Posts Tagged ‘Larry Gates’

For the 1961 Blogathon: The Hoodlum Priest

Classic Film Fan(and Jane Russell fan) Moviemovieblogblog celebrated his birthday yesterday, April 27th.  He decided that a fun way to celebrate this year was to host a blogathon entirely dedicated to movies made his birth year of 1961.  As it happened, on my dvr list was a movie made in 1961 , The Hoodlum Priest.  I contacted my blogathon host and he said yes, write about that film! So, here it is, and fascinatingly to me, it was filmed in St. Louis!!    

Actor Don Murray was in St. Louis in 1959 to help promote a film he had starred in with James Cagney, Shake Hands With the Devil, when a priest approached him at the film’s screening to tell him of another compelling story Murray may want to tell.  The priest, Father Charles Clark, met with Murray the next day and told the story of his life as a priest. Father Clark was a Jesuit who taught at St. Louis University High School, but his real calling was reaching out to ex-cons and trying to get them back into society as successful citizens.  Father Clark had a plan, and with the backing of a St. Louis criminal defense lawyer, a foundation had been formed and Father Clark had been able to bid on a former St. Louis elementary school that was vacant on Cole Street.  Father Clark’s vision was to fully rehab the school and turn it into a home for ex-cons to live at as they learned job skills, received counseling, meals, and clothing.  An office would also be there for state parole officers.  The cons could live there until they were able to live on their own and away from the lure of returning to a criminal life.  What we today would call a “Halfway House”, this was Father Clark’s vision and if it could happen, it would be the first in the nation.  Father Clark told Murray that if a television story could be made and shown about the cons and Dismas House(Clark’s name for the house) that it would help bring in needed donations for the cause.  Murray was so entranced by Father Clark’s story that he decided to make a movie about Father Clark’s story.   After getting his pal Walter Wood to sign on as producer, and getting United Artist’s promise to fund the film if they liked the screenplay, Joseph Landon was hired to write the screenplay.  Murray  rewrote  the first screenplay himself under the pseudonym Don Deer.  When UA gave the greenlight to make the film,  Murray and Wood hired Irvin Kirshner to direct and Haskell Wexler as cinematographer.  Murray decided to make the film in St. Louis and to also shoot some scenes in Jefferson City at the state prison.

The film opens with a young man, Billy Lee Jackson(Keir Dullea) exiting the state prison in Jefferson City, catching the train to St. Louis, and being greeted by  hoodlum buddy Pio(Don Joslyn) who jumps on the train as it departs the train station.  Back in the Lou, Pio introduces Billy to Father Clark.  Father Clark is able to befriend Billy, who at first wants nothing to do with the priest or the church.  Father Clark is able to get Billy a job with a produce wholesaler market owned by the Marziotti family.  Father Clark also speaks at a socialite’s garden party in an effort to raise funds for Dismas House and since Billy attends the event as an example of Father Clark’s work, Billy meets the hostess’s lovely daughter, Ellen(Cindi Wood), and they soon begin dating.  All looks right with Billy’s life as he begins to re-enter society until money turns up missing at the Marziotti’s business.  Billy is wrongly accused and fired from his job.  Angered, he and Pio decide to rob the business.  Spoilers: Billy and Pio are confronted by one of the Marziotti brothers, and as the man tries to attack them with a crowbar, Billy shoots him and kills him.  After a chase by the police and a stand-off in an abandoned house, Father Clark is able to convince Billy to give himself up.  Tried in court and found guilty of murder, Billy receives the death penalty.  Father Clark visits Billy in the prison and is there with him until the end of his life via the gas chamber.  Depressed, Father Clark returns to St. Louis and Dismas House, to find a drunken Pio, who trashes a room in the house before collapsing and weakly admitting he needs help.

Billy’s first meeting with Father Clark

Billy in the gas chamber

The real Father Clark helping Murray with his collar

Dismas House in 1961

A short film yet told in a powerful way, especially the last moments of Billy’s life, The Hoodlum Priest is an interesting film.  United Artists assumed they had bankrolled Murray enough money to make a B movie, but as the film went over its originally set schedule, and needed more money, and dealt with a typical hot and humid Missouri summer, and an accidentally injured Keir Dullea, and extra costs due to a St. Louis union muscling its way in for jobs  for more crew workers not really needed, Murray was despairing over his first time as a movie maker.  However, at the first full-screening only for UA executives in NYC, the little film brought tears to their eyes and they knew this was no longer a B movie but an A.  Indeed, in 1961, The Hoodlum Priest, was hailed by critics and made many top ten film lists for 1961.

For many, it is an obscure film but it shouldn’t be that way.  Seek it out and give it a view.  Having lived in St. Louis County, specifically Florissant, for almost 20 years, I was especially delighted that the majority of the movie had been shot in St. Louis.  Incidentally, I was curious about the name “Dismas” and according to church legend, he was the criminal crucified next to Jesus who scolded the other criminal who insulted Jesus, asking Jesus to remember him when he died; Jesus answering Dismas that he would be with him in paradise.

For more information about this film, and to give credit to it as a source for providing research for this blog post, please visit this article from The Riverfront Times.

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