The film centers on an awkward high school senior named Jerry Mitchell (Casey Siemaszko, a good 8 years older than most high school seniors when he played this role). His day gets off to a rough start when he oversleeps and has to scurry to get to school on time to open the student store at 7:00. On this day the school is all abuzz with news that a new student named Buddy Revell (Richard Tyson) is arriving on campus. Revell is notorious for having been kicked out of many schools for beating up, and seriously injuring, other students, coaches and teachers. Legend has it that he is a “touch freak.” If anyone so much as brushes his shoulder, they’re likely to end up in traction. He even carries a set of brass knuckles for “special occassions.”
As you may have guessed, Jerry’s day is about to get a whole lot worse. As a writer for the student newspaper he’s given the task of doing a piece on the new kid on campus…kind of a dumb and unlikely plot point, but big deal. When he happens upon Buddy in the bathroom,Jerry’s attempts to be friendly just anger him. So he tells Buddy to just forget the whole thing and gently pats him on the shoulder. This sets off the “touch freak” who ends up challenging Jerry to a fight at 3:00.
The rest of the film follows Jerry’s numerous attempts to get out of the fight. As the day progresses, his efforts become more and more desperate. We see Jerry, a kid who has had a perfect school record his whole life, resort to sneaking off campus, stealing money, setting off the fire alarm…and that’s just for starters. He does more in one day than most troublemakers do in four years of high school. In the end, unable to escape his fate, Jerry faces Buddy in the fight to end all after school fights.
“Three O’Clock High” has a fresh-out-of-film-school feel to it…probably because the film’s director was, well, fresh out of film school. It was the first film directed by Phil Joanou. He’s gone on to direct films like “State of Grace,” “Final Analysis,” and “Heaven’s Prisoners,” but he’s probably best known for his 2nd film, the concert film/documentary “U2: Rattle and Hum.” Supposedly, one of his student films caught the attention of Steven Spielberg, who enlisted him to direct a few episodes of the show “Amazing Stories.” Rumor has it that Spielberg was actually an executive producer on “Three O’Clock High,” though his name does not appear in the credits.
Now, “fresh-out-of-film-school” is not meant as a negative statement…at least not this time. What we get as a result is a lot of creativity when it comes to camera angles and movements. Joanou employs low camera angles a lot in this film, especially to make Buddy Revell a more ominous character than he already is. But it doesn’t stop there. There’s a big sweeping shot where the camera pans over a crowd of students to eventually land on Jerry’s face. There’s a shot filmed from inside a washing machine, a shot done as if peering out from the glass panel of a fire alarm, and an amazing tracking shot at the film’s beginning which floats from student to student as they discuss the legend of Buddy Revell. That one shot takes us from the bus stop, into the school, and up to the student store, while giving us the backstory in the process. With all these interesting camera techniques on display, it’s not surprising to see the name Barry Sonnenfeld in the credits. He provided some of the unique camera work for film’s like “Raising Arizona” before moving on to be a successful director himself.
The camera work gives this film it’s quirkiness, but it’s portrayal of high school in the 80’s is very believable. The school the film was shot at (in Ogden, Utah) looks like my high school. The kids and teachers look and dress like the ones I knew. Buddy Revell seems to have been created by mixing the DNA of the kids who hung out at the “smoker’s corner” at my high school. Ferris Bueller is great…but he’s a fairy tale character. Jerry Mitchell is closer to the average 80’s high school student than anything John Hughes ever dreamed up. Both Siemaszko and Tyson turn in great performances. Either one could’ve sat down in my high school math class and blended in perfectly…even with Tyson being about 3 times the size of any of the other students.
Joanou’s constant fascination with clocks in this film also helps the film’s believability. Time is always on the mind of a high school student, because they want to know how much longer they have to endure the school day. If there’s one thing I knew about my high school, it was the location of every clock in the building. In “Three O’Clock High” they are everywhere, raising the tension as Jerry gets closer and closer to his doom. The unique score by Tangerine Dream also helps raise the tension, and it’s perfectly bookended by one of the catchiest, if forgotten, pop tracks in 80’s movie history…a little ditty called “Something to Remember Me By” by Jim Walker. Unfortunately, the soundtrack currently does not reside in the iTunes store.
“Three O’Clock High” will never be considered a classic. It barely registered as a blip on the Hollywood radar when it was released. But it is a film worth checking out…it is creative, original, and shows the 80’s high school experience as it was….minus the brass knuckles.