nice touch of humour as the understanding headmaster, with John Slater being well served as Baker’s colleague. The Boland twins are a creepy pair; I wonder if they inspired Stanley Kubrick when he made The Shinning (1979)!
 


THE REAL STAR is David McCallum, who had previously worked with Baker in Hell Drivers (1955). At 24, his is a tad too old for Johnny, but his youthful good looks and fierce intensity makes him a passable teenager. As one of the new angry young men of British cinema McCallum shows real star promise with an aggressively powerful performance. Sadly future films failed to make use of his unique presence, and he subsequently got blander with each role, despite his major success in Hollywood in the mid sixties. 




WE NOW COME TO PETER CUSHING. As versatile as he was in period roles, it is difficult to place the actor in this kind of film as his classical approach could not be further away from the modern method acting style seen in Violent Playground. That said he gives a first rate performance. Moving away from the Miles Malleson ecclesiastical bumblers from previous British films, Cushing’s priest is convincingly street wise, and looks at home in the surrounding area. Although understanding of Johnny’s problems, he becomes a more forceful presence when confronting the boy during the climax. It is a winning turn, and one regrets Cushing not having more screen time. 



LOWER DOWN THE CAST we have Young Frankenstein himself, Melvyn Hayes, and comedian Freddie Starr, under his real name Freddie Fowell, as members of Johnny’s gang. You can’t miss Freddie; he’s the only one with a Scouse accent!
 




RELEASED IN 1958, Violent Playground did well in the UK and Europe, although it failed to do much business in America as the market for juvenile delinquent movies had pretty much been flooded by their home grown efforts. The success of The Beatles, and David McCallum’s TV popularity in The Man From UNCLE a few years later made Liverpool a popular city world wide, and as a result, the film got a belated Stateside release to reasonable box office success.




VIOLENT PLAYGROUND, is by no means a classic British movie, but it holds enough interest and does require repeated viewings. Of course it’s always wonderful to see Peter Cushing doing something against his usual style, and his performance here remains one of his best non horror efforts.


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