Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Hoodlum (Jack Schwarz Productions/Eagle-Lion, 1951)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran The Hoodlum from the Mill Creek Entertainment “Dark Crimes” 50-film DVD box. This was a 1951 low-budget film noir from Jack Schwarz Productions, released through Eagle-Lion Studios — the company formed when J. Arthur Rank bought the PRC studios just so he could have a U.S. distribution company through which to release his British productions and not have to pay distribution fees to the U.S. studios, picking the name from the national animals of the U.S. and Britain. (The purchase turned out well for him; among Eagle-Lion’s first releases was the spectacular 1948 film The Red Shoes, a blockbuster hit on both sides of the Atlantic.) It reunited the star and director of the 1945 Monogram Dillinger — Lawrence Tierney and Max Nosseck, respectively — and though it was a contemporary story instead of a period piece, it had the look and feel of a 1930’s gangster film, starting with a series of scenes in which Vincent Lubeck, a rebellious and anti-social teenager, is arrested for an increasingly serious series of crimes and given a longer sentence every time (there’s a voiceover narration that presumably represents the voice of the judge sentencing him in each case) until he’s grown up from the unidentified adolescent actor playing him in the framing scenes to be Lawrence Tierney and to be serving a five-to-10 year stretch for armed robbery.

When the parole board considers his case, the prison warden (Gene Roth) is against paroling him on the ground that he’s a hoodlum and he will return to criminal life almost immediately if and when he’s released, but after Vincent’s mother (Lisa Golm) shows up and makes a tear-jerking plea for his release, the rest of the parole board caves and lets him out on the promise that his younger brother Johnny (played by Lawrence Tierney’s real-life brother Edward, who gets an “Introducing” credit) will give him a job at the gas station Johnny has borrowed money to buy. Vincent’s disgust with the straight life shows up early when an obnoxious customer gets on his nerves, he accidentally splashes gas on the man’s car, and when the man tells him to clean it off immediately lest it spoil the paint job, he deliberately pours gas all over the car instead. From there The Hoodlum travels down paths a million gangster movies have traveled before it, though there are some clever quirks in the script by Sam Neuman and Nat Tanchuck that set it apart from the innumerable previous films that have used the clueless-family, good-brother, bad-brother gangster trope (including the acknowledged classic The Public Enemy, with James Cagney as the bad brother and Donald Woods as the good brother, 20 years earlier). Vincent’s drift back into criminality starts when he notices both a bank across the street from the gas station and Eileen (Marjorie Riordan), the hot brunette who works there and was given a convertible by her boss (the hint is that she’s the boss’s mistress — there’s a lot of Code-bending, and one outright assault on it, in this film); he courts Eileen to get information about the layout of the bank and the routine of the armored truck that arrives there every Thursday to pick up a half-million dollar deposit for the Federal Reserve.

Knowing that there’ll be a police cordon set up as soon as any robbery from the armored car takes place, Vincent hits on a solution inspired by the presence of the Breckenridge Mortuary on the same block: he’ll not only fake a funeral but even acquire a body (actually a homeless man), send two members of his gang to pose as the person’s relatives, and book a funeral for the day of the robbery so they’ll have an excuse to ask the cops to let them by. While all this is going on Vincent is still living at home with mom and brother, and for no more apparent reason but to be mean and get back at that annoying goody-two-shoes brother of his he seduces the brother’s girlfriend, Rosa (Allene Roberts), grabbing her and kissing her so forcefully it looks like rape but eventually winning her willingness, or at least acquiescence, in having sex with him. Then Rosa kills herself by jumping off the roof of their apartment building, and as Mrs. Lubeck reads the suicide note Rosa left behind she stumbles over the word “pregnant” — two years before the Production Code Administration refused a Code Seal to Otto Preminger’s 1953 film The Moon Is Blue because its dialogue contained the words “pregnant” and “virgin.” The funeral ruse fools the police at first, but eventually they catch on and bust everyone in the gang except Vincent — and in a finish that’s a legitimate surprise, Johnny corners him and holds a gun on him until the police arrive, there’s a shoot-out and Vincent is gunned down and killed.

Neuman and Tanchuck do throw us a few curveballs that take the edge off the clichéd nature of their story, including a scene just before Vincent is released from prison in which the warden gives him a key, points to the door it opens in the prison and it turns out to be the room containing the electric chair (thereby making it surprising that the film does not end with Vincent being arrested for a capital crime and legally executed), but overall the film seems pretty much a modern-dress rehash of Dillinger. Lawrence Tierney had a short career; the success of Dillinger gave him roles at the major studios but he didn’t stay there long, partly because casting directors soon found out that amoral tough guy was the only sort of role he could play and partly because he acted too much like his characters off-screen as well — no, he didn’t rob or murder anyone, but he did get into quite a few fights that resulted in embarrassing publicity. So by 1951 Tierney was working in the “B” salt mines again, and though The Hoodlum was made by a company with prestige releases under its belt (and it was about to be sold to United Artists, where its back catalog would form the bedrock of the growing U.A. film library) it looks like a PRC movie, complete with cheesy stock musical scoring and apartment sets with utterly ghastly wallpaper. (In fact, for a while I thought it might be a movie PRC had produced some time before and which was only released years after it was made — but the huge, tank-like cars the police drive as they chase after the robbers give it away as a late-1940’s/early-1950’s production.)

Marjorie Riordan takes the acting honors as Eileen but gets too little footage — we can guess what attracts her to Tierney’s character (a lot more than we can with Allene Roberts’ role!) but we’re not really told (not that that’s necessarily a bad thing; as I’ve pointed out in these pages before, one good thing about a lot of old movies was that the audiences then were so familiar with the clichés they didn’t have to have them spelled out for them the way modern moviegoers seem to have to) — and instead we get too much of that horrible family Vincent comes from, which seemingly would be enough to have turned anyone into a crook. The Hoodlum was actually restored in 1999 and given a theatrical re-release in 2005 (for which it was rated PG by the ratings board which replaced the old Production Code Authority), but what Mill Creek Entertainment provided in their 50-DVD Dark Crimes boxed set was clearly an unrestored version, full of white flecks on the picture in the middle of director Nosseck’s and cinematographer Clark Ramsey’s dark, often murky visuals, and in that form it’s not a bad movie but not an especially good one either — though it’s still better than Tierney’s bizarrely dull 1947 major-studio noir, Born to Kill.