Young Savages, The (1961): Frankenheimer’s Crime Melodrama, Starring Burt Lancaster

Made in 1961, The Young Savages, a well acted but conventional crime-courtroom melodrama, is the second film of director John Frankenheimer, who would go one to make some more significant political films later on, such as The Manchurian Candidate.

The Young Savages
The Young Savages poster.jpg

A starring vehicle for Burt Lancaster, the film was penned by Edward Anhalt, based on the 1959 novel by Evan Hunter, A Matter of Conviction (Hunter was aka as Ed McBain).

The plot is similar to the Broadway musical and then Oscar winning musical film, West Side Story, a comparison made explicit by the Variety review, which called it “a kind of non-musical east side variation on “West Side Story.”

The Young Savages was the first film featuring tough man Telly Savalas, who plays a police detective, and would become a TV icon with his titular role in Kojak in the popular TV series.

Danny DiPace (Stanley Kristien), Arthur Reardon (John Davis Chandler) and Anthony “Batman” Aposto (Neil Nephew) are members of a street gang named the Thunderbirds in New York City’s notoriously bad region, East Harlem.

They are engaged in a turf war with a Puerto Rican gang, the Horsemen.  When the Thunderbirds attack Roberto Escalante (José Pérez), a blind member of the Horsemen, they stab him to death.

Arrested by the police, they are then interrogated by assistant district attorney Hank Bell (Burt Lancaster), who discovers that one of the boys is the son of his former girlfriend, Mary DiPace (Shelley Winters. who did have an affair with Lancaster).

At the office of the district attorney Dan Cole (Edward Andrews), Bell admits he knows the mother of one of the suspects, but, despite objections, he is not taken off the case.  Moreover, he admits that he grew up in the same neighborhood.

Opening up to his wife Karin (Dina Merrill), Bell admits that his father changed his name from Bellini to Bell in order to conceal his background, a deception that proved advantageous to his career and to marrying a Vassar girl.

At the funeral for Roberto Escalante, Bell is told by Mary that her son promised  never to join a gang, which further motivates Bell’s investigation of the intricate case.  He is also shocked at his own capacity for violence, when he is attacked by a gang.

The drama then examines various aspects of the crime: gangs, poverty, ethnic profiling, parental incapacity to deal with forces far beyond their control, and politics.

When the three boys are tried for the murder, it becomes clear how personal qualities of morality, mental capacity, and psychosis fit into a squalid ethnically diverse setting, defined by stereotypical beliefs.

The milieus in which all the characters live is put on trial, beginning with the perpetrators, and including the failure of the larger society to take interest in the underlying issues.

When the trial concludes with different sentences for each boy, tailored to their personal natures, the victim’s mother asks Bell if he thinks that justice had been served.  Feeling guilt, Bell responds unhappily, claiming that a great many people and the system itself bear direct responsibility for her son’s death.


Burt Lancaster as Hank Belll

Dina Merrill as Karin Bell

Edward Andrews as R. Daniel Cole

Shelley Winters as Mary diPace

Larry Gates as Randolph

Telly Savalas as Detective Gunderson

Pilar Seurat as Louisa Escalante

Roberta Shore as Jenny Bell

Milton Selzer as Dr. Walsh

David J. Stewart as Barton

John Davis Chandler as Arthur Reardon

Stanley Kristien as Danny diPace


Directed by John Frankenheimer
Produced by Pat Duggan; Harold Hecht (executive producer)
Screenplay by Edward Anhalt, J.P. Miller, based on A Matter of Conviction
by Evan Hunter
Music by David Amram
Cinematography Lionel Lindon
Edited by Eda Warren
Distributed by United Artists

Release date: May 24, 1961

Running time: 103 minutes