Happy hour? An early and unheralded Altman film, "The Delinquents," plays the Roxie via Film on Film Foundation.

Kubrick and Altman's Fear, Desire, and Delinquency

Dennis Harvey May 8, 2009

Legal-rights issues, lost or deteriorated negatives, and sheer disinterest can be reasons for movies becoming unavailable, despite all proliferation of DVD, Internet, and pirated-copy exposure inside and outside the realm of strict legality. (The studios might sue your butt off for downloading Wolverine, but odds are they won’t notice, or care, if somehow you got hold of a tenth-generation dupe of a forgotten B-grade feature from 1955 with no perceived remaining commercial value.) But it’s unusual these days for a film numerous people really do want to see to remain isolated from view.

Ergo the Film on Film Foundation’s program at the Roxie this Sunday is many a film buff’s dream come true, as it presents 35mm prints of extremely rare first features by two late, great American directors: No less than Stanley Kubrick and Robert Altman. Both were micro-budgeted 1950s independent productions, and for differing reasons both have been exceedingly hard to find in any but the poor-quality bootleg form for decades.

Produced, directed, shot and edited by Kubrick, who had already been a photographer for Look magazine and made some documentary shorts (1951’s Day of the Flight and Flying Padre will also be shown Sunday), Fear and Desire anticipated several of his mature efforts in its emphasis on the cruelty and pointlessness of war.

Set "outside history," in "no other country but the mind," its squadron of plane-crash-felled grunts wander a forest behind enemy lines, using any brutish means required to survive. They attack a shack-full of opposition soldiers, the camera dwelling on the dead latter’s staring, lifeless faces and the dinner stew grotesquely splayed on the floor. They abduct a beautiful peasant girl who has the ill luck to stumble upon them in hiding. In a disturbing scene she’s left in the custody of Private Sidney (Paul Mazursky), whose rising paranoid madness ends things badly. (Mazursky, of course, became a pretty famous director himself via the likes of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and Down and Out in Beverly Hills.) Eventually the troops attack a general’s temporary HQ—shooting point-blank an already wounded an officer as he crawls across the floor croaking "I surrender!"

With its low-budget mixture of antiwar allegory and realism, the barely hour-long Fear and Desire was an unlikely commercial prospect, attracting a few favorable critical notices but very few theatrical bookings. It only surfaced briefly later on local TV airings, and rare cinematheque screenings. It was rumored that Kubrick, once success arrived, did his best to find and buy up every existing copy in order to keep it from public view. He called the film "a bumbling amateur exercise"—not surprising, given its severe budgetary and technical limitations (including dialogue awkwardly dubbed in post), not to mention his extreme perfectionism. This is the same director, after all, whose last film took a full year to shoot, eventually necessitating the replacement of some actors (including Jennifer Jason Leigh) who were no longer available for the endless re-shoots. (One could even argue that Eyes Wide Shut was never properly finished, since Kubrick seemed nowhere near finished editing it when he died—that task was completed by others.)

But Fear and Desire is hardly a glorified home movie. Rather, it’s a mixture of pretentiousness (mostly in Howard Sackler’s very literary script), stylistic ambition, existential fatalism and frustration. It’s a $10,000 project that strains manfully to feel like a big-budget Big Statement. You can see many characteristics from Kubrick’s fabled later films in germinal form here.

The Delinquents
(1957) is something much less exotic, a regional stab at the drive-in exploitation market. Altman was a 32-year-old maker of industrial films when Elmer Rhoden, Jr., a theatre owner in their native Kansas City, proposed producing an independent local knock-off of the then-popular teen flicks revolving around rock ‘n’ roll and juvenile delinquency. They hired a couple professional actors, a lot of local amateurs, and shot this simple "story about teenage violence and immorality…their struggle to understand and be understood," as the prim narrator (added over Altman’s objections) puts it.

Scotty (Tom Laughlin) is a small-town high school senior in love with sophomore Janice (Rosemary Howard), but her parents think she’s too young to "go steady" and bar the teens from seeing each other—causing the first among Janice’s bursts-into-tears. Scotty is somewhat reluctantly friended by a "bad crowd" of mischief-making fellow teens whom he inadvertently saves from a punch-up. Their slumming-rich-boy leader Cholly (Miller) proposes he pose as Janice’s ultra-proper new date, getting her out of the house so she can secretly rendezvous with Scotty.

But the nice kids are lured to an illegal party at an abandoned house where Cholly ‘n’ pals drink, smoke, and dance to loud music with shocking abandon. Worse happens before our naive duo are rescued from further corrupting influence. "Delinquency is a disease! But the remedies are available…by working with your church group!" our narrator helpfully informs at the fadeout.

Made for a pittance, and purchased by United Artists for not much more, The Delinquents won little critical notice but wound up making a minor mint (allegedly $1 million). Its resourcefulness on slim means got Altman noticed by no less than Alfred Hitchcock, who invited the fledgling (and ergo cheap) director to helm two episodes of the omnibus series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. A decade of more TV assignments followed, then a couple forgotten features, then…M*A*S*H, Nashville, and so on.

Like the more conceptually ambitious Fear and Desire, Delinquents shows definite signs of formative talent, and also like it (despite contrasting commercial success) disappeared from view after a few local TV showings, never being issued on VHS or DVD. Its curiosity value is compounded by the casting: While "bad kids" Miller and Dick Bakalyan were at the beginning of long careers (the latter as the first of many vivid sleazebags), the dreadfully whiny Howard never acted again.

You might figure hero Scotty’s muscular but mopey, inexpressive interpreter as meeting her same fate. But in fact Tom Laughlin would become one of the biggest, now most-baffling phenomena of the 1970s: As writer-director-producer-star of Billy Jack, the kick-ass hippie vigilante whose first ’71 vehicle and ’74 sequel were huge hits. After a couple later flops, however, Laughlin entered the realm of Permanent Indecision, forever announcing projects then failing to make them.

That spinning-wheels future was apparently presaged by his behavior on the Delinquents set, where according to Altman his "James Dean complex" made him "an unbelievable pain in the ass," holding up shooting as he searched for his Method muse. In one respect, you might say Tom Laughlin and Stanley Kubrick were on the same page: Holding out for perfection, they increasingly found it difficult to complete anything at all.