Many actors often own, or are generally known as, their most famous roles. During his memorable screen time in Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire, the late Peter Falk ‒ playing a fictionalized personification of his self ‒ is sometimes referred to as Lt. Columbo. Likewise, Sean Connery was hard-pressed to walk into any room without someone calling him James Bond. Whilst watching the 1946 MGM drama The Hoodlum Saint recently, it dawned on me when two of the film’s three major characters shared the frame together that I was witnessing the one and only time in film history in which two of pop culture’s most famous detectives appeared together: Nick Charles and Jessica Fletcher (or William Powell and Angela Lansbury, if you’d prefer to keep things real).
That sight in itself was perhaps more amazing than the feature film itself, which ultimately failed to capture the hearts and minds of audiences, and was later retired to the vaults. Opening at the conclusion of World War I, The Hoodlum Saint finds former newspaper night editor Terry O’Neill (William Powell, right in-between the last two entries in The Thin Man series) returning home to Baltimore in 1919 following the good fight in Europe. There, he finds he has little else waiting for him in exchange for his services to his country than the friendship of the shady hoodlum friends he bailed out of stir on more than one occasion. Heck, he doesn’t even have a change of clothes on account of his pals taking his few worldly possessions to the hock shop.
From there, Terry vows to praise nothing more than the holy dollar. After crashing a high society wedding, Terry meets young Kay Lorrison (Esther Williams, in one of her rare, non-aquatic performances), who turns out to be the niece of a publisher. While she almost instantaneously begins to fall for Terry’s charm and wit, the blind fool’s ambition to make a billion or two only leads to a tepid romance before he darts off to The Big Apple to work for Kay’s uncle’s rival, whom Terry had successfully smeared in a campaign, but who will be able to pay the greedy bastard much more money than he’ll ever know what to do with.
Soon, our misguided hero has just that, though it’s more than apparent there’s something missing in his rich life ‒ something not even a sultry nightclub singer named Dusty Millard (Angela Lansbury, ditching her English accent rather well, and with a singing voice supplied by Doreen Tryden ‒ something that ticked the actress off considerably, since she really could sing). Once his hard-earned millions begin to take over Terry’s mindset, he even starts to stop bailing his hoodlum friends ‒ who have journeyed to New York with him, where they open up a billiard hall with a backroom for bookies ‒ out of trouble, and jokingly plants the seed to a religion-based prank in their heads.
Bailing one of his perennial no-good buddies (the great James Gleason) out of jail, Terry attributes the good deed to St. Dismas, the Penitent Thief who was crucified beside Jesus. Convinced the act is truly that of one from Heaven above, Terry’s newfound group of inadvertently newly-hatched believers start to spread the word to each other. But when a certain notorious Tuesday from 1929 that indefinitely cripples western civilization rolls around, Terry may just have to find a reason to believe in more than his own abilities. Lewis Stone has a small (but prominently billed) role as a Man of the Cloth who comes to Powell’s aid just in the nick (Charles) of time; while character actors Rags Ragland, Frank McHugh, and Slim Summerville take most of the cake as Powell’s criminal companions.
While hardly a religious propaganda piece by any means (I realize I may have painted that picture rather poorly), The Hoodlum Saint nevertheless reflects a time in filmmaking when that God fellow still mattered to both the public and Hollywood (the latter of which was, of course, more inflicted upon them by the Hays Office more than anything). It would be absolutely inconceivable for a film from this time to feature an increasingly heartless man of flesh and blood forsake all of those who love him in order to pursue his own rapacity (these days, we still have such cretins dropping the title of Mr. Kite as a means to gather a faithful, mindless flock ‒ the only difference now is that they’re running for President), so Terry must sink or swim.
Fortunately, William Powell ‒ who had long stopped playing such characters by the time this film was made ‒ is more than capable of making a slightly unsavory character truly likable, which helps The Hoodlum Saint sail along fairly smoothly. Likewise, damsels Williams and Lansbury do their respective parts justice; the latter performer no doubt taking notes on how to play it shady for her future performance in The Manchurian Candidate. Will Wright, Byron Foulger, Dwayne Hickman, and Snub Pollard are among some of the film’s familiar, uncredited faces who pop up (sometimes just for a second) in this (rather rightfully) forgotten flick from director Norman Taurog; this being one of several Taurog titles to hit DVD via the Warner Archive Collection.
The Warner Archive digs this MGM rarity out from the vault for its first ever home video release, and the transfer is nothing short of lovely (something that is probably attributable to the fact nobody ever bothering to look at the film, which failed to make its money back at the box office), and is presented in its original 1.37:1 Academy aspect ratio. A fine mono soundtrack accompanies, and a fairly long-winded trailer is also included on this Manufactured-on-Demand release.
In the long-run, The Hoodlum Saint isn’t exactly must-see material. That said, it makes for an interesting footnote in film history, and not just because of the Nick Charles meeting (and wooing) Jessica Fletcher aspect, either. Fans of any of the film’s three leads will no doubt want to look it up, as will many filmgoers of the more traditional faith. Ultimately, it’s the one and only William Powell that makes the movie truly worthwhile. Though he had quit portraying such types, he still owns his part here (or at least leases it), and I would recommend it for that reason alone.