Life and Death in L.A.: December 2012

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.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Shadowy, But Hardly a Dead Ringer for Noir

Lots of vintage films are labeled films noir, yet when you look closely at them they don’t pass the noir litmus test. “Dark City” is one worth watching, but it flunks the exam.

You can spot a noir by it’s ending -- the hero is a victim of circumstances who naively wanders, or is lured, into big trouble and the outcome is, of course, less than positive. He faces a bleak fate -- probably death.

“Dark City” is a crime film, for sure, but the anti-hero at the center of the story, Danny Haley, played by Charlton Heston, isn’t the doomed, tormented soul that every noir leading man must be. In fact, Danny isn’t conflicted about his life’s work, running a bookie joint. But his shop keeps getting raided by the cops despite the payoffs to City Hall. To quote gang boss Johnny Caspar in a more modern gangster classic, “Miller’s Crossing,” “If you can't trust a fix, what can you trust?”

With the bookie business getting too hot, Danny goes after some easy pickings when he sets up a visiting hayseed in a rigged card game and causes the poor sucker to sign over a check for $5,000 that doesn’t belong to him.

The scheme looks foolproof until the cheated out-of-towner, Captain Garvey, played by Dean Jagger, takes his own life. Suddenly, everything unravels.

A young Henry Morgan plays one of Danny’s slightly dim sidekicks, and does the role proud. But the one to watch is Jack Webb. This may have been Webb’s best screen role as the weasely Augie, the annoying punk who is determined to cash the check that the group filched in the card game. Danny is dead set against cashing the check, and that puts his at odds with Augie.

Webb is, of course, better known for his straight and narrow, but ultimately cardboard roles as detectives, cops, and even a Marine Corps drill instructor. He hits his mark as a greasy whack job who is too impatient and intelligence-challenged to save his own life. If the film has a noir anti-hero it’s Webb. But he’s too much of a jerk to root for, so we are left with Heston’s Danny to guide us through this William Dieterle-directed, 1950 thriller.

Heston makes a believable and sympathetic Danny, a guy who could have done more with his life if he hadn’t settled in the rackets. Fran Garland (Lizabeth Scott), a torch singer, carries a torch for Danny, but he pays her little attention. The plot turns when Danny, using a false name, visits Captain Garvey’s widow, Victoria Winant (Viveca Lindfors), and romance begins to blossom. But the short-lived infatuation suddenly turns to ashes when she learns who Danny really is.

Needless to say, revenge is waiting on the doorstep for each member of Danny’s gang who helped take the chump for all he was worth. Toward the end, things look bleak for Danny, but he manages to turn the situation around and redeem himself. The climax presents us with an upbeat ending, which studio execs must have insisted on, but it simply ain’t noir. Too bad – it’s a good film that could have been great.