Made in 1960, this 90-minute distillation of James T. Farrell’s once-controversial autobiographical trilogy skims wildly through a mass of material which would be remade more carefully in 1979 as an epic-length miniseries. Following a Chicago slum youth through the 1920s, it is pretty much a precis of the novels – and breaks the story off on a nouvelle vague-ish cliffhanger. Directed by Irving Lerner, whose credits are scattershot to say the least (he was production associate on Robot Monster, director of The Royal Hunt of the Son, producer of The Wild Party, editor of Steppenwolf) and credited as ‘produced and written’ by Philip Yordan (who actually wrote is anyone’s guess – Yordan was a front who farmed out most of his writing commissions to blacklistees), it’s an early, interesting credit for several young cineaste types who would become mainstream mainstays in the 1970s – including composer ‘Jerrald’ Goldsmith (whose striking dissonant jazz score borrows from Kurt Weill), editor Verna Fields, cinematographer Haskell Wexler and method actor Jack Nicholson. Though American breakthrough pictures of the 1970s like Mean Streets and American Graffiti owe a debt to Fellini’s I Vitelloni, this also might have served as a template for the bunch-of-guys-hang-out-in-the-neighbourhood genre even if the cramped running time means that the hero’s layabout pals don’t get the developed subplots Farrell wrote for them.
William ‘Studs’ Lonigan (Christopher Knight), the restless son of a bullying decorator (Dick Foran) and a smothering Mom (Katherine Squire), has a lifelong crush on ‘nice’ girl Lucy (Venetia Stevenson, of City of the Dead) and vague aspirations to be something other than the ‘and son’ in his Pop’s business. He wimps out in his one brush with Chicago’s famous organised crime scene when he asks an unnamed hood (who looks like Al Capone) for a job and can’t go through with the instant hit he is assigned as a black joke, and doesn’t stick at either the saxophone lessons or the false-teeth-manufacturing career which strike his fancy. Even when he does go into business with his Dad, the stock market crash wipes out the firm and the old man shockingly turns him out on his own. Square-jawed Knight must have thought he was a sure bet for stardom when he landed this plum role, but he’s no more than okay in the part – and has only one other minor film credit. Knight can’t make Studs’ love life that compelling, though there’s an interesting sequence as he chats about chamber music with lonely teacher Miss Miller (Helen Westcott) and imagines her doing a koochie dance in fetish underwear – eventually, he gets over the girl who has no interest in him, and settles for (ie: knocks up) Miss Miller’s clingy, slightly dull niece Catherine (Carolyn Craig). After a chat with a priest (Jay C. Flippen), Studs asks Catherine to marry him in an unreassuring ending which is obviously not supposed to be a tacked-on happy resolution.
Knight tries to come on like James Dean or Montgomery Clift or even Marlon Brando in angsty-sensitive-hood mode, but exacerbates their tendency to whininess and doesn’t have either the sensitivity or the tough, sexy streak which elevated even their most self-indulgent characters. Studs’ pool-hall buddies are wimp Pauly (Robert Casper) who dies young, prompting a big-scene outpouring from his young widow (Suzi Carnell, very good) about the malign hold his friends had over him, horndog misogynist Weary (Nicholson) whose rough stuff at a political celebration leads to a ten-year stretch for rape, and terrible comedian Kenny (Frank Gorshin) who at least gets out of the city on tour. There are exciting, kinetic, staccato poolhall scenes and a few other good stretches when a bit-player lands a fine speech or a truthful moment, but too much of it is sludge.