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Mad at the World (1955) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

bennett jamie lynn police

Principal social theme: violence/gangs

The Filmakers. No MPAA rating. Featuring: Frank Lovejoy, Keefe Braselle, Cathy O’Donnell, Karen Sharpe, Stanley Clements, Joe Turkel, Paul Dubov, Aaron Spelling, Paul Bryar, James Delgado, Joe Besser. Written by Harry Essex. Cinematography by William Snyder. Edited by Stanford Tischler. Music by Leith Stevens. Produced by Collier Young. Directed by Harry Essex. B&W. 76 minutes.


Mad at the World is one of the first films to attempt to identify the causes of random violence by youth gangs. Writer/director Harry Essex adapted several true-life cases to develop this scenario, which so impressed U.S. Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennesee, head of a special Senate subcommittee investigating juvenile crime, that he agreed to appear in a prologue discussing the epidemic of teenage violence in America and how it can spill over to the entire community. He suggests that a few useful answers have been found. He cites Mad at the World as a case study showing how one police department handled the problem.


After Kefauver’s preface, the credits roll followed by a short narration in documentary style by Frank Lovejoy, who plays Captain Tom Lynn. He discusses how the problem of gang violence develops among the youth of Chicago. An elderly pedestrian is assaulted by four youths in an alley. Released from the hospital, the man is escorted by Lynn through the holding pen, where various teenage felons are held following their arrest. Lynn describes each offender, including Hispanics, blacks, as well as white kids, all with lengthy rap sheets. The man also examines the mugshot books, but does not come across any of his four attackers. The focus then shifts back to the four young thugs, Marty, Jamie, Frank, and Pete, who decide to borrow a car to seek some thrills. They bully the elderly parking lot attendant to loan them a car that would not be missed for the evening. They hot rod about and then decide to find some victims to hassle. They observe Sam and Anne Bennett, out walking with their baby. Jamie throws a liquor bottle at them, which strikes the baby on the head. They speed off and later hear a radio broadcast saying the baby is in critical condition.

The police make an intensive effort to identify and arrest the gang members. When they believe that they have located the car used in the crime, they arrest the owner, a young man named Willie Hansen. Further investigation clears Hansen, however, who was sick with a high fever during the night of the crime, a fact verified by a doctor. Bennett is outraged when the police release Hansen, and he waylays the youth in the police parking lot. Lynn rescues the boy and warns Bennett that he is out of line. Bennett, however, has decided to start his own investigation. Using the name Bill Holland, he rents a space in the parking garage used by Hansen. After nosing around, he suspects that the thugs might be members of the Hijackers, a tough neighborhood club. He befriends Tess, a local waitress and a member of the club. He asks her about finding a place to stay, and she recommends the rooming house where she lives. Returning home, he receives news from the hospital that his son has died. He tells his wife that he is going away for a few days. When Captain Lynn arrives to offer his condolences, Bennett slugs him, afraid he would interfere with his scheme to do his own undercover investigation. The police lab finally identifies a fingerprint from the smashed liquor bottle as belonging to Pete Johnson, a juvenile formerly booked on assault. They arrest him, and after questioning, he finally tells the police the names of the other gang members, identifying Jamie Ellison as the one who threw the bottle.

Meanwhile, Tess takes her new friend “Bill” to a dance at the Hijackers. She introduces him to Jamie and Marty. He offers to buy them a drink, and they decide to crash a college frat party. Once they leave the Hijackers, Jamie slugs “Bill,” recognizing him as Bennett, the father of the dead baby. They plan to dump his body in the furnace at the nearby lumber mill. When Marty refuses to go along with Jamie’s plan, his friend shoots him. In the commotion, Bennett escapes, heading to the upper floors of the building. The police raid the Hijackers Club and when they learn their suspects have left, they initiate an all-points search. They head to the lumberyard after hearing reports of a shooting. Jamie follows Bennett, firing at him, but missing his target. Bennett knocks the gun out of his hand, and they fight until Jamie is badly injured in a fall. The police arrive, and Bennett hands them Jamie’s gun. Captain Lynn questions Jamie as he is dying. He asks him why he kills for kicks. He replies, “You gotta find your kicks or go without.… Dames like a guy who is tough. I was tough.” Lynn shakes his head in disbelief as the thug expires.


Mad at the World makes a number of strong points in its presentation. Casting, however, works against the story as Stanley Clements, Joe Turkel, Paul Dubov, and James Delgado are simply too old to play teenage gang members realistically. Ironically, Aaron Spelling, cast as the slightly older Willie Hansen, is the only one who could reasonably pass as a teenager. (Spelling, incidentally, quit acting to become one of the leading producers in television history.) The most effective acting in the film is provided by Keefe Braselle, as the tormented Sam Bennett out to avenge his child’s murder. He also has a number of powerful speeches, first to Captain Lynn complaining about the easy treatment accorded teenage criminals, and later to Tess, when he apologizes for using her to gain entrance to the Hijackers. Usually dismissed as a weak actor, Braselle fills his performance here with convincing fire and passion. Frank Lovejoy is also effective as Captain Lynn. His comments on the nature of youth violence provide a solid basis on the issue of delinquency that makes the film worth watching and studying for the treatment of the issue. The authentic street footage is very well utilized, giving the film a gritty, realistic air that disappears only when the over-age thugs enter the scene. The script seems to stray off course in the last third of the picture, when Lynn’s attention seems to switch from salvaging the youths to saving Bennett. The death scene of Dubov as Jamie seems to bring things back into focus. Lynn pleads with Jamie in an attempt to understand his motivations. He encounters a sense of nihilism that eerily foreshadows a major segment of the youth culture over the next fifty years. This remarkable scene makes it a unique one for study and analysis.

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