Tuesday, January 21, 2014

HIGH SCHOOL BIG SHOT (1959) – A Review

My wife and I have been getting ready to go to the Film Noir Festival in San Francisco by watching movies set and shot in San Francisco – including Dirty Harry (1971), The Conversation (1974) and Zodiac (2004). Without even including The Sniper (1952) and The Lineup (1958), it sure seems like SF is a great city to get murdered in, eh?

Anyway, we’ve also been taking some controlled, appetizer-like doses of noir films, so I introduced my wife to a rough little gem she had never seen. Said gem is High School Big Shot, a film that, thankfully, does not live up to its title. Unlike films with remarkably similar titles from that period – like High School Confidential! (1958), High School Hellcats (1958), High School Caesar (1960), etc. – HSBS tells a story that doesn’t focus on school at all, though the lead character, Marv Grant (Tom Pittman) is a high school student. But the majority of the film takes place away from the school, and it’s really a fairly tight little crime picture with a somewhat misleading title.

Marv, whose father is a no-good drunk, is hooked on Betty (Virginia Aldridge). But Betty has her sights set on landing a guy with lots of dough, which leaves poor Marv on the outs. Marv thinks he hears opportunity knocking when he overhears his boss at the warehouse planning a big buy of heroin, with said deal requiring a million bucks to be – briefly – placed in the safe in the warehouse. So Marv finds some help to crack the safe and score the cash. Meanwhile, Marv’s told Betty his plans, and she in turn tells her caveman boyfriend about the deal – and he and his pals plan to rob the robbers after they empty out the safe. It all ends with a lot of gunfire and more characters dying than not.
So yeah, the title isn’t so accurate, and yeah, the actors playing high school students are well past their teens. But, other than that, I think this is a solid little crime picture that should satisfy crime and noir fans quite well. The plot is simple, but engaging. There are some familiar character actors sprinkled throughout the cast (Byron Foulger, Malcolm Atterbury, Stanley Adams). The lead, Tom Pittman, is a suitable noir-type fall guy undone by a dame. And the ending is certainly pretty bleak. What’s not to like?

Postscript: In a sadly noir-like ending in real life, Pittman, who some were touting as the “next” James Dean, died in a car crash on Halloween in 1958. So this film, his first leading role, was released posthumously not quite a year later. He was 26 years old.

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