Blackboard Jungle (M-G-M). "Don't be a hero," says the old teacher (Louis Calhern) to the new teacher (Glenn Ford), "and never turn your back to the class." Ford, an idealistic young man who hopes, as a teacher, to "shape minds, sculpt lives," looks puzzled. He knows that North Manual High School is "the garbage can of the educational system" of the big U.S. city he lives in, but is the situation really as bad as all that? He finds out that it is.
In his black hole of a school room, jampacked with 35 surly inmates, Teacher Ford spends all his energies in the fight to keep the barest sort of order. He humors, scolds, tries to entice interest. No luck. When he dares to discipline, one young hoodlum asks: "You ever try to fight 35 guys at one time, Teach?"
One night as Ford leaves school he hears screams from the library, gets there just in time to prevent the rape of a woman teacher by one of the older students. Next day his class gives him the silent treatment. That night, dead beat, he drops in for a drink at a bar near the school, stays for one too many. On the way home he is ambushed in an alley by a gang of boys and badly beaten up.
On the screen as in the novel by Evan Hunter, Blackboard Jungle suffers seriously from the vices of professional indignation, special pleading and general rostrumism. Sometimes it seems to raise false eyebrows and to grit false teeth. The resolution of the plot is so facile as to appear insincere. But the picture also has the virtues of its vices: social conscience, honest anger and a narrow but vital kindliness.
Cinematically, Blackboard Jungle is no great shakes. The camera work is commonplace and the emotional pace limps. The actors do better. Glenn Ford is a believable symbol of two-fisted do-goodism; Louis Calhern captures that special look of secret decay that can come from breathing chalk dust for 30 years. Better still are the students themselves, some of whom were borrowed from their desks in the Los Angeles public school system. The sense of them there in the background has obviously provided a true emotional standard to which the professional actors, notably Sidney Poitier and Vic Morrow, could repair.
More important, however, than the letter of the film is the spirit. It seizes a burning issue, and lets the sparks fall where they may.
East of Eden (Warner) provides, for those who can stand it, an experience as complex and fascinating as that of playing three-dimensional chess with three different opponents. The three levels in this film are occupied by the Bible story of Cain and Abel, by John Steinbeck's recent novel (TIME, Sept. 22, 1952), which attempts to retell the eternal tale as a modern instance, and by Director Elia Kazan's effort to reconcile the spirit of both with his own sharp sense of the story's meaning and with the claims of commerce.