A serious social drama film of the type that flourished in the 1960's, Up the Down Staircase seems somewhat dated and preachy when viewed by modern audiences. The subject matter is laudable, of course: an ambitious, spirited and concerned young teacher determined to make a difference in a troubled inner city school.
And there are quite a few memorable moments, including a very well-directed juxtaposition of Sylvia Barrett triumphing by getting her class excited about A Tale of Two Cities as the lovelorn and dejected Alice Blake quietly and calmly examines the classroom of the teacher she loves before jumping from a window.
Director Robert Mulligan also provides appropriate tension to a scene in which another troubled student forcefully comes on to the young teacher, and throughout he does a commendable job of using a hand held camera and a very busy, overlapping soundtrack to convey the tumult, confusion and chaos of the high school.
He is less successful in overcoming the script's tendency to excessive earnestness and dialogue that often sacrifices subtlety and nuance to make its points. The film also suffers from a bit of hollowness at its core.
Some of this is due to Sandy Dennis's performance - her peculiar brand of acting, while effective in conveying much about the character, also tends to isolate her from the other cast members. However, the decision to present the character solely in terms of the school and its immediate environs and never in her home life also contributes to the hollowness.
The supporting cast is marvelous, with a mixture of seasoned pros and novices, although one wishes Eileen Heckart had been given more to do. Despite its flaws, Staircase remains involving.