The Hoodlum (1951) Stars “the Meanest Man in Motion Picture History”

The Hoodlum 1951Dir. Max Nosseck

“The Hoodlum” (1951) screened at UCSB, January 2013, with Q&A with Dir of UCLA Film & Television Archive, Jan-Christopher Horak

If you’ve never seen Lawrence Tierney in his prime, you’re missing out. Described as “quite possibly the meanest man in motion picture history,” Tierney had several leading man roles before, according to rumor, at any rate, his nasty attitude and extra curricular brawling relegated him to a career of guest spots on television shows—among them “The Naked City,” “The Barbara Stanwyck Show,” “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour,” “Remington Steele,” “Tales from the Darkside,” a recurring role on “Hill St. Blues,” “Hunter,” “Seinfeld,” “L.A. Law,” and “ER.” Surely some enterprising soul is working on a biography of Tierney by now. I hope so.

I watched a screening of the restored “The Hoodlum” accompanied by a Q&A with the director of the UCLA Film and Television Archive, Jan-Christopher Horak.

Back to the Dump

Tierney in Reservoir Dogs
This is probably where you’ve seen him before. (Joe Cabot, Reservoir Dogs [1992])
The opening of the film says it all: A two-shot of Tierney’s anxious, sweaty, and snarling Vincent Lubeck and his brother, Johnny, framed in—and divided by—the windshield of a car, as Johnny (Tierney’s real-life brother, Edward) drives his brother back to the city dump by which they grew up. This moment out to be a flash forward, and the film tells the story of how they—especially Vincent—end up on that road.

After a montage of Vincent’s rap sheet—a series of increasingly violent crimes—we settle in to his parole hearing. The D.A. (?) is mid-rant: “The Vincent Lubecks never change!” Another member of the parole board suggests what would now be the wackily progressive notion that prison is “an institution for correction not punishment” and that if the board proceeded in “so prejudiced a manner” as to deny Lubeck parole, “we’d be attacked by the public.” Enter Mrs. Lubeck (Lisa Golm), Vincent’s long-suffering mother, an old lady from the old country, replete with black shawl. “Why do you hate, my boy?” she asks plaintively. Her explanation for Vincent’s “hoodlum” behavior isn’t too far off: “He fights the whole world because he wants to be big!” But it doesn’t really support giving the guy parole.

The warden, unimpressed with Mrs. Lubeck or her son, takes Vincent to see the electric chair in an effort to scare him straight. But we’ve seen the prison bar-like shadows as Vincent follows the warden. We know there’s no straightening out Vincent.

Covering Up the Stink

Mama and Vincent arrive home—one new to Vincent since he’s been locked up, and because, after Papa died, Mama and Johnny could afford a slightly better apartment. Mama makes much of the fresh air Vincent will be able to breathe out this window. But the home is still too close to the city dump for Vincent. He can still smell the stink.

Johnny, at Mama’s behest, hires a resentful Vincent to work at his one-man gas station. Johnny understands Vincent’s sense of inferiority at being poor. He has dirt under his fingernails, but, he promises Vincent, “this kind of dirt you can wash off.” At the gas station, we can see how unsuited—quite literally—Vincent is for this gig. Vincent has a suit on underneath his coveralls. It’s hard to be big at a tiny gas station. “Dough,” he mutters, “that’s the only thing that’ll cover up the stink of the city dump.”

Perhaps the best scene is at the apartment, after Vincent stomps out on his brother. Johnny has suggested that Vincent’s surly behavior is driving away customers. In response, Vincent crumples his newspaper and stomps out, heading up to the roof. Johnny explains to Rosa (Allene Roberts), his silly fiancée, that Vincent always liked to go up to the roof. “He liked to look down at the people. They looked so small—made him feel good.” The gentle but apparently dim-witted Rosa is going to go magically fix him. The next scene opens with Vincent awkwardly bent over in front of a pigeon-coop, shot from the front, so, like the pigeons, he is caged, somehow still in prison. He rails at Rosa about being an ex-con:

Cops are always after you. People don’t want you around. Everybody wants to play warden. Keep them locked up. Keep them penned in. Don’t let them run free. Humans. Animals. Birds!

And with that he rather forcibly sets the pigeons free. Tierney gives the speech undeserved pathos—but Vincent’s desperation at feeling watched and penned-in is so potent it overwhelms our sense of his hypocrisy.

And Women?

Rosa is Vincent’s timid opposite—she has plans that she believes will keep bad things from happening to her. Like the Joker (who debuted eleven years earlier in 1940) Vincent is an agent of chaos, and Rosa’s plans are toast. “What if [your plan] explodes in your face? What if, for instance, something like this [happens]?” He kisses her passionately, but the passion is not for her. It’s for introducing chaos into her orderly life.

Meanwhile, Vincent has started talking up Eileen (Marjorie Riordan), a bank manager’s assistant, who cheerfully informs him about the Federal Reserve deposit schedule. As they ride along in her car (“Heaven must really be helping the working girl these days.”), Vincent muses over what he would do with the money. “There’s wine I’ve never tasted, music I’ve never heard…”Vincent and Eileen in The Hoodlum 1951

“And women?” Eileen sweetly asks.

“And women. Only there I’m even more particular. It’s like a kid working at a candy factory. First he takes everything that comes along. After a while the only thing he touches the silver-wrapped stuff. Then, he’s sick of that and he looks for something real special. Like you.”

“And when he does find it?”

“Oh, he’s extra careful. Babies it so it’ll last. How ‘bout some night this week?”

You Seem to Have Misunderstood

As Vincent gathers cronies and plans a heist, it becomes clear that he has seduced Rosa, who, against even her better judgment, has become enthralled, if not fallen in love with him. Two months have gone by since their first encounter, and Rosa is ready to run away and get married. She is racked with guilt at tormenting Johnny—whom she cannot bring herself to talk to, even over the phone. Back up on the roof, Vincent explains with a little smile, “You seem to have misunderstood.” Getting married? That’s just “a little plan that didn’t work out.” And that is the end of Rosa.

During a Lubeck family dinner, we learn that Rosa was two months pregnant when she threw herself off the roof. Was it in front of Vincent? Either way, he doesn’t care. Johnny is frantic with grief, but Vincent tucks into his dinner with the appetite of a hungry Viking. Why would she have done such a thing, Johnny wonders aloud. Vincent knows: “Cos she was nuts! Any dame who’d jump off a roof has gotta be nuts.” Ouch.

As in any good noir, once the money appears to be in hand, things spin out of control. There’s a wonderful scene with the members of the gang who have survived the heist dividing up the spoils. More of the robbers are killed in a chase. Vincent tries to crash at Eileen’s and she pulls a gun on him. (Someone like Mary Astor or Claire Trevor would have done this role justice. Riordan’s Eileen comes across as hard, but not sultry or dangerous–or funny.) He goes home to his now-invalid mother, who, despite her maternal instinct, is no dummy. When she accuses him of breaking Papa’s heart, and shaming Rosa, Vincent tells her to “Shut up!”

“I should have shut up a long time ago,” she tells him. If she hadn’t spoken up for him, she laments, “at least Rosa wouldn’t have thrown herself off the roof…and she died with your baby unborn!”

“Ma!” he cries, “I didn’t know!”

“And if you had—would you have cared? HOODLUM!” she curses him, “YOU ARE THE SMELL! YOU ARE THE STINK!”

Johnny catches him moments after Mama dies, and forces Vincent out to the car. They are going to “the city dump, where we belong. The only place we’re fit for!” And so the movie catches up with the opening flash forward. Ultimately, Johnny can’t bring himself to shoot Vincent. But the cops can, and Vincent collapses in the trash, stretched out along the bottom of the frame, with Johnny standing over him.

The heist has one of the better will-they-or-won’t-they-get-caught moments. A hearse from the funeral parlor next to the bank (handy!) is repurposed as a getaway car. The thieves slap a “FUNERAL” tag on the windshield, exempting it from traffic lights. As the driver of the hearse tries to talk their way through the roadblock set up to trap them, a uniformed cop looks over the getaway car and walks away. Then he walks back, slowly. And crosses in front of the car to the other side, where he’ll be able to see Vincent hiding on the floor in the backseat. The cop approaches the car and tamps down the tag on the windshield, which has started to peel off.

The script for this B-movie is considerably better than a lot of “A-list” scripts these days, as I hope I’ve made clear. And Tierney transforms a detestable character into one we can’t take our eyes off, a force of chaos who clearly can’t help himself. Perhaps the most telling moment in the film is when Johnny stumbles onto Vincent’s plan as it is about to go into action. He pleads with Vincent, “How can I make you see it’s all wrong?”

Vincent’s reply is probably the most honest he’s ever been: “You can’t!” Despite the deathbed scene with his mother, Vincent never changes, never grows, never has an epiphany, or a moment of true regret. It’s amazing how riveting a character without a character arc can be, even when at the center of a film.

The restoration reintroduces some lost footage as well as improving the picture and sound. The unrestored version is on YouTube

(Other) Best Lines:

Lt. Burdick has Vincent’s number: “You cheap hood. Always lookin’ for a fall guy and never realizin’—you’re it.”

Check out more on Tierney.

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