Ponyboy Curtis (C. Thomas Howell) sits down to write about his experiences over the past few weeks, and begins his tale when he had just been to the movies alone to watch Paul Newman in The Hustler. He had been mightily impressed with the star, but on his way home he was hassled by members of the Socs, the rival gang to the Greasers of whom Ponyboy was a member. The Socs looked down on the Greasers for being poorer than they were, and they took every opportunity to intimidate them, although that state of affairs was a two way street which would lead to tragedy...
Director Francis Ford Coppola filmed two of S.E. Hinton's novels after being requested to by a class of teenagers who had decided he would be the best choice to bring their favourite books to the screen. Flattered, and impressed with the material which had been written by Hinton when she was a teenager herself, he thought they would make a great basis for something that was a cut above the usual teen movie - at one point the characters go to see a Beach Party double bill, as if to say, this was what teen movies were when I was a kid and I want to do better. As it turned out, both The Outsiders and Rumble Fish were not runaway successes, but maybe they became something more fitting.
That's right, they became cult movies, and much of this was down to the manner in which Coppola presented the work as if it were the teen equivalent of a Shakespearean tragedy: there's not one insincere moment in this, if anything it's painfully earnest from the first frame right to the final credits. Bringing this out were a cast of actors who would become big names over the next few years, it really was remarkable that Coppola spotted so many promising talents and gave for many of them what was their first big break. Perhaps C. Thomas Howell never went on to lasting success, but in support there was Matt Dillon as his troublemaking buddy, Patrick Swayze as his older brother, and Tom Cruise as a Greaser looking forward to the big fight.
Even at that age there were a few cast members who had established themselves to some extent, such as Leif Garrett who star was on the wane already, in spite of him being barely out of his teens, and Diane Lane who was securing some cult acclaim herself thanks to her good looks and choices of roles. So if nothing else, The Outsiders was good for star spotters as there was a recognisable face in just about every part, but how did they live up to the expectations of the most important segment of the audience, those who had appreciated the books? Under Coppola's experienced tutelage, there was no one who embarrassed themselves, yet none of them offered a performance that you could truly call stellar.
It could have been the restrictions of the script, or it could have been that many of them were learning their craft at this stage, but if you had not read the novels it was unlikely you would be as moved by what happens as those who had. On the face of it, it's typical teen angst stuff, with gang violence thrown in: Ponyboy is not comfortable with living up to the demands of being one of the Greasers, he'd rather spend his time reading, watching films and getting to know Lane's Cherry, who attends the same school and would not normally have talked to him except that one fateful night it seems he has a chance with her, in contrast to Dillon's boorish Dallas. It's a fateful night for more than that, however, as Ponyboy's friend Johnny (Ralph Macchio) kills a Soc in a fight to save him, and they both go on the run in a romanticised style, much as the rest of the film is handled. It could be that like the source, you had to see The Outsiders at an impressionable age, otherwise you admired its artistry more than its emotional charge. Music by Carmine Coppola.