There's a good chance you've never seen The Hoodlum Priest, the high-voltage, low-budget 1961 drama about Father Charles Dismas Clark, a scrappy Jesuit who struggled in the 1950s to rehabilitate ex-convicts in St. Louis. Although widely acclaimed during its initial release, this fact-based account of Father Clark's successes and failures is rarely seen today. The Webster University Film Series is giving the film a brief reprieve this weekend.
At age 51 The Hoodlum Priest holds up well, thanks in large measure to the gritty cinematography by Haskell Wexler, whose background as a documentary filmmaker is evident throughout. Co-producers Don Murray and Walter Wood hired fledgling cinematographer Wexler even before they chose director Irvin Kershner. It usually works the other way, but the producers knew they wanted The Hoodlum Priest to be first and foremost a visual experience. Wexler painted the scenes with low light and looming shadows to chronicle the activities of ex-cons whose lives play out in a shadowy underworld. He photographed beads of sweat and prison bars of cold iron in such a way that the viewer feels as trapped and doomed as the characters onscreen. When The Hoodlum Priest was first released, a reviewer for the Detroit Free Press wrote, "This is a movie that makes you forget you are in a theater seat and sweeps you into a world smug people never know." A half-century later, it still does.
Wexler's spare camera work complements a lean script that relies on visuals rather than excessive dialogue to tell its story (an uncommon approach to filmmaking in 1961). We're five minutes into the movie before the first word of dialogue is spoken. In the final six-minute scene, Don Murray (who stars in the title role as Father Clark) does not utter a single word. The film has been edited for sleekness. Only one shot in the entire 102-minute picture lasts more than 60 seconds. The performances still ring true. Murray's street-talking priest is an eccentric and complicated character. For much of the film, viewers don't know what to make of him. Is he good or bad, a protagonist or an antagonist? Ultimately we sense that the film's compassion is centered in his portrayal. Keir Dullea, in his feature film debut (he'd rise to fame half a decade later in 2001: A Space Odyssey), is compelling as an ex-convict trapped in a system he cannot escape.
The Hoodlum Priest is not without its flaws. The villain, a fictional newspaper reporter, is perhaps too obviously written and acted. But he is dispatched within the first hour. The final 40 minutes are sinewy and taut. The climactic sequence on death row at the state prison in Jefferson City is a striking blend of form and content: an uncompromising story told cinematically, with so little dialogue that when words are spoken, a simple line like "Father, it's too tight" can be electrifying.
Like any serious artist, Murray used the motion-picture medium to comment on the world in which he lived. In its condemnation of capital punishment and the shortcomings of the U.S. penal system, The Hoodlum Priest is sparked by the same kind of angry idealism that infuses Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront and which, in more cynical times, has almost completely vanished from mainstream moviemaking. To see such an impassioned film today is to be reminded with a start of how timid studio films have become. A movie like The Hoodlum Priest surely would not be made today — and if it did get made, it would be lucky to receive a limited run on a small art-house screen.
You can see it this weekend, on a very large screen (as it was meant to be seen) — and then probably not again for a very long time.