Sunday, December 16, 2012

Just Desserts for a Bad Apple

The Hoodlum (1951)

Director: Max Nosseck
Writer: Sam Neuman
Stars: Lawrence Tierney, Allene Roberts and Marjorie Riordan

See the full movie on YouTube, or rent it on DVD.

Sometimes a rat gets what he deserves – it just takes a while.

“The Hoodlum” begins documentary style with a rundown of anti-hero Vincent Lubeck’s dirty dealings. As a teen, he starts getting busted for petty crimes, and pretty soon he's graduated to the big leagues.

Next is a scene with wooden dialogue in which Lubeck’s mom successfully argues with the parole board to release her wayward boy from lock-up. But mom soon finds she made a big mistake in springing the now-grown golden boy from the slammer.

The movie’s first few minutes might make you want to look for something else to watch. But stay with it. It’s not a goofy morality tale, a la “Reefer Madness.” The movie quickly morphs into a terse, tightly edited story (it’s just an hour and 10 minutes long) of a caring, supportive family getting thoroughly screwed over by their good-for-nothing son.

Lawrence Tierney is great as Vincent, the sociopath who ensures that no good deed goes unpunished. Tierney’s real-life brother, Edward, plays his sibling, Johnny Lubeck. Johnny puts aside his disdain for his paroled brother – Vincent’s criminal shenanigans drove their father to his grave – and tries to help him go straight. But aiding in Vincent’s reform is a losing battle, and Johnny ends up suffering dearly for his efforts.

Vincent, being the shark that he is, displays a genius in finding ways to exploit, humiliate and drive to the brink everyone who shows him trust and kindness. He gets off scot-free for his dirty dealings with his family. But when he masterminds an armored car robbery that goes wrong, his downfall is at hand. The authorities, you see, wear no kid gloves.

This low-budget flick avoids finding redeeming qualities in Vincent, which is one of its greatest strengths. Vincent has no softer side that makes him sympathetic to a broad audience, and any attempt to explain or justify his anti-social behavior would dilute the film's impact.

Vincent's end comes at the town dump -- not at all like the "top of the world" fiery and spectacular end James Cagney's Cody Jarrett meets in "White Heat" a couple of years earlier.

But like Cody, Vincent has little respect for anyone but his mother -- and we don't see much of it until the movie's final act. It's then and only then that we have a glimmer of sympathy for the hoodlum, when it's too late to save him. But then, "The Hoodlum" isn't about redemption. It's about payback, and Vincent receives that in spades.

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