Posted by Richard Harland Smith on July 6, 2007
I caught up with The Hoodlum Priest (1961), Keir Dullea’s first film, too late to include any discussion of it in my recent Dullea-dedicated post . Nevertheless, a couple of bits rate mentioning as postscript.
The Hoodlum Priest was produced, co-written and stars Don Murray, known for his deeply-felt pacifist/Christian beliefs. Murray’s early success as a leading man in such Hollywood productions as Bus Stop (1956) with Marilyn Monroe and A Hatful of Rain (1957) gave him the credibility and capital to divide his time between straight for-hire jobs (Advise and Consent, The Viking Queen, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes) and more personal projects (the Norman Vincent Peale biopic One Man’s Way, the fact-based conversion drama Childish Things, and The Cross and the Switchblade, which he directed). Here the actor plays against type as street smart Jesuit priest Charles Clark, whose patron is Dismas – the “Good Thief” crucified at the side of Jesus Christ. (Coincidentally, The Hoodlum Priest was the third film I saw this past week that referenced Saint Dismas, along with last year’s Longford and Neil Jordan’s 2002 remake of Jean Pierre Melville’s Bob le flambeur, which actually bears the title The Good Thief.) While scraping up funds for a halfway house devoted to rehabilitating ex-convicts, Father Dismas takes on the case of Billy Lee Jackson (Dullea in full-on James Dean mode), a youth offender coming off a two-year bid for a robbery that netted him all of $19.
The film begins as Billy is walked out the front gate of Missouri’s Jefferson City prison and put on a train to St. Louis. Onboard, Billy is greeted by his old pal-in-crime Pio Gentile (Don Joslyn). One of many interesting stylistic choices by director Irvin Kershner and cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who shot the film in gorgeous high contrast black-and-white with the warts-and-all insouciance of a documentary, is to present this reunion scene sans dialogue (which is buried by train noise) – with Billy and Pio framed in the oval window of the train door.
What jumped out to me right away was how this setup looks like a reverse of the famous two-shot in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) of Dave Bowman (Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) as they conspire against the supercomputer-gone-mad, HAL 9000, inside the ostensible privacy of an escape pod.
It gets more interesting. The Hoodlum Priest takes a tragic turn with Billy gunning down a man during a botched burglary. Convicted and condemned to death in the gas chamber, Billy is visited on Death Row by girlfriend Ellen (Cindi Wood) to whom he bids a tearful farewell. Apologizing for involving Ellen in his rotten life, Billy laments…
… which presages Bowman's/Dullea’s cosmic rebirth as the Starchild in the final frames of 2001.
On its own merits, The Hoodlum Priest is only so-so as a drama, all elbows and knees in the acting department. Don Murray and Keir Dullea both overreach in trying to sell their respective characters' street cred but are quite effective in quieter scenes… as when Dismas witnesses Billy’s death in the gas chamber. It’s a gripping scene to which I’ll refrain from paying the backhanded compliment “it must have been powerful in its day” because it still packs a punch, even though the camera demurely tilts away from doomed man to focus on an anguished Father Dismas.
Sidebar: Almost twenty years later, a similar scene was played in an episode of James Earl Jones’ short-lived cop series Paris, which ran on CBS for only a dozen episodes between September of 1979 and January of 1980. In the Steve Bochco-penned “Dead Men Don’t Kill” (broadcast December 4, 1979), Georg Stanford Brown plays a wrongly-convicted prisoner on California’s Death Row who rejects a last minute stay of execution in favor of ending his miserable life behind bars. The final extreme close-up holds on Brown as he instinctively holds his breath against the blossoming gas pellets; lungs bursting, he exhales/inhales with a gut-wrenching bellow and dies before our eyes. Only then does the camera pan up to Jones’ emotional reaction. It was a powerful scene that has stayed with me for almost 30 years.
Back on topic: I’ve never read any Stanley Kubrick biographies or filmographies and don’t know how Kubrick came to casting Dullea in 2001: A Space Odyssey… or if a viewing of The Hoodlum Priest might have sparked anything in Kubrick's mind. More likely, these parallels are just the very kind of happy coincidences that make a study of the movies like a surprise birthday party every day.
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