The Hoodlum Priest
Cast & Crew
Father Charles Dismas Clark, a Jesuit priest in St. Louis, dedicates his life to the rehabilitation of delinquents and ex-convicts. By meeting them on their own terms and talking their language, he wins their confidence and their trust. He is primarily concerned with a young thief, Billy Lee Jackson, recently released from the Missouri State Penitentiary. Father Clark helps clear the boy of some trumped-up charges and then gets him an honest job with a produce market. Billy's rehabilitation is further encouraged by Ellen Henley, a young socialite with whom he falls in love. Meanwhile, aided by Louis Rosen, a successful criminal lawyer, Father Clark raises enough funds to open Halfway House, a shelter for ex-convicts readjusting to civilian life. All goes well until Billy's employer fires him for a theft he did not commit. Embittered, he and a friend, Pio, attempt to rob the produce market. They are caught by one of the owners, and he attacks Billy with a crowbar. The panic-stricken boy grabs a gun and kills him. The police chase Billy to an abandoned house, and he hides there until Father Clark persuades him to surrender. Tried and convicted of murder, he is sentenced to death. Before Billy dies in the gas chamber, Father Clark reassures him by telling him of Dismas, the thief who died on the cross, and of how Christ promised him eternal life. After the execution, Father Clark returns to Halfway House and finds his first client, Pio, drunk and repentant.
Walter L. Wiedmer
The Hoodlum Priest
Taking his middle name from the repentant thief crucified alongside Jesus Christ at Calvary, Father Clark had devoted himself to reclaiming lives derailed by criminality, whether provoked by poverty, drug use, or mere youthful waywardness. Clark hoped that Murray might make a television movie about Dismas House - Murray had just played Billy Budd in a TV adaptation of the Herman Melville novel on The DuPont Show of the Month that May - to raise public awareness. Though he begged off that day to focus his attention on Shake Hands with the Devil, Murray arranged for Clark to meet him at his St. Louis hotel room, at which time he agreed to the cleric's request and took the challenge one step further. Rather than make a TV movie, which would be broadcast once and forgotten, Murray signed on to produce a feature devoted to the mission of the man the press had dubbed "The Hoodlum Priest" - a sobriquet that became the title of Murray's passion project.
With a paltry $350,000 budget cadged from United Artists and an eighteen day shooting schedule, Murray and producing partner Walter Wood commissioned a script from Hollywood writer Joseph Landon, who had penned the gangster biopic The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960) for Budd Boetticher. Murray found Landon's screenplay unusable, a hodgepodge of clichés straight off the backlot at Warner Brothers. Not wanting to beg UA for additional funds, Murray rewrote the script himself (as "Don Deer," a nickname that went back to his days as a high school track star), aided by an uncredited assist from TV writer Christopher Knopf. To keep the feel of the production at street level, Murray chose locations close to where true events had transpired, at St. Louis' Terminal Market, in the state prison at Jefferson City, and within the walls of the newly-opened Dismas House. With Murray cast (or miscast; the indefatigable Father Clark was, at nearly sixty years old, no matinee idol), the next challenge was to find an actor to play the young criminal whose soul Clark must attempt to save even when it is no longer possible to spare the boy's life.
Robert Blake and Peter Falk were both considered to play the fictive Billy Lee Jackson (an amalgamation of some of Father Clark's tragic "failures") but deemed too old by Murray, who chose instead New York stage actor Keir Dullea. (Dullea would follow his feature film debut with a role in the Hallmark Hall of Fame teleplay Give Us Barabbas!, concerning the thief whose place Christ took on Calvary.) Though The Hoodlum Priest's supporting cast included Hollywood veteran Larry Gates (with whom Murray had worked on the 1960 Alan Ladd western One Foot in Hell), the balance was made up of TV and stage actors with little film experience. The first-time producers also saved money by retaining the relatively untested director Irvin Kershner and his Stakeout on Dope Street (1958) cinematographer Haskell Wexler. Yet despite their best efforts, Murray and Wood were already over-budget on the first day of shooting, local union rules requiring them to hire unneeded labor and their naïve insistence on shooting on location causing the production to fall behind schedule. Worse yet, Dullea nearly severed an artery in his arm while shooting a key scene and Murray grew increasingly more stymied by Kershner's slow progress.
Ultimately, the filmmakers were forced to ask United Artists for additional funds. Though UA advanced The Hoodlum Priest another $250,000, Murray and Wood were required to sign promissory notes that made them personally liable if the film went bust. Their trials followed them back to Hollywood, where the film's gas chamber climax was shot (at Goldwyn Studios) and where Murray tangled with Kershner over editing. Murray asserted himself and released The Hoodlum Priest his way and UA executives were impressed. The distributor gave The Hoodlum Priest the full court press and the initial critical reaction was positive, even glowing. (The guest list for the film's February 1961 premiere in St. Louis - a benefit for Dismas House which netted $75,000 - included Cardinal Joseph Ritter, archbishop of Indianapolis and an early proponent of desegregation, and labor leader/underworld crime figure Jimmy Hoffa.) Yet despite the initial critical hosannas and a warm reception at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival, The Hoodlum Priest was allowed to sink into obscurity, remaindered by UA to television as early as 1962.
United Artists' decision to pull support from The Hoodlum Priest despite its being an unexpected crowd-pleaser had much to do with a negative view of the film voiced in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat by city editor George Killenberg. Killenberg railed at the purportedly unflattering depiction of St. Louis in the film and the producers' decision to fete Jimmy Hoffa at the gala premiere. Though Killenberg's voice was one against many (even the critic for the Globe-Democrat had given The Hoodlum Priest a good review) he had the support of an unlikely ally: Father Charles Clark. For reasons he kept to himself, Clark condemned the film that had been made about him. Worse yet for Murray and Wood, a publicist connected to the production sued them for plagiarism, claiming the original story idea had been his. Though the claim was thrown out of court, the principals - chiefly Don Murray and Father Charles Clark - had their last view of one another as defendant and plaintiff in a St. Louis Courthouse.
Father Charles Clark died of a heart attack in August 1963, by which time The Hoodlum Priest was largely forgotten. Don Murray enjoyed fewer headaches and a considerably larger paycheck for his starring role in Otto Preminger's Advise and Consent (1962) and later directing the faith-based feature The Cross and the Switchblade (1970). Keir Dullea went from strength to strength on the big screen, playing an emotionally unstable youth feeling the stirrings of first love in Frank Perry's David and Lisa (1962) and beleaguered astronaut Dave Bowman in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Irvin Kershner soon established himself as a reliable director-for-hire and a subspecialist in sequels such as The Return of a Man Called Horse (1976), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Robocop 2 (1990). Haskell Wexler won an Academy Award for Mike Nichols' Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) and Hal Ashby's Bound for Glory (1976)... but perhaps the greatest success story connected to The Hoodlum Priest is the legacy of Dismas House, which begat hundreds of federally-operated halfway houses over the ensuing years, through whose doors more than 11,000 ex-convicts have passed on the path to redemption.
By Richard Hartland Smith
"Repudiated on its 1961 release by the tough-talking clergyman who inspired it, The Hoodlum Priest remains as obscure and intriguing as ever" by Dennis Brown, Riverfront Times News, March 10, 2011
Interview with Don Murray by Foster Hirsch, Aero Theatre, July 9, 2010
Dismas House Records, Western Historical Manuscript Collection, The State Historical Society of Missouri, 1919-1978
The Hoodlum Priest
Voted One of the Year's Ten Best Films by the 1961 National Board of Review.
Winner of the Catholic Film Office Award at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival.
Released in United States May 1961
Released in United States Spring March 1961
Shown at the Cannes Film Festival May 1961.
Released in United States Spring March 1961
Released in United States May 1961 (Shown at the Cannes Film Festival May 1961.)