Set entirely in a Borstal—the former British equivalent of juvenile detention, reserved for the most serious delinquents—Alan Clarke’s Scum was intended to call attention to the deplorable conditions of that institution, a hotbed of violence perpetrated by inmates and administrators alike. When Clarke originally made it in 1977, as a television play, the BBC refused to air it, fearing it might be perceived as sensationalism. He then remade it in 1979 as a proper film, using mostly the same cast, and while it appears to have screened pretty much everywhere except the U.K. for the next several years, by 1982 the Borstal system was no more. Did the movie play a role in that reform? Possibly. Despite one lengthy lecture of a scene, though, Scum isn’t really a social-problem picture at heart. It’s, well, scummier than that: a straightforward prison flick, basically, honoring all of the genre’s many conventions, from the sadistic screws to the wars between rival cell blocks to the innocent who gets brutally gang-raped.
As a bonus, it also introduced Ray Winstone to the world and allowed him to create his screen persona right before viewers’ eyes. (He appeared in both versions, though only the ’79 film is on this Kino Blu-ray.) As Carlin, an inveterate troublemaker who arrives in the opening scene, Winstone looks incredibly baby-faced and speaks in a comparatively high register, barely resembling the guttural he-man seen in later films like Nil By Mouth and Sexy Beast. But non-stop abuse from the adults entrusted with his care, plus a vicious beating from the resident “daddy” (i.e., the most powerful inmate), inspires a remarkable transformation, along with a lesson on how to improvise a weapon using two pool balls and a tube sock. At the other extreme lies the more intellectual Archer (Mick Ford), who manipulates everyone around him, less for personal gain (though he’s convinced the thugs that he’s too crazy to attack) than for the sheer joy of hassling authority. Like Malcolm McDowell in If…., Archer may be too smart for his own good. All the same, the film’s climactic riot turns out to be precipitated by another character entirely.
To a certain extent, all of this is extremely familiar—the inmates are just a little younger than usual. And the film’s didactic origin can be detected not just in the aforementioned lecture, in which Archer regales one of his keepers with his progressive views on rehabilitation, but in an overall narrative shapelessness. (Clarke went on to perfect this approach in more avant-garde works like Elephant, but it feels half-formed here, with the movie mostly conforming to expectations but sometimes declining to satisfy them.) Still, a milieu this pungent is not to be sniffed at, so to speak. Details are often arresting—Archer, for example, is introduced marching barefoot outdoors, which turns out to be part of a long con he’s playing where he pretends to be a vegetarian and animal-rights activist (and hence can’t wear the Borstal’s standard-issue leather boots). And performances are first-rate across the board, even though a couple of the screws are so cartoonishly evil that they seem to be on the verge of feeling for a mustache to twirl. Whether Scum ultimately did British juvenile offenders any good is an open question, but it unquestionably put Clarke on the map, and that’s legacy enough.
Also new this week:
Fans of big, budget-priced box sets who don’t already own most of the films contained therein may be excited about Alfred Hitchcock: The Essentials Collection (Universal) and/or Clint Eastwood: 20-Film Collection (Warner) and Clint Eastwood: 40-Film Collection (Warner), all of which offer the usual suspects. Fans of films maudits will be salivating at the prospect of a high-definition copy of Peter Bogdanovich’s disastrous musical At Long Last Love (Fox), in which Burt Reynolds and Cybill Shepherd are not exactly Astaire and Rogers, for better and worse. Midway (Universal) provides a decent war-movie fix, in which Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, and others fight the titular battle; and Earthquake (Universal) provides the disaster-movie fix, in which Heston battles tectonic plates, presumably. The original film of The Odd Couple (Paramount) also gets a digital upgrade, which should please Felix considerably more than Oscar. And cult favorite Electra Glide In Blue (Shout! Factory) is now available on Blu-ray, along with a Shout! Factory two-fer of Peter Fonda in the equally culty Dirty Mary Crazy Larry and the literally culty Race With The Devil.
For those seeking something a little more contemporary, this week also marks the home-video debut of A Good Day To Die Hard (Fox), universally considered the worst film in the series, and Identity Thief (Universal), starring Jason Bateman as a hapless dude whose ID is commandeered by Melissa McCarthy, which is widely considered one of the worst comedies of the year. The zombie romance Warm Bodies (Summit) was received with a bit less open hostility, and if parents plop their kids in front of Escape From Planet Earth (Starz/Anchor Bay), they’ll probably be marginally distracted for at least a few blissful minutes. But the best bet is probably the documentary Brooklyn Castle (Millennium), about a New York public school with a world-class chess team.