Cult Cinema: High School Confidential (1958) - Reviewed

Jack Arnold was one of the greatest science-fiction horror directors of his time as well as being something of a jack-of-all-trades ala Robert Wise who equally excelled in the wide variety of broadly appealing pictures he created.  Dabbling in everything from Universal Monsters horror to The Incredible Shrinking Man, frequent television work over the decades to even trying his hand at Blaxploitation with Boss N***er, Jack Arnold never met a picture he couldn’t make. 

Which brings us to his 1958 juvenile delinquency drama/thriller/comedy High School Confidential, a film best remembered for its opening title track by Jerry Lee Lewis while serving up a hefty dose of gloriously high camp.  A cool little fast-talking B-movie dressed as another Blackboard Jungle type of rock-and-rolling bad teens picture, High School Confidential follows the mischief makings of high-schooler Tony Baker (Russ Tamblyn).  Recently transferred from Chicago to California, our slick and hip newcomer quickly stakes out his rank amid fellow thuggish students embroiled in the marijuana and heroin trade. 

Courting the head thug J. I. Coleridge’s (John Drew Barrymore) girlfriend Joan Staples (Diane Jergens) while fending off the maternal meddling of his progressive teacher Arlene Williams (Jan Sterling), Tony quickly plunges into the high school narcotics business though his greatest adversary seems to be his blonde bombshell “auntie” Gwen Dulaine (Mamie Van Doren).  In every scene, the flirtatious seductress tantalizes Tony relentlessly, immediately catapulting the picture into new heights of preposterous fun.  The character and performance are so ridiculously over the top you get the sense Mr. Arnold was knowingly concocting a farce.

Loosely based on the findings of undercover cop Texas Joe Foster and intended to be a cautionary tale of drug addiction amid teenagers, replete with a proto-Nadsat jive dialect requiring its own glossary, the film is a kind of groovy jaunt that’s delightfully trashy and compulsively watchable.  Hardly a plausible depiction of violence or drug abuse committed by adolescents but in Arnold’s hands it’s a wildly entertaining romp through a bygone era of drag races, greaser tropes and maybe the hippest poetry jam ever filmed.

Though Mamie Van Doren’s quasi femme-fatale arguably steals the show, High School Confidential succeeds as rapid-fire bad-teen trash primarily for resting solely on Russ Tamblyn’s shoulders.  One of the greatest character actors of all time, garnering an Oscar nomination for Peyton Place as well as landing a central role in the Oscar winning West Side Story before achieving immortality as the enigmatic Dr. Jacoby from Twin Peaks, Mr. Tamblyn simply owns High School Confidential from start to finish. 

Adept with the tongue-twisting dialogue as well as giving off vibes of suave, debonair cool, the Gun Crazy actor doesn’t just give his all in this part, he dances across the stage with it!  Clearly the scenarios and dynamics playing out in this film are absurd but Tamblyn sells the part so well we hardly mind.  Also rounding out the colorful cast are Jackie Coogan (yes, Fester Addams) and John Drew Barrymore who’s tasked with as much challenging jive dialogue as Tamblyn is.  Serious or silly, you have to hand it to the actors to keep up with the word salad of a screenplay.

Upon initial release the black-and-white CinemaScope production was a box office hit, taking in nearly $2 million against a roughly $6K budget.  Largely aided by the Billboard Charts record setting success of the title track by Jerry Lee Lewis, High School Confidential proved to be a lean and mean little indie flick.  In the years since however the film made the ranks of the Golden Raspberry Awards among the 100 Most Enjoyably Bad Movies Ever Made, canonizing its stature in camp classic cinema history. 

Decades later High School Confidential reignited pop cultural interest again when the band White Zombie sampled portions of dialogue from the film for the album La Sexorcisto: Devil Music, Vol 1, further cementing it as a bright and shining relic of the past.  More than anything, it’s another example of the many wide-ranging talents of Jack Arnold who arguably could do any genre picture and still leave his distinctive mark on the piece.  Simply put, the man could do anything and High School Confidential is easily among his very best, a film which makes no bones about what it is and as such remains a spectacular slice of 50s exploitation cinema.

--Andrew Kotwicki