Thursday, November 13, 2014

Triskaidekaphilia: '13 West Street' (1962)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

A sort of alarmist melodrama about a respectable man who descends into vigilantism after being attacked by a group of teen hooligans, 13 West Street has a few things going for it, most notably an appealingly naturalistic performance from Rod Steiger as the world-weary police detective investigating the attacks, but is ultimately too stodgy and reactionary to make any meaningful social commentary or tell a gripping story about an ordinary man driven to the edge.

Star Alan Ladd is a big part of the problem, playing milquetoast aeronautics engineer Walter Sherill, who gets beaten up one night by sneering teenagers and then becomes increasingly frustrated with the police response. Ladd is just too stiff and stolid to really bring Walter's rage to life, although part of the problem may be that the movie simultaneously wants to endorse his disgust at teen delinquency and punish him for attempting to take the law into his own hands. The excessive moralizing gets in the way of creating a juicy thriller. Also, there is an inordinate amount of attention given to Walter's job (the entire opening scene involves a meeting about developing a new rocket, which made me wonder if I was about to watch a spy movie or a sci-fi story, since I hadn't bothered to look up the plot before starting the movie), without any payoff whatsoever.

But then there's Steiger as the jaded but well-intentioned detective who knows that investigations take time and footwork, and who, unlike most movie detectives, actually spends time working his other cases because Walter's is not the only one he has to investigate. He wears bow ties, always says "bye-bye" when leaving, and generally comes off like a real person amid all the hysteria about teenagers gone bad (the gang members turn out to be from upper-class families, which shocks Walter's wife, who assumed all delinquents were "underprivileged"). The rumpled sergeant seems as impatient with the movie itself as he is with Walter, and it's easy to sympathize with him on both accounts.

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