Note: The following discusses Three O’Clock High in detail and contains spoilers.
I’ve watched Phil Joanou’s Three O’Clock High a dozen or so times since its release in 1987, and in every viewing, I always sympathized with Jerry Mitchell, the mild-mannered high school student trapped in an increasing nightmare of circumstance and misfortune. It’s the epitome of the One Damn Thing After Another movie, where a hapless hero finds himself the victim of a long string of wrong place, wrong time, creating a pile-up of out-of-control frenzy and tension that keeps ratcheting in ways that make us simultaneously cringe and laugh. This time, though, I started wondering: does Jerry only have himself to blame?
But first, a recap: Jerry (Casey Siemaszko, whose performance is a masterpiece of sweaty desperation) suffers a handful of bad starts to what’s shaping up to be a bad day, and then he stumbles upon Buddy Revell (Richard Tyson, creating an iconic screen menace), a new kid with a bad rep. Buddy declares he and Jerry will fight in the school parking lot at three o’clock, the end of the school day. This leaves Jerry with six hours and change to try anything to escape this destiny, but every plan backfires, leaving the poor guy inching toward a very bad showdown.
It is, essentially, a comic reworking of High Noon, where our hero isn’t the brave marshal but the yellow townsfolk. More than just parody a well-known story, however, Three O’Clock High’s screenplay (by Richard Christian Matheson and Thomas E. Szollosi, TV vets making a rare big screen turn) decides to twist the 80s high school genre into a study of panic and mishap. There’s great character stuff throughout, and the whip-smart dialogue topped with Joanou’s wicked visuals and airtight pacing draw us in immediately. Watching Siemaszko fast-talk through the flop sweat is enough to get us yelling at the screen – Shut up, stupid! You’re only making it worse!
What finally clicked for me on this latest revisit was just how deeply the film takes us into the murky waters of ethical quandary. This is a richly philosophical movie, interested in the grey areas between the clichés of “hero” and “coward,” eventually asking, simply, which of Jerry’s actions are defensible? Where is the line between honorable self-preservation and mere gutlessness? How much can we forgive if one’s actions are a result of fear?
Again, a recap: Jerry’s initial efforts to avoid the fight are with words, first in the bathroom immediately following Buddy’s challenge, then in the hallway a little bit later. In both instances, he hopes to reason with Buddy, explaining there’s no real reason to fight. His friend Vincent then hatches a plan to frame Buddy by planting a switchblade in his locker; fearing this will only cause more trouble, Jerry hopes to escape by driving off campus, only to discover Buddy has found the switchblade and, worse, disabled Jerry’s car1. Now trapped, he asks a jock to act as a bodyguard of sorts, but the jock requires money for such a service, which Jerry steals from the on-campus store he manages. When this fails, he attempts to land in detention (and thus have a legit reason to miss the fight), but his questionable actions accidentally land him in his English teacher’s favor. Finally, after helping Buddy cheat on an algebra test and then taking the rap (both in hopes of winning him over), he offers the bully the stolen money to call off the fight. Buddy agrees, but when he scoffs at Jerry’s actions (“You’re the biggest pussy I’ve ever seen in my life”), Jerry has a change of heart and agrees to the fight.
So of those, which are morally acceptable and which cross a line? In a recent conversation with eFilmCritic’s Marc Kandel, Kandel argued that all of Jerry’s actions are permissible:
“It’s a helluva sword hanging over Jerry’s head…. This poor kid has never faced a real threat like this, and it drives him into a panicked frenzy…. Watching Siemaszko really brings back the fear of getting the holy shit beaten out of you and how it’s a fear that just keeps expanding in your mind. Siemaszko sells the cold dread of it all so well that I can buy he’d do anything to stave off that confrontation.”
In Marc’s eyes, the danger – both implied (as Jerry fears it) and real (the brass knuckles suggest more could be at stake than just a bloody lip) – is so great, and his panic so intense, the circumstances allow behavior that would otherwise not earn a pass. It’s not what Jerry does but why.
But let’s consider the screenplay, which appears to back up Buddy’s belief that Jerry is, simply and crassly put, a “pussy.” Buddy’s comment alone could be viewed as mere goading, but the movie gives weight to what he coldly, stingingly says next: “You didn’t even try. How does that feel?” It’s this exchange that leads Jerry to a quick bit of soul searching, which then leads him to declare he’ll fight after all, and the movie plays all this as if asking the audience to cheer his decision.
Kandel scoffs at Buddy here, explaining:
“Tyson sells the righteousness and disgust, but he’s got no moral ground – he’s quietly torturing this poor kid who’s, at the core, done nothing to him.”
The character may have no moral ground because his initial challenge is purely villainous, but by all accounts the movie agrees with his final assessment. The screenplay acknowledges Jerry’s wimpy behavior and punishes him for it (more on that in a bit). It also makes Buddy more complicated than just some punk with a bad attitude. Yes, he’s threatening and frightening, but we also get hints he may not be all his reputation suggests. He’s clearly smart enough to pass algebra if he wanted to, and he likes quiet time in the library with a Steinbeck paperback. His sense of honor is twisted yet strict enough to have its own understandable logic; rather than being some random threat, he is a man of his word who harms those who violate his personal space and leaves everyone else alone.
In that regard, let’s view Buddy as a neutral entity. After all, he moves through the bulk of the story this way. Barring his original challenge and his effort to prevent Jerry from leaving campus, he does little to interfere with Jerry’s day. In fact, as the day progresses, he becomes a curious observer, wondering just how far the little wuss will go. It’s as if he’s never seen someone so craven before, and he’s fascinated. (The bit where he entraps Jerry with the algebra quiz isn’t about the fight, it’s about testing Jerry’s limits and discovering he has none.) Buddy is wicked, but for the bulk of the film, he’s merely a symbol for the unavoidable. He is a force of nature. He is fate.
By viewing Buddy as fate, the fight can stand in for something more – say, death, or pain, or loss. Let’s just call it The Inescapable. The day is a clock pushing Jerry toward The Inescapable, and by putting the screws to him, we see how he crumbles, and he crumbles badly. Which is a long way ’round of saying: everything Jerry does before lunch is perfectly understandable and excusable, but once he steals the money, everything else that befalls him is his own fault.
Trying to talk one’s way out of The Inescapable, trying to run away from The Inescapable, these are natural responses. But there’s a mountain of trouble that stems entirely from Jerry stealing the cash. He’s a main suspect, first with faculty, then with the police. The stress of the theft causes conflict with his best friend. He’s later in heat with one teacher and the principal, while a second teacher now stalks him as a potential lover. None of these problems are Buddy’s fault. He did not instigate, he did not interfere. While it can be argued that he did plant the seed by creating the stress that led to such complications, it can also be argued that Jerry is the one who, alone, made the increasingly terrible choices. He could’ve done a million things, but he chose to steal from his own store, something he previously would have never even considered, an act which effectively changes him for the worse. He must then pay for these sins on his own, separate from his conflict with Buddy.
The script allows Jerry redemption by the end, with the students – including Buddy himself – rallying to save the store, and with Jerry seemingly back to his meek ways. But there are loose ends, prices to be paid: he has a gossip-fueled reputation that will likely follow him until he graduates, and possibly beyond (and that’s not counting the still-horny English teacher). Jerry met fate, survived, and is all the stronger for it, but his more vulgar attempts to escape The Inescapable will haunt him always. He was hero and coward in one, and the reward is a grey area made greyer.
1I love how the film plays with genre in order to underline Jerry’s lack of escape. Once we discover Jerry’s car is useless, the script starts introducing characters and Joanou starts framing shots to resemble a prison movie. By borrowing elements from that genre, the film works on our subconscious, hinting at a lack of freedom through visual analogy. Brilliant stuff.