Thursday, June 24, 2021

Violent Playground

I mentioned at the beginning of the month that one of the movies coming up in the June spotlight on juvenile delinquent movies is Violent Playground, a British film that I had on my DVR but hadn't gotten around to watching. It's airing overnight tonight at 1:30 AM, so I made a point of watching it to review today.

In Liverpool in the late 1950s, there's a string of arsons going on that's baffling the police. One of those policemen is Det. Truman (Stanley Baker). But that's going to be the least of his problems. The current Juvenile Liaison Officer has to take a leave of absence, and the department needs somebody new to replace him for a while. Truman's boss has "volunteered" him for this job. It'll take him away from real police work, and instead deal with social work stuff since they believe that everybody can be prevented from turning to a life of crime.

Meanwhile, a couple of kids who really should be in school set up a con on a shopkeeper. It's something they've been doing repeatedly, and finally one of the shopkeepers has had enough and wants the police involved. Since the two kids are only seven years old and not old enough to deal with even the beginnings of juvenile court, it's the Liaison Officer who gets involved. Fun work, isn't it?

Those two twins are the Murphys, Patrick and Mary (Fergal and Brona Boland respectively). They live with their elder brother John (David McCallum before he'd play Illya Kuryakin on The Man from UNCLE) and even older sister Cathie (Anne Heywood). Cathie acts as the mother of the family because the real Mom and Dad are out of the picture, but having to hold down a job and take care of the young kids makes it difficult if not impossible. She also has a healthy hatred of the police, as everybody in the projects does.

But it's John who's the biggest problem. He seems to be the leader of all the disaffected youth and the reason why this is a juvenile delinquent movie in the first place. he can get the others to do his bidding with just a word, and all of them are often gratuitously mean just because it makes them feel good.

Now, part of the plot is fairly predictable. Truman is going to start developing feelings for Cathie, but it's going to be a rocky road because of her hatred of the police. The arsons are going to keep happening, and you know Truman is going to get involved again. The big surprise is the finale, which happens as a school hostage situation that seems surprisingly gritty for the late 1950s.

But then again, this is Basil Dearden directing, and he did a fair amount of stuff that pushed the boundaries, most notably Sapphire and Victim. Violent Playground isn't quite as good, but definitely worth watching. It last aired on TCM as part of a Star of the Month salute to Peter Cushing, who has a supporting role as a Catholic priest who tries to do his own work with the troubled youth. (There was a lot of Irish emigration to Liverpool in the first half of the 20th century.)

I don't think Violent Playground is on DVD in the US, which is a shame. It's too bad Criterion didn't or couldn't include it in its Eclipse Series box set of Dearden films.

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