Last night Turner Classic Movies showed another film which contains an obscure Peter Cushing performance: VIOLENT PLAYGROUND, a 1957 juvenile delinquency drama starring Stanley Baker and directed by Basil Dearden.
VIOLENT PLAYGROUND was produced right before Cushing portrayed Van Helsing for the first time in HORROR OF DRACULA. Here the actor plays a priest, Father Laidlaw--which is rather ironic, considering how many times Cushing encountered men of the cloth during his many horror films.
VIOLENT PLAYGROUND tries to be a British answer to American disaffected youth films such as THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE and REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE. The story is set in a grimy, dingy, post-war Liverpool, where police detective Truman (Stanley Baker) has been transferred, against his wishes, to the department of juvenile liaison. His new job is to try and prevent young offenders from growing into hardened criminals, but the bachelor Truman is not used to dealing with children. The detective gets involved with the Murphy family, which includes two young twins and older sister Cathie (Anne Heywood) and teen brother Johnnie (David McCallum). Truman develops an interest in Cathie, despite her mistrust of him. He also begins to suspect that Johnnie is behind a series of fires. Due to his investigations Truman is able to send the police to Johnnie's latest arson, but the boy escapes, runs over and kills a confederate with a truck, and holes up in the local school, where he holds a entire class of youngsters hostage with a machine gun. Truman and the authorities now have to figure out how to stop Johnnie from causing a massacre.
VIOLENT PLAYGROUND is a very well made film, with director Dearden and cinematographer Reg Wyer making excellent use of real-life Liverpool locations. The movie ably presents a lower-class, bleak-looking Liverpool that is filled with all sorts of children and teens that seemingly have nothing to do but get into trouble. The Murphys live in a large and noisy overcrowded housing complex that offers very little privacy. The movie was made before the rise of Beatlemania, and its black & white, matter-of-fact attitude doesn't make Liverpool very inviting.
Nearly every juvenile delinquency film features a handsome, sullen, and troubled young man, and David McCallum fills that role here. McCallum is very good, and the story tries to "explain" Johnnie's behavior (his parents are not around, and he has no guidance or direction). It's hard to feel for the character's plight, though, when he's threatening a roomful of kids with a machine gun (especially when one considers what is going on in the world right now). Johnnie has his own gang of toughs, and of course they like to listen to rock and roll (here the musical genre is represented by a very generic-sounding song called "Play Rough").
Stanley Baker is his usual strong, resilient self as Detective Truman. He comes to care and understand about the kids he is dealing with, but he still remains someone you don't want to mess around with. His best scene is at the end, where he vehemently explains to Cathie that as a police officer his main job is to uphold the law. Despite the fact that in the main credits he gets second billing, Peter Cushing has a small role as the kindly priest. His Father Laidlaw is a very soft-spoken man, but he has enough strength to try and confront Johnnie during the hostage situation. It's not one of Cushing's more memorable roles, but it's notable due to the fact that it came in between his first portrayals of Baron Frankenstein and Dr. Van Helsing.
Peter Cushing and David McCallum
Like just about every British film made in the 1950s and 1960s, the supporting cast of VIOLENT PLAYGROUND has all sorts of film geek connections. Hammer veterans Clifford Evans and George Cooper appear here, and I'm pretty sure I recognized Phillip Ray, although he's not listed in the cast on IMDB. Melvyn Hayes, who had played the young Victor in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, plays one of Johnnie's gang, and Tsai Chin, who would go on to play Christopher Lee's daughter in the 1960s Fu Manchu series of films, has a brief but important part.
One thing a viewer will notice while watching VIOLENT PLAYGROUND is that none of the main characters in the movie speaks with a Liverpool accent. This might seem strange now, but Veronica Carlson (who watched the movie last night as well) mentioned to me a very good point: the reason local accents were not used was probably due to the fact that the producers wanted audiences to understand what the characters were saying. If this movie had been made after 1963 and the rise of the Beatles, no doubt the cast would have sounded very different.
VIOLENT PLAYGROUND is an effective story dealing with real-life issues, even though some of the elements have dated a bit. The tense climax, dealing with a emotionally disturbed teen holding a gun on a group of schoolchildren, is certainly disconcerting, maybe even more so now. Thankfully the movie does not use this situation as an excuse to be exploitative and vulgar.