Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Hoodlum (1951)

By 1951, Lawrence Tierney's career was on the skids, and he knew it.

It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way. Breaking into films in the early 1940s after a career as a catalogue model and theater actor with bit parts at RKO Radio in such films as Gordon Douglas’ Gildersleeve on Broadway, Dudley Nichols’ Government Girl, Mark Robson’s The Ghost Ship (all 1943), and then William Clemens’ The Falcon Out West, John Auer’s Seven Days Ashore, and Robson’s Youth Runs Wild (all 1944), Tierney learned the ropes playing everything from cab drivers to orchestra leaders to FBI agents , until he got his big break at the ultra-cheap studio Monogram Pictures, in Max Nosseck’s Dillinger (1945). It was his first role of any consequence, but it was the lead role of Dillinger himself, and the film made a splash with both the critics and the public, even if was made very cheaply and quickly.

Produced for Monogram by The King Brothers, Frank, Maurice and Herman (tough customers themselves, who made their initial fortune in slot machines), Dillinger was shot for a total of $193,000, and raked in more than $4,000,000 in rentals - an astonishing figure for a Monogram production, where profits were usually paper-thin. Even more amazingly, Philip Yordan’s screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay at the 1946 Oscars, and though it didn’t win, this was another first for Monogram.

Noir director Fritz Lang heard all the commotion about Dillinger, and asked to see a copy, which was run off for him in a screening room. As Lang’s biographer Lotte Eisner reports, Lang ”was astonished to find that [the bank robbery sequence in Dillinger] was in fact some 200 meters of the bank raid from [Lang’s own film] You Only Live Once [1937], which fitted quite easily into the new film . . . “ since all the protagonists in the sequence wore gas masks (182). But no one else noticed this obvious economy at the time, and the film cleaned up at the box-office.

Overnight, Tierney became a star, epitomizing the hardboiled tough guy whom society can’t control. Back at RKO, Tierney was rewarded with slightly bigger roles, usually as a convict or strong-arm man, and not given much chance to extend his range as an actor. Felix Feist’s The Devil Thumbs A Ride (1947), in which Tierney plays cold blooded killer Steve Morgan, hitching a ride after committing murder, is a sort of forerunner to Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker (1953), but runs only 62 minutes, and was designed and distributed as a second feature.

Tierney got his first real leading role in an “A” film in Robert Wise’s memorably vicious Born to Kill (1947), where Tierney’s character, the appropriately named San Wild, is a homicidal maniac who kills on a whim, and tries to scheme his way into a wealthy marriage. With Wise’s sharp direction, and excellent support from Claire Trevor, Elisha Cook Jr. and Walter Slezak, to name just a few of the many superb cast members, Born to Kill was a critical but not commercial hit; the film was simply too bleak for mainstream audiences, and Tierney’s character was so violent and brutal that it was impossible to feel any empathy for him.

Born to Kill is a masterpiece, but it would be Tierney’s last uncompromised vision of hell; from here it was back to B territory with Richard Fleischer’s Bodyguard (1948), which was dumped as a second feature. Convinced that Tierney would never become a major star, even in a sympathetic role (as he was as private eye Mike Carter in Bodyguard), RKO cut Tierney loose, and he began to bounce around from studio to studio; the big chance had eluded him.

Two years passed. After Joseph Pevney’s Shakedown (1950) at Universal, where he supported Howard Duff, rather than taking the lead role himself, Tierney found that his drinking, brawling, and off-screen misbehavior had made him virtually unemployable.

As Tom Vallance noted, “Tierney was noted for living a life almost as tough and unruly as that of his screen characters. He was frequently in the headlines for drunken brawls and was arrested several times, including an occasion on which a woman apparently committed suicide by leaping from her New York apartment . . . accounts of bar-room brawls, drunken driving and scrapes with the law gave newspapers such headlines as ‘Film Dillinger Booked on Drunk Charge,’ ‘Actor Tierney Must Sleep on Jail Floor’ and ‘Tierney Goes to Jail Again’”. The result was that Tierney found himself persona non grata with the majors, and even the minors, and so in 1951 he found himself working for the very low budget Jack Schwarz Productions, cranking out yet another violent, nihilistic, low budget film - with Max Nosseck, his director from Dillinger, again at the helm.

But this time, everything was different.

By 1951, Max Nosseck's career was also on the skids, and he knew it.

One of the most maudit directors of the sound era, Nosseck began his career in Germany, but as a Jew, he was forced to leave with Hitler’s ascent to power, and wandered first through Europe, making a film in France - Le roi des Champs-Élysées (The King of the Champs-Élysées) in 1934 with no less a personage than Buster Keaton in the leading role. But sensing that France would eventually fall to the Nazis, Nosseck wisely kept going, making films in Spain and even Holland, until he finally realized that America offered the only safe haven.

Arriving in the US in the late 1930s, Nosseck made the Yiddish language film Overture to Glory (1940) - a sort of variation on The Jazz Singer - in Astoria, Queens, New York, on a shoestring, and then gravitated to Hollywood. His first US film was the Columbia noir Girls Under 21 (1940), but then Nosseck found himself at PRC cranking out the anemic mystery Gambling Daughters (1941) with a young Gale Storm, before, after much negotiation and hard effort, he got the assignment to direct Dillinger. As with Tierney, Dillinger should have made Nosseck a major player, and vaulted him into the majors. But it didn’t happen.

Nosseck did turn out the effectively dark, violent murder mystery The Brighton Strangler for RKO in 1945, but then left RKO, and was inexplicably handed a low budget independent “family film,” Black Beauty (1946), which, although about a young girl and her beloved horse, has nothing to do with the Anna Sewell novel, and is thus something of a rip-off, although it does feature real life husband and wife Richard Denning and Evelyn Ankers in the leads.

The downward spiral continued with the ultra cheap Return of Rin-Tin-Tin (1947), again trying to get a little less-than-authorized mileage out of a famous character (the film stars a dog christened Rin Tin Tin III, along with a very young Robert Blake), and then Korea Patrol (1951), Nosseck’s initial outing with producer Jack Schwarz, one of the most cost-conscious of all the Hollywood bottom feeders.

What had gone wrong? How had he sunk so low? This was worse than working for PRC or Monogram; much worse, because now he had been to the top, and the only place he could go was down.

Nosseck himself could never explain it, and after another low-budget film with Tierney, Kill or Be Killed (1952); the sleazy soft-core mystery The Body Beautiful (1953); and the even seamier nudist camp film Garden of Eden (1954), Nosseck saw the writing on the wall, and returned to what was then West Germany, where he spent the rest of his career - until 1962 - making trifling romances and adventure films, with one return trip to the US for Singing in the Dark (1956), which merits attention as one of the first films to deal directly with the Holocaust. Nosseck clearly had much more to offer than he was ever allowed to give, and his death on September 29, 1972 at the age of 70 brought an end to a career of largely unfulfilled promise.

But in 1951, Tierney was virtually unemployable, and Nosseck available for a mere pittance, only six years after Dillinger had made its producers and studio $4,000,000 in 1945 dollars, which, adjusted for inflation, is (astoundingly) worth $49,253,707.87 in 2011 dollars.

And so Nosseck and Tierney set about cranking out The Hoodlum, starring Tierney alongside his second-real life brother, Edward Tierney. Lawrence’s other brother was tough guy actor Scott Brady, born Gerard Kenneth Tierney, who was far more successful in managing his career than Lawrence Tierney ever was; Brady died on April 16, 1985 age at 60. Edward Tierney went on to a few more roles in cheap American films, then supporting work in German films as “Edward Tracy,” and on the US TV series Combat!; he died at the age of 55 on December 18, 1983. Despite his hellion lifestyle, Lawrence Tierney beat them both out in terms of longevity, dying at the ripe old age 82 on February 26, 2002.

The Hoodlum is a damned film, a doomed film, a cheap and rotten film about a cheap and rotten world, which begins with a rear-projection trip to the dark, forbidding city dump in a dilapidated jalopy, with career criminal Vincent Lubeck (Lawrence Tierney) looking dazed in the front seat as his brother Johnny (Edward Tierney) does the driving.

A large sign tells the viewer to “dump here,” and one can hardly imagine a more depressing opening. The Hoodlum is a flat, hermetically sealed embrace of death, with Lawrence Tierney obviously resigned, though none too happily, to his real life and cinematic fate.

The film flashes back to the parole hearing that got Vincent out of jail. The parole board is about to rule against his release, after a long string of increasingly violent crimes have put Vince behind bars - we get a brief taste of his past in a rapid recital of his crimes, complete with increasingly harsh punishments - until Vince’s mother (Lisa Golm) tearfully intercedes on his behalf.

Released against the better judgment of the authorities, Vince walks out of the prison a free man, but not before the warden (an uncredited Gene Roth) gives him an up-close look at the prison’s electric chair, predicting that Vince will soon be sitting in it, reminding him that “there are no paroles once you pass though this door.” Vince is shaken up, but only mildly; not even the threat of death can stop him from a life of crime.

Discovering that his brother has purchased a gas station with money left from the death of his father, Vincent immediately starts scheming to get his hands on the business, and betray both his brother and mother. His mother, for some unfathomable reason, still has faith in Vincent, and at the family home, reminds him that it’s much nicer now that they don’t live next to the city dump - the one we saw in film’s opening. “You can breath the air now” she tells him, to which Vince replies:

“Stop it, Ma! Keep the windows closed? What was the use? The stink came through them anyhow into all the corners of your lungs, your skin! Even if you took a bath every day, the stink would still stink! Our playground, where we picked up a few pieces of junk to get spending money. A rotten stink! Even now we're not too far away from it! Yeah, but you wait! I've got ideas. I'll get plenty of money! Yeah, dough! That's the only thing that'll ever cover up the stink of the city dump!”

It seems that Vince hasn’t learned anything from his life of crime, his many imprisonments, and the compassion of his family. Almost immediately, he starts making the moves on his brother’s girlfriend, Rosa (Allene Roberts), and downplays his brother’s offer to work in the gas station. Soon Vince is romancing bank secretary Eileen (Marjorie Riordan) - there’s a bank right conveniently located right across the street from his brother’s gas station - eyeing an armored car as a potential robbery target, and antagonizing his parole officer Lt. Burdick (Stuart Randall), who accurately observes that Vince is a “cheap hood - always looking for a fall guy, and never realizing that you’re it.”

At the gas station, Vince is a less than ideal employee. When a customer asks for a dollar’s worth of gas, Vince doesn’t like his tone of voice, and sprays the man with gasoline. When his brother objects, there’s a blow-up, which Vince compounds by sexually assaulting Rosa on the rooftop of their building, seemingly without consequences. During his weekly meeting with his parole officer, Vince meets his now- paroled former cellmate Marty Connell (John De Simone), and the two start to plan an armored car robbery, while Vince continues to force himself on Rosa, and romance Eileen for her connections at the bank.

But Rosa has become pregnant, and can’t stand her betrayal of Johnny anymore; abruptly, she jumps off the roof of the tenement they live in, killing herself. Johnny is understandably anguished, but Vince couldn’t care less. “Why did she do it?” Johnny asks rhetorically at the dinner table, and Vince unconcernedly tucks into his dinner. “Because she was nuts,” Vince reflexively replies. “Any dame who would jump off a roof must be nuts.” Johnny moves to slug him, but Vince brushes him off; as far as he’s concerned, Johnny is just a chump to love a woman like Rosa.

When Rosa’s body is taken to the mortuary, Vince hits on a scheme to pull off the armored car robbery; they’ll stash the proceeds in a hearse, which, according to Mr. Breckenridge, head of the Breckenridge Mortuary (O.Z. Whitehead, in one of the film’s best performances), is always waved through by the police as a “courtesy of the road.”

Vince reads about an unclaimed body in the city morgue, and members of his gang pose as relatives of the dead man, now named “Uncle John,” and use the corpse as a pretext to hire a hearse. The robbery goes off as scheduled - though two gang members are killed in the process - and Vince has to slug his brother Johnny with a revolver to stop him from calling the cops.

Despite a few tense moments, the hearse ruse works, and Vince and the gang escape with their ill-gotten gains. But Lt. Burdick is on the case, and soon figures out the scheme, and takes off in hot pursuit. Predictably, the gang falls out, and Vince is slugged and left for the police, as the other members of his gang make off with the loot.

Vince takes the fall for the entire affair in the press, and though penniless, finds himself on the run from the law. For all of his plans, he has nothing to show for his efforts; interestingly, we never see or hear from the rest of the gang again, for whom apparently crime does pay.

With nowhere else to turn, Vince goes home to his long suffering mother, but she’s finally had more than enough, saying; “it’s too late, Vincent, too late. What can your mama do? Go to the electric chair for you?” Aghast, Vincent breaks down and cries for mercy, “when it is too late for tears,” as his mother puts it. Hopelessly, she caresses Vincent’s head, and then succumbs to a heart attack; as Vince exits her bedroom, his brother Johnny suddenly appears, revolver in hand.

“Johnny, Mama’s dead” Vince stammers.

“Yeah, she’s dead” Johnny responds. “Nothing could stop her from loving you but death. Well, now she’s dead, and you killed her. Just like you killed Papa and Rosa. Well, we’re going on a little ride, to the city dump. I’m gonna finish all this where it started.”

And so we flash back to the beginning of the film, as Johnny grimly drives Vince to his final destination. Pulling up at an ash heap, Johnny is about to shoot Vince in cold blooded execution style, but can’t bring himself to do it; Lt. Burdick, however, has been trailing them, and has no such compunctions. Vince is shot to death in the dump, and dies in a heap of garbage, old tires, and industrial refuse.

It’s hard to imagine a more bleak, depressing, or unrelenting film than The Hoodlum.
The film shocks even the contemporary viewer not only in its relentlessly downbeat story structure, but also in the cheapness of its execution, the complete absence of any directorial flourishes, and its utter absence of any sort of hope of redemption. Vincent Lubeck destroys everything and everyone he touches, and the film simply documents his downward spiral into the gutter, as he takes everyone who cares for him with him.

One can only wonder how Nosseck and Tierney felt making The Hoodlum, a 60 minute programmer with a non-existent budget only six years after their smash hit with Dillinger, when it seemed both were headed for the “A” league. In life, as in the film, neither man had escaped the gutter, and they were doomed to repeat the past without variation, telling the same story over and over again; the death spiral of the damned, the doomed, the hopeless and helpless in a world of pain, betrayal, and death. It’s the only story they knew, the only story they could tell, the only story the public wanted to see. For Lawrence Tierney, as for Vincent Lubeck, the only way out was death.

Written by Wheeler Winston Dixon

About the Author: Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Endowed Professor of Film Studies, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program at UNL, and with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, Editor-in-Chief of the scholarly film journal Quarterly Review of Film and Video. His newest books include the 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster; forthcoming, Rutgers University Press, 2011); A History of Horror (Rutgers University Press, 2010; second printing 2011), Film Noir and The Cinema of Paranoia (Rutgers University Press and Edinburgh University Press, 2009), and A Short History of Film, written with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster (Rutgers University Press and I.B. Tauris, 2008; five printings through 2011). As a filmmaker, his complete works are in the permanent collection of The Museum of Modern Art, following a career retrospective at MoMA in 2003.

Works Cited

Eisner, Lotte. Fritz Lang. New York: Da Capo, 1986:182.

Vallance, Tom. “Lawrence Tierney: Obituary,” The Independent March 1, 2002. Web.


  1. Thanks so much for all the background info on Nosseck & Tierney - it seems they lived noir in real life. Very much enjoyed your terrific review of one of the bleakest of the noirs, along with such low-budget classics as 'Detour' and 'Decoy.'

  2. You missed it! The police officer / radio / relates the capture or killing of the gang members, as well as the blonde moll's death.
    You wrote that crime evidently pays because
    the accomplices were not heard of again.


  3. I have the original Hoodlum script. Is this worth any money?
    If so, how much do you think it might go for? Thank you!


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