A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
We need more American films like "Up the Down Staircase." We need more films that might be concerned, even remotely, with real experiences that might once have happened to real people. And we need more actresses like Sandy Dennis, who looks as if she may be alive and not a plastic robot turned out by the little elves who constructed Doris Day and Sandra Dee. Here, at last, is a film made in America by Americans in which no one is murdered by a cigarette lighter.
The film's setting is Calvin Coolidge High School, one of those vast blocks of stone and brick in which our cities educate 3,000 students at a shot. Coolidge High is apparently located somewhere in a low income, racially mixed New York neighborhood, and it is a "problem" school. That makes it bait for an idealistic naive new teacher who wants to "expand vistas."
As the teacher, Sandy Dennis is perfectly cast. She doesn't know how to teach, what to teach or, in the end, even why she wants to teach. Her first lesson comes in the first two minutes of her first class, when she quotes Emily Dickinson ("There is no frigate like a book") and the students hoot with laughter. A veteran teacher suggests maybe she should have substituted "steamship." These are the things you have to think about if you propose to reach real kids.
As Miss Dennis slowly comes to know the students in her classes, they slowly turn out to be individuals with problems. Like Alice Blake (superbly played by Ellen O'Mara), a chubby, painfully shy girl who falls in love with a handsome English teacher. Or Joe Ferone (Jeff Howard), who can earn good grades when he wants to but gets more attention if he doesn't. Or Harry A. Kagan (Salvatore Rosa), the glib, loud, fat class president who always wears a tie and always tucks it into his belt.