A racial drama lacking the stylistic bravado to match its potentially incendiary subject matter, Halls of Anger retains any kind of profile these days for the early appearance of a pre-Last Picture Show Jeff Bridges. Bridges’ quietly intense performance is a clear bellwether of things to come, but he’s not the only one to show great potential.
Lead star Calvin Lockhart pulls off a nice balancing act as Quincy Davis, an ex-basketball player and dedicated educator tasked with keeping order as the vice principal at an inner-city school. The role is often little more than the kind of well-mannered, neutered black man that Sidney Poitier was doomed to play for decades, but Lockhart imbues it with a palpable sense of inner turmoil. He comes across as a real person, not simply a blandly virtuous paragon.
Forced into the vice principal job at a downtown school in order to further his career, Davis must confront the agitated student body as the black school is desegregated by the busing in of a handful of white students, among them Bridges and a young, already-balding Rob Reiner. The scenario doesn’t seem to signify much forethought other than an attempt to mix up the dynamic with some role reversal. The resulting obnoxious and sometimes violent behavior of the student body against the docile white students simply portrays the black kids as unmitigated villains, without making any cogent observations on race relations in the midst of it.
It doesn’t help matters that director Paul Bogart seems to approach the material with all the solemnity of an after-school special, shooting each scene with a measured, pedestrian eye. While John Shaner and Al Ramrus’s screenplay is an irreversibly muddled stew of ideas, a more off-the-cuff, ragged stylistic acknowledgment of its exploitation picture tendencies would’ve been easier to swallow.
Nonetheless, the performances tend to rise above the material — Lockhart, Bridges and also James A. Watson Jr. as the bright troublemaker most responsible for the school’s and Davis’s grief. Even though Bogart’s direction largely drains the film of any energy, the focused and forceful work of all three serves as a significant antidote.
The MGM Limited Edition Collection burn-on-demand disc presents the film in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and does a serviceable job with the film’s washed-out ’70s color palette. Brief bits of major print damage and cue marks mar the transfer occasionally, but it’s plenty watchable. The disc also includes the film’s trailer, in really bad shape and apparently cropped for television.