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Lawrence Tierney was a B-movie leading man and character actor who enjoyed a brief period of fame in the mid-forties when he made an indelible impression in the title role of Dillinger (1945) and confirmed his screen status as a menacing tough guy and sociopath in two iconic film noirs, The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947) and Robert Wise's Born to Kill (1947), co-starring Claire Trevor. Off-screen Tierney had a notorious reputation as a mean drunk, brawler and persistent troublemaker with a prodigious police record which often mirrored the sort of characters he played on the screen. His Hollywood reputation as a bad boy quickly put the skids on a promising career and he found himself unemployable for months, if not years at a time, occasionally surfacing in low-budget films and television work. Although he eventually enjoyed some level of cult appreciation from filmmaker fans such as director/writer Norman Mailer (Tough Guys Don't Dance, 1987), John Sayles (City of Hope, 1991) and Quentin Tarantino, who cast him in Reservoir Dogs (1992), Tierney remained an unapologetic, irascible character up until the end of his life (he died in 2002).
The Hoodlum (1951) was made at a point in Tierney's career when he had already burned his bridges at RKO (where he had been a contract player) and was now freelancing for other studios. Unfortunately, most of what he was offered were low-budget crime dramas and westerns and The Hoodlum was clearly a step down in quality from such previous efforts as the Richard Fleischer helmed crime drama, Bodyguard (1948). Directed by Max Nosseck, who worked with Tierney in Dillinger, The Hoodlum is a Poverty Row programmer that barely runs an hour in length (the running time is 61 minutes) but was clearly designed as a showcase for Tierney who is in almost every scene. As such, it is highly recommended to his fans and is also interesting for featuring Edward Tierney, Lawrence's younger brother, in his first prominent role as the main character's law-abiding brother.
Serving as bookends for the beginning and ending of The Hoodlum, the movie opens with a scene of career criminal Vincent Lubeck (Lawrence Tierney) being driven to the city dump by his vengeful brother Johnny (Edward Tierney) and in between we are treated to the grim case history of Vincent, who becomes increasingly hardened and dangerous after each arrest and imprisonment with no possibility of ever changing. His mother (Lisa Golm) doesn't see that and successfully appeals to the prison board to get him paroled so he can rebuild his life, working with his brother at the family gas station. As soon as Vincent is out, he returns to his old ways and is soon romancing Eileen (Marjorie Riordan), a bank employee who is too free with her information about the weekly schedule of the armored van pickups. The closest we get to any explanation of Vincent's deep-seated, amoral behavior is his own bitter memory of growing up next to the city dump which becomes a metaphor for his life. The world owes this guy and he is ready to collect.
Part crime-doesn't-pay morality tale and film noir with the requisite doomed protagonist, The Hoodlum zips along on a relentless downward path as Vincent seduces and abandons his brother's girlfriend Rosa (Allene Roberts) after she becomes pregnant; he masterminds a bank robbery and then has a violent falling out with his gang of thieves. At the end, Vincent has even alienated his long-suffering mother who laments on her deathbed, "What can mommy do? Go to the electric chair for you?....All the time you were yelling about the smells from the city dump, you are the smell! You are the stink!"
The Hoodlum is no forgotten masterpiece or even a minor gem in the film noir genre but it does give you Lawrence Tierney straight up as a lethal and poisonous force of nature. He was a limited actor at best but within his narrow range, he conveyed (in his best roles) such hatred, intimidation and barely contained homicidal fury that he easily dominated every scene he was in and was certainly as formidable as Cagney, Bogart and Robinson at their most ferocious. Novelist/screenwriter Barry Gifford (Wild at Heart, Lost Highway) wrote possibly the most concise description of Tierney's fascinating appeal in his essay on the film The Devil Thumbs a Ride (included in the book The Devil Thumbs a Ride & Other Unforgettable Films) and written while Tierney was still alive: "He's in his sixties now, fat, and completely bald. His gigantic, gleaming skull is absolutely square. In "Hill Street" [a TV series episode] he played an old police sergeant and he didn't have many lines, but that mean look was still in his eyes; that bad-to-the-bone, never-give-in visage. There is no daylight in that face."
Producer: Maurice Kosloff
Director: Max Nosseck
Screenplay: Sam Neuman, Nat Tanchuck (screenplay and story)
Cinematography: Clark Ramsey
Art Direction: Fred Preble
Music: Darrell Calker
Film Editing: Jack Killifer
Cast: Lawrence Tierney (Vincent Lubeck), Allene Roberts (Rosa), Marjorie Riordan (Eileen), Lisa Golm (Mrs. Lubeck), Edward Tierney (Johnny Lubeck), Stuart Randall (Police Lt. Burdick), Ann Zika (Christie Lang), John De Simone (Marty Connell), Tom Hubbard (Police Sgt. Schmidt), Eddie Foster (Mickey Sessions).
by Jeff Stafford
Death on the Cheap: The Lost B Movies of Film Noir! by Arthur Lyons (Da Capo Press)
The Devil Thumbs a Ride & Other Unforgettable Films by Barry Gifford (Grove Press)