Born to Kill (1947, Robert Wise) is one of my favorite noir films. It’s a relentless, murderous tale, and Lawrence Tierney is a large part of its power (though Claire Trevor matches his performance blow for blow). Recently, I learned about another of Tierney’s ruthless killer roles, this time in The Hoodlum (1951, Max Nosseck). The second features lower production values, less character and plot complexity, and weaker co-stars, but Tierney plays virtually the same type, with all the vigor and viciousness of the former. Both characters end up facing the punishment they deserve for their crimes, and neither accepts responsibility for his actions. It’s just that in the former Tierney is promoted as uncommonly sexy-evil and in the latter he’s just a common menace to society.
Historical context helps to explain some of the differences. The freshness of what we retrospectively call noir left space for experimentation, especially the dark, morally ambiguous expressionism brought by German immigrant directors to Hollywood before and during WWII. As long as the film cost little and was a success at the box office, the moguls were all for it. Born to Kill came out in 1947, an amazing year for noir (Out of the Past, Nightmare Alley, Kiss of Death, Dark Passage, Crossfire, Lady from Shanghai, Body and Soul, Possessed, etc.). Critics applauded the ruthless passion of Wise’s film. But audiences did not.
Apparently, Mr. Tierney himself was a little too much like Sam in Born to Kill, and his off-screen antisocial behavior soon led studios to sour on working with him. The Hoodlum gave him another powerful opportunity to play a tough, unsympathetic lead, especially as his salary wasn’t high, nor was director Max Nosseck’s.
[Spoiler Alert: I’m gonna spill everything.] Like Sam, The Hoodlum‘s Vincent Lubeck feels the world has cheated him out of his imagined American dream: power, money, and prestige. The film’s opening shows a young Vincent repeatedly arrested, from teen years to the present. He is released from jail only because his immigrant mother (Lisa Golm) makes a passionate plea. Prison, she knows, will only harden him further, while her love and life with family is his only hope. Of course, she is wrong, disastrously so. Vincent fights and insults his humble, hard-working brother Johnny (played compellingly by Tierney’s own brother Edward), then steals his girl Rosa (Alleen Roberts).
He’s on the make for sweet, innocent Rosa the moment he meets her, holding her hand too long as he’s introduced. Later, when she goes to tell him how his behavior is hurting his mother and brother, he kisses her aggressively. His bad-boy allure is too tempting for the soft-hearted Rosa, and soon she comes to him when Johnny is away. In a chilling scene, heartless, power-hungry Vincent calmly takes the virgin Rosa into a backroom to have sex with her; soon after, he tosses her aside. The thrill of besting his brother was too easy, and Vincent can only find Rosa stupid when he learns she has committed suicide while two months pregnant with his child.
While Vincent and Sam are equally despicable in their use and abuse of others, the character of Rosa and her fate reveals a major difference between Born to Kill and The Hoodlum: while Vincent preys on the weak and innocent, Sam uses only those who can help him achieve his goals. Neither Claire Trevor’s Helen nor Audrey Long’s Georgia (Helen’s sister) are innocent home-loving gals in Born to Kill. Georgia lives in denial and is certainly more sympathetic than ruthless Helen, but she’s no blushing virgin. She likes Sam’s determination and she has the power of wealth to lure and, she thinks, control him. Bank secretary Eileen (Marjorie Reardon), whom Vincent woos but does not win in The Hoodlum is as hard-bitten as he is, but much less compelling than either Helen or Georgia.
In short, everything is scaled down in The Hoodlum, the film more one-dimensional and heavy-handed in its message. There’s less to compel us in Vincent’s story, largely because the film preaches from its title to its conclusion: he’s an irredeemable hoodlum for whom we should not have the slightest consideration. Late in the film, he flees the authorities after being double-crossed by his partners in a bank heist and ends up back at his mother’s apartment. From her sickbed, she tells him he’s entirely no-good, a worthless son who drove his father to his grave. A shocked Vincent can only lay his head beside her. She reaches out a hand to entwine in his hair, a loving-hating last embrace, and dies…presumably of a broken heart.
This hardcore guilt-dumping reinforces just how bad Vincent is, but we don’t need it. The film very much seems like a precursor to Born to Kill rather than a successor. I can enjoy as a noir lover just how intensely malignant Vincent is, similar to how I enjoy Sam. But since Vincent has no success before his fall, and with his evils including driving his father, mother, and brother’s fiancee to death, there is little tension or power in the presentation.
In the end, I am glad I watched The Hoodlum, and I am even likely to watch it again, perhaps to show it for #BNoirDetour since I found it on YouTube. Still, if you want to see young Lawrence Tierney at his viciously incorrigible best, begin with Born to Kill.