High School Confidential! (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by David Sterritt

Produced by Albert Zugsmith; directed by Jack Arnold; screenplay by Lewis Meltzer and Robert Blees; photographed by Harold J. Marzorati; art direction by William A. Horning and Hans Peters; edited by Ben Lewis; with Russ Tamblyn, Jan Sterling, John Drew Barrymore, Mamie Van Doren, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ray Anthony, Jackie Coogan, Charles Chaplin, Jr., Diane Jergens, Michael Landon, Burt Douglas, Jody Fair, Phillipa Fallon, Lyle Talbot, Robin Raymond, William Wellman, Jr., Texas Joe Foster, and Mel Welles. DVD, B&W, 85 min., 1958. An Olive Films release, http://www.olivefilms.com.

High School Confidential! You have to love that exclamation point! For the real hush-hush dope on secondary education, it promises, this is the movie to see.

And dope is the right word, because marijuana—also called weed, grass, pot, mary jane, and tea by various characters—is at the center of the story, which hit the screen in 1958. Three years earlier, viewers empathized with Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause and trekked through Richard Brooks’s The Blackboard Jungle, and now they could tsk-tsk at heedless teens risking ruin for a momentary thrill. “If you flake around with the weed,” a character warns, “you’ll end up using the harder stuff.” Is that a caution or a come-on? If you know your Fifties exploitation pictures, you know the answer is: both.

Directed by Jack Arnold, one of the great B-movie specialists, High School Confidential! starts with a bang. Behind the credits we see a peaceful thoroughfare in a California town, spread across the CinemaScope screen in unassuming black and white. It’s calm and quiet, with neatly dressed teenagers ambling down the road on their way to an ivy-draped school.

But the soundtrack hints at excitement, ringing out the title song in a style that sounds familiar. Sure enough, it’s Jerry Lee Lewis and his Pumpin’ Piano, who soon appear on a pickup truck followed by a throng of happy teenage fans. This won’t be a musically naive movie like Rebel Without a Cause or Laslo Benedek’s The Wild One (1953), where you always hear jazz or white-bread pop even though rock ’n’ roll was on its way to dominating the American airwaves. High School Confidential! follows the lead of The Blackboard Jungle, which pioneered the rock-music title song. We know we’re in good hands with Jerry Lee on board.

The plot kicks into gear when new kid Tony Baker comes to school, played by Russ Tamblyn, already a veteran of bad-boy pictures like Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy (1950) and Albert Band’s The Young Guns (1956). Tony is cute, confident, and cocky with a vengeance. In a matter of minutes, he infuriates the principal, hits on his English teacher, and challenges the leader of the Wheeler-Dealers, the school’s dominant clique. A transfer student from Chicago, he’s in his seventh year of high school, and not even nurturing teacher Arlene Williams (Jan Sterling) can make him buckle down. He lives with his aunt Gwen—a sexpot played by Mamie Van Doren in extremely tight sweaters—and his main priority is meeting “weedheads” who can tell him where to score some tea.

The better we know Tony, the shiftier he seems, and it becomes apparent that he’s more interested in selling dope than in using it himself. Weaseling his way into Wheeler-Dealer circles despite the hostility of its president, J. I. Coleridge (John Drew Barrymore), he befriends Joan Staples (Diane Jergens), a rich girl with a growing pot habit, and woebegone Doris (Jody Fair), who’s graduated to hard drugs that are wrecking her health. Eventually he meets the local kingpin, a middle-aged pusher called Mr. A, and arranges a major buy of pot, heroin, you name it.

New kid Tony Baker (Russ Tamblyn), his teacher Arlene Williams (Jan Sterling), and his sexpot aunt, Gwen (Mamie Van Doren)

New kid Tony Baker (Russ Tamblyn), his teacher Arlene Williams (Jan Sterling), and his sexpot aunt, Gwen (Mamie Van Doren)

By this time, High School Confidential! seems a short step away from Louis Gasnier’s infamous Reefer Madness (1936), but a major twist is in store. To test Tony’s narcotics cred, Mr. A offers him a shot of heroin he can’t refuse. Strangely, Tony sneaks a small rubber ball into the crook of his elbow, then covertly shoots the dope into the ball instead of his arm. The ruse fools Mr. A, but it gets the audience wondering what’s up. Moments later we find out: Tony Baker is actually Mike Wilson, an undercover cop sent from Chicago to bust Mr. A and his drug operation, which preys on kids too ingenuous, trusting, or lunkheaded to know what’s good for them.

Armed with this information, we are ready for the climax—fighting, shooting—and the edifying voice-over at the end, which I can’t resist quoting. “You have just seen an authentic disclosure of conditions that unfortunately exist in some of our high schools today,” says a stern-voiced narrator as Mike and the good kids zip away in his convertible. “But now Arlene will teach in a school that has cleansed itself of its ugly problem. Joan confines her smoking to ordinary cigarettes….” And then Jerry Lee comes back on the soundtrack! Great balls of fire!

The screenplay of High School Confidential! is preposterous, jammed with faux jive talk (“That’s the way the bongo bingles”) and standard-issue situations (dissing the principal, cutting up at the pool party, getting an anti-drug pep talk from booze-drinking parents). Yet, the movie works surprisingly well, thanks to director Arnold, who punctuates the routine plot with all sorts of inventive visual details. Some are small grace notes, like the Pieter Breugel print strategically placed in a cafeteria scene. Others emerge in the acting, as when Mr. A and an assistant exchange the subtlest of gestures as a key meeting concludes.

And a few are downright inspired. In a coffeehouse where students congregate, a beatnik girl recites the worst poem this side of Roger Corman’s 1959 A Bucket of Blood, but I love the bald pianist accompanying her, nodding and grinning as if every word (“Tomorrow is a drag, pops, the future is a flake”) were made of gold. An ominous mood prevails when Tony meets Mr. A in his gloomy lair, but when Mr. A takes off his dark glasses, he turns out to be the bald pianist! Which is his day job, trafficking drugs or tickling the ivories? Either way, it’s a deliciously eccentric touch.

The casting philosophy of High School Confidential! apparently involved remembering days of yore. Scions of legendary show-biz families pop up frequently—John Drew Barrymore plays J. I., Charles Chaplin Jr., and William Wellman Jr., play lesser parts—and Jackie Coogan is perfect as Mr. A, the moonlighting dope czar. Other standouts are Michael Landon as a likable student, Lyle Talbot as a sleazy lawyer, and Irwin Berke and Robin Raymond as clothing merchants with a sideline in petty fraud. Arnold also serves up a spirited jalopy race; it’s no match for the chickie run in Rebel Without a Cause, but Tony has reefers hidden in a hubcap, and when the rim starts to loosen and wobble, it’s as dramatic as Ben-Hur’s whirling chariot wheel.

I may be overrating the picture out of affection for the High Fifties or admiration for Arnold, whose films of the period include B classics like Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). It takes a superior talent to transcend such a dopey screenplay, though, and Arnold successfully turns High School Confidential! into artful entertainment that shines out brightly in its new DVD edition from Olive Films. It’s not the most memorable product of the era’s skyrocketing youth culture, but let that pass. As the bad poetess says, “Smile on what happened, then check what’s gonna happen, you’ll miss what’s happening.” Or something like that. Don’t think about it, cats, just dig it!

David Sterritt is chair of the National Society of Film Critics and author, most recently, of The Cinema of Clint Eastwood: Chronicles of America.

To purchase Olive Films’ DVD of High School Confidential!, click here.

Copyright © 2014 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XL, No. 1