Even today, from its very opening moments, Blackboard Jungle (1955) feels somehow different. A snare drum beats a pensive rat-a-tat rhythm as an on-screen message warns viewers that while the material presented in the film may be a bit violent at heart this gritty black-and-white morality play is going to make America a better place, or something like that. Whatever. The screen barely fades into memory before the snare deftly segues into Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" as the curtain rises on a New York inner-city school. It was the first time rock and roll was heard in motion pictures, and even today it's a moment that delivers a slight chill up the spine. Based on the novel by William Hunter, writer/director Richard Brooks' film was a sensation when it first debuted, and half-a-century later it still contains a raw, visceral power not seen in many movies of the era. Glenn Ford stars as high school English teacher Richard Dadier, a fresh-out-of-college educator who's eager to make an impression on a classroom full of students. However, he soon finds college never prepared him for his first job the technical high school where he's hired is an asylum run by the inmates, bands of juvenile delinquents who care not a whit for education, rules, or even common courtesy. Dadier's wife Anne (Anne Francis) encourages him to apply to another, better school, but her husband's stubborn streak perhaps acquired from his stint in the Army gets the better of him, and he does his best to make a breakthrough with his homeroom students. In part, this means getting through to the class's respected leader, Gregory Miller (Sidney Poitier). But it also means dealing with Artie West (Vic Morrow), a gang member and borderline-sociopath who'd just as soon stick a shiv in his teacher as listen to him.
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For fans of Glenn Ford, Blackboard Jungle makes a splendid double-feature with Fritz Lang's The Big Heat (1953) shot only two years apart, both scripts fundamentally tell the same story, with Ford playing the same character: a put-upon (cop/teacher) who launches a one-man war against (gangsters/hoodlums) who threaten not only law and order but his wife and (child/unborn child), forcing Ford to put the smack on a creepily psychotic (Lee Marvin/Vic Morrow) while extending a hand of kindness to the wayward (Gloria Grahame/Sidney Poitier). Ford was a versatile actor, but his avenging angel roles create a real rooting interest, supplemented by his earnest acting and oddly boyish looks. Director Richard Brooks, who never shied away from controversial, adult films (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Elmer Gantry, In Cold Blood, Looking for Mr. Goodbar), offers his star plenty of latitude in this picture, and he's joined by two other first-rate actors. Sidney Poitier had been in pictures for five years, but this would prove to be one of his breakout performances, leading to greater successes in The Defiant Ones and Lilies of the Field. Nonetheless, Blackboard Jungle retains its appeal not merely because of the acting, but also because of its variance the film industry's mid-century crossroads is perfectly captured between Ford's Old Hollywood stylistics, Poitier's theatrical formalism, and Vic Morrow's slack Method inflections. An Actors Workshop grad who never achieved the notoriety of Dean or Brando, Morrow's hit-and-miss career can be blamed, in part, on this film he's so convincing that he was burdened for years by brute-thug typecasting. Still, there's no denying his skill at Methodic naturalness and detail: his hangdog pout, slightly effeminate mannerisms, and odd oral fixations combine to create a menace that's more implied than obvious, and when he delivers one of his most famous lines pensively telling Ford "See, you're in my school now
and the things I could teach you
" one quickly understands the power Method had on the screen, and why Old Hollywood never stood a chance against it. Warner's DVD release of Blackboard Jungle offers a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) from very good black-and-white source-print with strong gradient detail and barely a hint of collateral wear. Supplements include a commentary from co-stars Paul Mazursky and Jamie Farr, as well as Glenn Ford's son Peter Ford and assistant director Joel Freeman. Also included are the original theatrical trailer, and the Hanna-Barbara cartoon short "Blackboard Jumble." Keep-case.
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