A crazy-mixed-up-kid sort of drama. This mini-genre of the ’50s-early ’60s was jump-started by Marlon Brando and James Dean. The Young Stranger here is Hal Ditmar (James MacArthur). He’s more or less looking for kicks, or maybe just bored with himself. As a consequence of letting himself get a bit nuts, and soon he’s in trouble with the law, along with buddy Jerry (Jeffrey Silver). Hal’s parents Tom and Helen (James Daly and Kim Hunter) fret over what to do and where-they-went-wrong. Sounds like fun.
This is actually very intense. Hal is kind of a jerk, deliberately harassing a guy in movie theater. When he’s confronted by the manager, Mr. Grubbs (Whit Bissell), he continues mouthing off, but then agrees to leave. Incredibly, the manager has the doorman drag him back in. Hal slugs Grubbs, as now Hal’s the one being harassed. Absolutely no one, not the manager, the police, Sgt. Shipley (James Gregory), or even his dad, will listen to Hal, let alone believe him. It goes without saying that no one cares about Jerry’s input either. Shipley treats Hal with complete disdain.
And so it goes for most of the movie. His dad is incredibly narcissistic; a wealthy movie mogul, he’s used to having his way. When he deigns to converse with his son or wife, he doesn’t even engage them. He just “gives a speech,” as Hal says. Dad’s quite possibly the world’s worse listener. Hal just gets more wound up. Strangely, the denouement occurs because Hal goes back to Grubbs to apologize, but ends up hitting him again.
What good can come of that? Well, Shipley seems to have a sea-change, and believes Hal about the first altercation. Shipley cleverly gets the steamed-up Grubbs to admit that he provoked Hal (obviously, even then, you couldn’t innocently continue a conflict and then blame the other party for doing so). To put it in contemporary words, they made it square.
Shipley’s become a sort of surrogate dad to Hal; after breaking down Grubbs, he tells off Hal’s dad for not believing his own son. Dad finally turns over a new leaf. Shipley has the insight, and the courage to know he made a mistake. Pretty powerful stuff.
There’s a few interesting subplots. Helen is treated like a child by her husband; even by ’50s standards this is an agonizing relationship. It’s as though Tom’s own family are just his servants, or at least poor-relations. She habitually apes Tom’s attitude towards Hal, without really believing in it.
The bona-fide delinquent here is the so-called Confused Boy (Jack Mullaney). He has only one (long) scene, as another kid-in-trouble, waiting at the police station after Hal’s first tussle. But what a scene. He acts like he’s high, or possibly he’s just hyperactive. I kept expecting him to reappear, but no dice. Anyway, he adds a sort of disturbing humor, which is fitting within the overall alienation/misfit theme.
The Young Stranger is very well-written and well-acted. To some extent the characters are types (Hal’s parents); Hal himself is difficult to pin down. He’s essentially decent, but definitely flawed. Grubbs is the real jerk here. Jerry is not really developed into much of a character; it might’ve been more interesting to have the beatnik-like Confused Boy join in later with Jerry and Hal to liven things up.
Despite some promising characters left in the background, this is a very watchable movie. The title couldn’t be more apt. Although The Young Stranger is very much of its time, the themes are still relevant.
Farmermouse thought all the cars were extra-cool. He wouldn’t even mind giving Hal’s ’48-’48 Plymouth a push to get it going. Seven dinners with the Ditmars. 7/10.