(I recorded The Hoodlum Priest off of TCM on January 6th of this year.)
“I’m not trying to change the world. I’m just trying to keep the world from changing me.”
— Anti-Death Penalty Activist in The Hoodlum Priest (1961)
The Hoodlum Priest tells the story of two men who have far more in common than may first seem apparent.
Billy Lee Jackson (Keir Dullea) has spent the last few months in prison and seems to be destined to return as soon as possible. Though he was convicted of armed robbery, the truth was that Billy was little more than a mugger and a petty thief. It only takes one look at him to see that his tough exterior is largely an act. Billy is angry, bitter, and often scared but tough he definitely isn’t. As soon as Billy’s released back onto the streets of St. Louis, he teams up with his friend, Pico (Don Joslyn), and the two of them plot to crack a safe.
Father Charles Dismas Clark (Don Murray) is a Jesuit who has dedicated his life to trying to rehabilitate ex-cons like Billy. As Father Clark explains it, he is the son of coal miners, a descendant of the original Molly Maguires. He knows what it means to be on the fringes of society. As opposed to his colleagues, Father Clark speaks the language of the streets. (Of course, we’re talking about the streets of 1961 here, which means that Father Clark spends a lot of time saying stuff, “Hey, I ain’t no square!”) Father Clark’s dream is to open up a halfway house, a place where those released from prison can stay as they try to reintegrate into society. Helping Father Clark is a famed attorney named Louis Rosen (Larry Gates). Opposing him and suggesting that Clark is as much a hoodlum as those he claims to be helping is a supercilious journalist named George Hale (Logan Ramsey).
At first, it appears that Billy could be one of Father Clark’s greatest success stories. After convincing Billy and Pico to abandon their criminal plans, Father Clark arranges for Billy to get a job. Billy even begins a rather unlikely romance with a wealthy socialite named Ellen (Cindi Wood). However, no matter how hard Billy tries to resist, the temptation to return to his old ways remains. While Father Clark struggles to convince people to support his halfway house, Billy finds himself drawn back into a life of crime…
The Hoodlum Priest was based on a true story. The real Father Clark personally approached Don Murray and told him the story behind the founding of Dismas House. Murray felt so strongly about Clark’s story that he not only starred in and produced The Hoodlum Priest but also wrote the screenplay. (The script was credited to Don Deer, which was Murray’s nickname when he was a high school track star.)
That this film was a passion project for Murray is obvious in the intensity of his performance. As played by Murray, Father Clark is hardly an intellectual. Instead, he’s frequently as emotional and, at times, as angry as the people that he’s trying to help. When Billy fails to show proper gratitude after Father Clark rescues him from being sent back to jail, Clark refuses to excuse the snub. Clark may be sincere but he’s not going to let anyone push him around. Director Irvin Kershner and cinematography Haskell Wexler bring a gritty realism to the film’s visuals, which keeps the film from getting overwhelmed by its own sincerity.
The Hoodlum Priest is a well-done piece of social commentary, one that features a still relevant message about the struggle of ex-cons to reintegrate into society. Don Murray brings the same righteous authority to this film that he would later bring to Twin Peaks: The Return. This is a good one to keep an eye out for on TCM.