Paramount // 1957 // 100 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // January 28th, 2005
More like a pathetic petty criminal...
Sidney Pythias (Jerry Lewis) is not your typical juvenile delinquent. By night, he attempts to run with Monk and his gang of goons. By day, he's a lonely janitor, serving the needs of the apartment building he lives in. When the cops interrupt a rumble and find Sidney smack dab in the middle, there is concern on all sides, especially from officer Mike Damon (Darren McGavin, The Man the with Golden Arm, Kolchak: The Night Stalker). Damon sees Sidney as the kid he was, before he went into law enforcement, and he wants to try a new kind of police/public outreach on the troubled kid.
But this makes city council consultant Martha (Martha Hyer, Houseboat, Some Came Running) mad. She thinks coddling these angry, aggressive youths only leads to more trouble. Naturally, she and Mike find themselves at odds over Sidney, and Monk's crew isn't to pleased to see their ersatz member palling around with the pigs. Still, Sidney wants a better life and he decides to enter the Police Academy to start his training as a cop. But when faced with his first night on practice patrol, a scuffle with Monk and the boys may permanently sideline his dreams. It is up to Sidney to persevere, with or without Mike's help, or he will always be known as The Delicate Delinquent.
The Delicate Delinquent has quite the checkered past, which may explain why it ends up being a less than successful film. Beginning life as yet another vehicle for the then smash hit comedy/variety team of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, it was rumored that Martin rejected the project outright, not wanting to play a police officer. Soon after, the legendary duo split, rocking the very foundations of the entertainment world. Unsure that Lewis could hold an audience by himself, Delinquent was retooled, some more serious content added, and Darren McGavin stepped in to take Dean's place. Marking the second film for actor turned writer/director Don McGuire and trying for an uneasy balance between slice of life juvenile crime film (a la Blackboard Jungle) and more of that patented Lewis pratfalling, the results would begin Jerry's rise as a successful solo act. Yet after watching the 100+ painful minutes of this movie, it is hard to imagine how he became so beloved.
This is not the Jerry Lewis of The Bellboy or The Nutty Professor. There is none of the sting of, say, The Patsy, or the pure slapstick nirvana of The Errand Boy. This is Hollywood trying to figure out just what Lewis was, and by the looks of this cinematic response, they felt he was a schizophrenic imbecile. Obviously trying to stretch the acknowledged "trained ape" beyond his mugging and machinations, Delinquent is overly heavy on the murky melodrama. Lewis's Sydney Pythias is at times a disgruntled youth (Lewis is playing "a little" over 21 here), a complete and utter goofball, a rather dapper fellow, and a freewheeling human tornado. He is wrecking machine and human retch, all at the same time. This makes for a very unfocused, and frankly, very unfunny movie.
Had Delicate Delinquent stayed true to its crime and punishment ideals, it might have worked as a straight drama. After all, Lewis does have the chops to go the completely serious route. But McGuire gives into the temptation of letting the dork be the dork (surely producer Lewis had some say in this concept), and the resulting mishmash between tomfoolery and the neighborhood toughs just doesn't work. Take the opening scene, for example. A bunch of ruffians are ready to rumble. They draw their weapons and begin the dance of death. Just as we are about to see blood spilled, Lewis comes careening through a side door, tumbling out cans full of garbage in his wake, and makes with the monkey faces. Terrible. Later on, the same hoods confront Lewis. They hope to discover why he's been so friendly with McGavin's cop. They pull a knife on him, but end up giving it to him as a gift. The minute the menace is over, Lewis has got the switchblade out, acting like a retard for the camera. Really lame.
Now, there is nothing wrong with Lewis's lunkhead routine. As a matter of fact, nobody does it better than him. But it just doesn't belong in this film. Had McGuire made the movie more manic, injecting all the scenes with his kind of devilish delirium, the drama wouldn't suffer so much. Yet since the balance is almost 50/50, there is no chance for one to really accent or counteract the other. It's as if they are each battling like wounded egotists for the top spot, never giving in an inch. This accounts then for the schizophrenic nature of the film, the inability to get a handle on Sidney as a character or a concept. Instead of envisioning him as a loveable shlub or a smart guy playing at pathetic, we are constantly bombarded with these mixed histrionic messages.
Other facets of the film just don't work either. Lewis gets a solo song -- that's right, in the middle of this pseudo-shocking exposé on the problems of adolescent criminal behavior, the orchestra swells and Jerry croons a rather decent version of the classic standard "By Myself." It is so out of place as to be unintentionally funny. On the "supposed to be silly" front, there is a character, living in Sidney's building, named Mr. Crow. Almost like a precursor to Lewis's own mad scientist routine, Crow delivers a couple of demented scenes where he discusses sending frogs to the moon after the upcoming global holocaust (how side-splitting!) that are painfully unfunny and stop the narrative dead in its derivative tracks. From the discomfited, unfulfilled love relationship between Mike and Martha to the out of left field conversion of Monk toward the end, Delinquent is a movie that doesn't know what it wants to be. As a result, it is more or less nothing, a mere piffle passing itself off as a holding pattern until Lewis could find the right vehicle to announce his arrival as a legitimate actor and filmmaker. Sadly, The Delicate Delinquent is as far from that proposed professionalism as you can get.
It's a shame, then, that Paramount went to such pains to give the home theater audience such an amazing DVD transfer. The monochrome elements of this motion picture are spectacular, as deep and as rich as black and white get. There is an amazing amount of detail in the image and a pristine look to the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen print. For such an inconsequential movie to get this kind of treasured treatment is confusing. Delinquent does not represent Lewis or filmmaking at its best, and yet this disc could visually stand with the great works of cinema. After all the optical splendor, the straightforward, sort of shrill Dolby Digital Mono soundtrack is a letdown, as are the lack of any extras other than a trailer. It would have been interesting to hear Lewis comment on this title (he has contributed said tracks to other recent Paramount/Lewis releases) especially noting its history and place within his oeuvre.
For many, this is the beginning of Jerry Lewis's career as a single sensation and it represents the kind of film this anarchic auteur would specialize in for the first few years of his career (up until The Bellboy, basically). Yet judging from how humdrum The Delicate Delinquent is, how uncomfortable it is in its own filmic skin, it's hard to speculate how anyone thought Lewis really could do it alone. Maybe Martha had it right all along. Maybe delinquents like this one need tough love, not a hand up, to get them straight. Sadly it seems like nothing could help this horrible, hampered movie.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 1957
MPAA Rating: Not Rated