“You cheap hood. Always looking for a fall guy and never realizing you’re it.”
Most films noir have a flicker of hope in them; a dangling carrot for characters to chase despite their seemingly impossible odds. Without it, they’d be deprived of the very thing that gives them purpose. Every now and then, however, there is an exception– the noir that not only spit in the face of this sentiment, but snuffs it out and bury its remains somewhere under the east bridge. A less common breed, these films noir scoff at the possibility of hope — and by default, commercial appeal — for a dive into the trash heap of humanity. For them, the darkness is the only logical destination.
This is where The Hoodlum fits in. Released by Monogram Pictures in 1951, it is a cheap, rotten little film that revels in its cheap and rotten world.
The Hoodlum “So shocking you can’t believe it!”
Lawrence Tierney stars as Vincent Lubeck, a lifelong criminal who’s out on parole thanks to his pleading mother (Lisa Golm). Though Lubeck has a rap sheet a mile long, she somehow and sells the parole board on giving him a second chance– only Lt. Burdick (Stuart Randall) is leery. Vincent returns home and gets a job at the filling station owned by his little brother Johnny (Edward Tierney). He and his wife Rosa (Allene Roberts) welcome Vincent with open arms, though it’s readily apparent that the feeling isn’t mutual, and before you can say “betrayal”, Vincent is plotting to steal his brother’s business, his father’s inheritance, and Rosa’s affection.
Why? Well, because he’s a hoodlum.
There’s an obsession with trash, both literally and metaphorically, that runs through Vincent’s story. In the opening scene, the faint flicker of the city dump can be seen through the windshield of Vincent and Johnny’s jalopy. Later on, Vincent’s mother mentions that their new home is much nicer than the one they used to have by the city dump. “You can breath the air now,” she adds. To her, it is a matter of geography, but to Vincent, who’s visibly enraged by the discussion, it signifies something much more:
“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!”
“I haven’t got far to go. When you die, you’re a long time dead.”
It’s one of the few times Vincent’s icy demeanor melts away (one the notoriously difficult Tierney was born to play), and it’s telling peek at what makes him tick. Every plan, every scheme, is a step closer to ridding himself of this stink. The wording here is especially interesting: Vincent doesn’t care to wash the smell away, but rather to cover it up, to spray the cologne of cash over it in the hopes that the world won’t notice. Even at his most ambitious, he’s limited by his impoverished state of mind.
There’s absolutely no limit to what he will do to succeed, whether it be his flirtation with Rosa or his plan to rob the bank next to his brother’s filling station. Director Max Nosseck doesn’t bother with motive, leaving these schemes as loose and callous as Vincent’s attitude. He wants, but only so that he can take away from others. Upon winning Rosa’s affection — through implied sexual assault, no less — he decides he’s no longer interested, and casts her aside.
Symbolism comes into play in the scene where Rosa reveals that she’s become pregnant with Vincent’s child. He’s perched in the dark of the filling station alleyway and she stands, angelically, in front of the porch light. As the two become physical, and Vincent rejects her, they switch positions, and Rosa finds herself engulfed in the darkness, literally pushed out of the light by her devilish brother-in-law. This visual flourish, one of the film’s few, takes on a grimmer connotation when Rosa later commits suicide by jumping off the roof.
The volatile relationship between Vincent (R) and his brother Johnny (L).
Vincent’s indifference towards her death — and that of his own child — is where the film far exceeds the cruelty of the era’s other noir. “Why did she do it?” Johnny murmurs over dinner, visibly shaken. “Because she was nuts,” snaps Vincent, “Any dame who would jump off a roof must be nuts.” Johnny moves to slug him, but Vincent doesn’t even flinch. As far as he’s concerned, all he did was prove Rosa a tramp, and anyone who loves a woman like that — i.e. Johnny — is a sucker. Such a brazen exchange would spark controversy today, let alone for audiences that were still uncomfortable seeing married couples sleep in the same bed. For me, the bleakness of the scene is surpassed only by my amazement at how Nossek and screenwriter Sam Neuman managed to get it past the censors.
Beyond the familial drama, Nossek makes the bank heist little more than an afterthought — an excuse for Vincent to incur even more destruction. This is so prominent, in fact, that when the heist goes sour, and police are called, we never see or hear from the rest of crew again. Instead we follow a battered Vincent to his mother’s house, where she lays dying, presumably of a broken heart (the film makes no other mention of her health). She condemns her boy with a final, bitter breath.
“It’s too late Vincent. What can momma do? Go to the electric chair for you?”
Like clockwork, Johnny shows up to avenge her: “Nothing could stop her from loving you but death,” he mutters, holding a gun, “Well, now she’s dead, and you killed her. Just like you killed Papa and Rosa. We’re going on a little ride, to the city dump. I’m gonna finish all this where it started.”
We then return to the opening credits, where it’s revealed that Johnny is taking Vincent for a ride in every sense of the phrase. He forces him out at a nearby ash pile, where he plans to do away with him. He finds that he’s unable to pull the trigger, overcome by his conscience, but Lt. Burdick, who’s been in pursuit since the heist, has no such reservations and plugs Vincent point blank. His limp body falls, scattered amidst the trash he tried so hard to escape.
The smell is at last covered up, though it is chill of death, and not cash, that does the trick.
Johnny Lubeck was played by Lawrence Tierney’s real-life brother, Edward, in his film debut.
With the exception of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (1992), it’s hard to imagine a more bleak, unrelenting film noir that The Hoodlum. Even in its horror, Lieutenant had some semblance of morality — a light of hope, whether or not it was a drug-fueled mirage. The Hoodlum is soberly defiant up to its final breath, and embraces the darkness with open arms.
It’s disturbing journey not only in its content, but also in how little it cares about its characters. Vincent’s mother is forcibly shown the error of her ways in her fleeting moments. Rosa is corrupted into suicide while carrying a child. And Johnny, in the film’s cruelest instance, is left alive to mourn them all. All victims of The Hoodlum. All witnesses to what humanity can be when it never leaves the trash heap.
An essential, underappreciated viewing for those with a penchant for nihilism and the nastier side of 1950s noir. A
TRIVIA: The film was restored from its original camera negative and screened at the UCLA Festival of Film Preservation in 2009.
–Danilo Castro for Classic Movie Hub
Danilo Castro is a film noir specialist and Contributing Writer for Classic Movie Hub. You can read more of Danilo’s articles and reviews at the Film Noir Archive, or you can follow Danilo on Twitter @DaniloSCastro.