‘Gadzooks,’ I thought while watching this early 1950s tale of a rotten apple addicted to a life of crime, ‘this is very bleak stuff indeed’. So bleak, in fact, that I’m struggling to think of any film noir I’ve seen that equals or ‘betters’ the depressing, downbeat and disconsolate tone of Max Nosseck’s The Hoodlum. And I’m talking about an entire genre where a bitter, cynical take on the world is a pre-requisite, so it’s certainly not lacking in terms of movies with which you could compare its gloomy outlook. That’s actually part of the charm of this movie, though: you wonder how far the director is able to go, just how bleak he can make his film, and the answer is … well … none more bleak. As a result, although it was clearly made for peanuts, it’s an interesting, arresting noir that – due to a short running time of 61 minutes – never feels like a slog.
Lawrence Tierney stars as Vincent Lubeck, a career criminal who is introduced to the audience in a foreboding, uncomfortable scene during which he trades glares in a car with his younger brother Johnny (Edward Tierney, Lawrence’s brother in real life). We then see a flashback montage of arrests from different periods of Vincent’s life before the story proper begins; in jail at the start of the film, he earns parole following the intervention of his mother (Lisa Golm), who pleads with officials for leniency so that her son can have one last chance in society. This is granted, and on the outside Vincent is begrudgingly given a job by Johnny, who owns a filling station. However before too long the local cops start to bust Vincent’s balls and he is slowly drawn back to crime after bumping into an ex-con friend, with whom he formulates a plan to rob a bank.
The relationship between Vincent and Johnny is at the heart of the story. Vincent makes no effort to hide his unhappiness at having to work for his younger brother, and Johnny is equally cold towards his older sibling as a result of his criminal activities and the stress it has caused their mother. If relations were frosty to begin with things take a turn for the worse when Vincent has a fling with Johnny’s girlfriend Rosa (Allene Roberts), who falls heavily for the older brother and winds up pregnant as a result. (I use the word ‘fling’ but there’s some suggestion that he rapes her to begin with, though this isn’t 100% clear.)
Edward Tierney’s character is bland, decent, hard-working and by-the-book, but Lawrence Tierney is far more watchable as the snarling, rotten-to-the-core black sheep who seemingly doesn’t care about anyone or anything (apart from himself, of course, and his plans to pull off a heist that will see him financially secure for the rest of his life). He is surly and obnoxious to the gas station customers – even dousing one old timer’s car in fuel after a verbal altercation – and strings along a clerk named Eileen (Marjorie Riordan) in order to get vital information about the bank. Put simply: the man don’t give a fuck.
If it’s rare enough to see a lead character that’s so fundamentally bad as this one, it’s even more of a surprise to see a film from this period that deals with the taboo subjects of rape, pregnancy and suicide, even if Nosseck addresses these topics in a tentative fashion. There’s also a fairly high murder count in his film considering the short running time, and one or two other ‘normal’ deaths as well; the final act is a somewhat relentless as a result, with no happy ending or respite for the viewer, and no light to compensate for all that shade.
Nosseck and Lawrence Tierney had considerable success a few years before making The Hoodlum with Dillinger, a similarly-downbeat gangster film in which Tierney played the notoriously tough criminal John Dillinger. That earlier picture was shot for $193,000 but made close to $4,000,000, an astonishing return for a low budget crime caper during the post-war years. Neither director nor actor was able to capitalise on their subsequent shot at the big time, though, and perhaps both felt a degree of surprise that they were back making cheap, hard-boiled fayre together like The Hoodlum just half a decade later. Tierney’s first leading role in an ‘A’ picture came in Robert Wise’s Born To Kill, but his time in the spotlight was more noticeable for headlines about drunken brawls in celebrity gossip rags, and within a few years he was back to appearing in shorter ‘B’ movies. As for Nosseck, he was bizarrely given the family film Black Beauty to direct (which is about a young girl and a horse but has nothing to do with the famous Anna Sewell novel), before making the low budget Return of Rin-Tin-Tin. After The Hoodlum he made a few other American ‘B’ movies before deciding to move back to West Germany.
The Hoodlum is no masterpiece, and it is a brief tale, but it is an engaging one. This is mainly due to Lawrence Tierney’s dark, brooding tough-guy performance, which is very watchable indeed, but Nosseck also handles key scenes well (the botched bank heist in particular is impressive and has a tense build up; it must have influenced Quentin Tarantino, who would cast the aging Tierney as Joe Cabot decades later in Reservoir Dogs, which features a botched jewellery store robbery). Lawrence Tierney’s acting makes up for the general lack of quality elsewhere: in particular the decision to give his younger brother Edward a potentially-meaty role opposite him – presumably in the hope of drawing out long-standing sibling rivalry – doesn’t really pay off.
There are noir clichés aplenty as Vincent growls about washing away the stink of the city and making one big score before retiring from his life of crime, and at times the screenplay by Sam Neuman and Nat Tanchuck feels a little by-the-numbers as a result. An extra 20 or 30 minutes wouldn’t have gone amiss, as it would have allowed for greater development of the doomed Johnny-Rosa-Vincent love triangle, as well as a threadbare sub-plot that sees Vincent’s gang double-cross him after the bank job. There’s also next-to-no character development for Vincent at all: he’s exactly the same at the end of the film as he is at the start, and while it should probably be remembered that the events of the film seem to take place during a few months at most, some of them are important and would surely cause a little self-reflection at the very least; as it stands only a threatening glimpse of an electric chair gets Vincent thinking about his long-term future.
There’s every chance that this moody, relentlessly downbeat story may have simply been too dark for many audiences if stretched to 90 minutes, though, and given the movie was made cheaply it’s likely there was no budget to stretch past an hour anyway. Cheap, nasty and depressing it may be, but The Hoodlum‘s short, sharp shot of inner-city misery is oddly entertaining nonetheless.
Directed by: Max Nosseck
Written by: Sam Neuman, Nat Tanchuck
Starring: Lawrence Tierney, Allene Roberts, Marjorie Riordan, Edward Tierney, Lisa Golm
Running Time: 61 minutes