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Tag Archives: Lawrence Tierney

Bodyguard (Sept. 4, 1948)

BodyguardRichard Fleischer’s Bodyguard features Lawrence Tierney doing what Lawrence Tierney did best — knocking down everyone and everything that gets in his way.

In the first sequence of the film, LAPD detective Mike Carter (Tierney) is reprimanded by his lieutenant (played by Frank Fenton) for using his knuckles instead of his brain. Before Mike even has a chance to plead his case to the captain, the lieutenant informs him that he’s already talked to the captain on Mike’s behalf and that Mike is suspended effective immediately.

So Mike uses his knuckles instead of his brain and gets into a glass-breaking fistfight with his lieutenant.

When Mike and the lieutenant are gearing up to throw punches, the film cuts back and forth between the two men as they both step closer to the camera, eventually getting so close their noses are almost touching the lens.

After Mike is bounced from the force, a man named Freddie Dysen (Phillip Reed) approaches him with a proposition. He’ll pay Mike a $2,000 retainer to act as bodyguard to his aunt, Mrs. Gene Dysen (Elisabeth Risdon).

Who can say no to a $2,000 retainer?

Well, apparently Mike Carter can. He’s got better things to do, like spending time with his cute blond fiancée, Doris Brewster (Priscilla Lane, in her final film role), and playing the ponies down at the track.

But when Mike is framed for murder, he’s forced to get into the action. What do Mrs. Dysen and her meat-packing plant have to do with the murder Mike’s been framed for? And was the accidental death of a plant inspector really accidental?

One thing I love is when a B movie gives its peripheral characters interesting lives that in no way advance the plot. For instance, Bodyguard features a scene in an arcade where Mike tries to get the counter girl’s attention as she chats with a couple of sailors. He doesn’t succeed for awhile, and when he finally does, one of the sailors tries to start a fight with him. Bodyguard runs for barely longer than an hour, and has a dense, twisty plot, but it still finds time for entertaining little moments like that.

It also features a ton of location shooting in Los Angeles and great noir cinematography by Robert De Grasse. Bodyguard is unmistakably designed to be the second feature on a double bill, but it’s well-made, well-acted, and holds up as superior entertainment.

The director, Richard Fleischer, had a long career in Hollywood. He was born in 1916 and Bodyguard was only his fourth feature film (he made a number of documentary shorts in the 1940s as well). To put things into perspective, this is the same man who would go on to make The Narrow Margin (1952), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), Fantastic Voyage (1966), Soylent Green (1973), Mandingo (1975), and Conan the Destroyer (1984).

Bodyguard is also notable for being the first time acclaimed director Robert Altman got his name in the credits. The screenplay is credited to Fred Niblo Jr. and Harry Essex, and the story is credited to George W. George and Robert B. Altman.*

Tierney

*Altman also worked on the script for Edwin L. Marin’s Christmas Eve (1947), which starred George Raft, but Altman’s name didn’t appear in the credits.

Born to Kill (May 3, 1947)

Born to Kill
Born to Kill (1947)
Directed by Robert Wise
RKO Radio Pictures

Robert Wise’s Born to Kill has never been one of my favorite noirs. It regularly tops “best of” lists, and many film noir enthusiasts whom I respect love it, so I was hoping a fresh viewing would reveal something new to me.

Alas, for me it was still the same old flick. It’s an enjoyable picture, but it’s wildly melodramatic, there are subplots that never really go anywhere, and its over-the-top characters are mostly two-dimensional. The key to a great noir, like Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), is the sense that it could happen to you, or to someone you know. No matter how outlandish the schemes in a film are, if they’re carried out by believable characters then I’m usually able to go along for the ride without asking too many questions.

Born to Kill tells the tale of a pair of sociopathic social climbers, the recently divorced Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) and the recently paroled Sam Wild (Lawrence Tierney). Their paths cross in Reno, the biggest little city in the world. Helen is there for a quickie divorce and Sam is there with his reedy little sidekick, Mart Waterman (Elisha Cook Jr.). Helen is staying at a boarding house run by the slovenly Mrs. Kraft (Esther Howard), who, when we first see her, is getting lit up on beer in the middle of the afternoon with the adenoidal tart Laury Palmer (Isabel Jewell).

After Laury goes on a date with dapper Danny Jaden (Tony Barrett) just to make the big lug she’s dating jealous, she invites Danny inside for a nightcap. When Danny goes to the kitchen, he finds Laury’s big lug waiting for him. It’s Sam Wild, of course, and his brutal killing of both Danny and Laury is the film’s high point. (Or the lurid low point, if you’re a prissy scold.) The sound of crickets in the background, the neatly manicured suburban lawns surrounding Mrs. Kraft’s boarding house, the dog barking in the background, and the uptempo swing music playing on the radio in the kitchen all lend a sense of immediacy and familiarity to the murder.

The rest of the film, however, just doesn’t hang together for me. Sam’s little buddy Mart tells him, “You can’t just go around killing people whenever the notion strikes you. It just ain’t feasible.” I feel the same way about the plot of Born to Kill. It just ain’t feasible.

After the murder, Sam blows town. He and Helen meet again on the train to San Francisco. When they disembark, Sam suggests splitting a cab, but Helen tells him she’s going in a different direction. He responds, “That’s where you’re wrong. We’re going in the same direction, you and I.”

Sam insinuates himself into Helen’s life. They are clearly drawn to each other, but she tells him that nothing in the world will stop her from marrying her fiancé, Fred Grover (Phillip Terry). So Sam moves in on her sister, wealthy heiress Georgia Staples (Audrey Long), or, to be more precise, her foster sister, as Helen bitterly reveals to Sam. Not only is Georgia a beautiful blonde, but — as Sam tells Mart — “Marrying into this crowd will make it so’s I can spit in anyone’s eye.”

Meanwhile, back in Reno, Mrs. Kraft retains the services of a sleazy, corpulent private investigator named Matthew Albert Arnett (Walter Slezak). Mrs. Kraft is played by Esther Howard, and her bizarre, bug-eyed performance in this film is nearly identical to the “Filthy Flora” character she played in Dick Tracy vs. Cueball (1946).

Helen and Sam pursue their doomed, twisted love affair. (“Fred is peace and security,” Helen moans. “You, you’re strength, excitement, and depravity. You’ve a kind of corruption inside of you, Sam.”) Arnett sniffs around. Sam and Georgia quarrel after she refuses to let him run her family’s business. Mart Waterman shows up in San Francisco and starts living with the unhappy foursome. (Is he Sam’s partner or his secret lover? The film is never completely clear.) Slowly but surely, the plot threads of the film intertwine, culminating in an orgy of murder and betrayal.

This is the second or third time I’ve seen Born to Kill. While I’ve griped about the ridiculously melodramatic plot, maybe I just want it to be something it’s not. I could certainly see myself watching it again in the future and loving its over-the-top characters, unrealistic scenarios, grotesque supporting players, and generally high level of camp.

I think my biggest problem with Born to Kill is the relationship between Sam and Helen. Claire Trevor is a wonderful performer, but I was never able to accept that she’d love Sam enough to give up everything for him. Helen’s histrionics in her scenes in tastefully appointed drawing rooms with Fred, Georgia, and Sam seem more scripted than natural, and Claire Trevor’s performance as Helen seems too intelligent and composed for the debased character she’s playing.

But maybe that’s the point. Lawrence Tierney is a powerful presence, but he isn’t a particularly gifted actor, especially when either subtlety or range is called for. Not only does Sam Wild commit murder whenever the notion strikes him, he can bend others to his will, getting his friend Mart to kill for him and getting Helen to provide him with an alibi for murder at the drop of a hat. He’s a brutal alpha male, and loving him may go against all reason and sense, but that never stopped anybody before.

Born to Kill is directed by Robert Wise with vigor. The cinematography, by Robert de Grasse, is great, especially in the nighttime exteriors. Paul Sawtell’s music is exciting. I found the plot ridiculous, but that shouldn’t stop any noir fans who haven’t seen Born to Kill from seeking it out.

The Devil Thumbs a Ride (Feb. 20, 1947)

Felix Feist’s The Devil Thumbs a Ride has acquired a fearsome reputation over the years, so I wasn’t prepared for how weird and funny it ended up being.

This film has more oddball characters than you can shake a stick at. The protagonist, Jimmy Ferguson (Ted North), is a bra and panties salesman driving a 1941 gray convertible who has a bad case of the hiccups and a wine bottle on the seat next to him with a rubber nipple attached to it. It was a gag gift from his buddies, and he swears he only smells like booze. He hasn’t had a nip since before dinner. But he sure seems drunk, especially at the beginning of the movie.

There’s also a detective who keeps his dog in his car and belts his trench coat around his chest, a young gas station attendant who has a funny-looking daughter, an alcoholic night watchman who takes a $1 bet that he can’t drink an entire glass of whiskey like it’s water, and a wrongfully arrested wedding party who prove they’re not the people the cops are looking for by having the groom remove his toupee.

The one character who doesn’t come off like a caricature — and the major reason for the film’s enduring legacy — is Steve Morgan, a sociopathic robber, forger, and killer. He’s played by Lawrence Tierney, an actor whose notorious offscreen exploits — arrests for drunken brawling and driving under the influence — often overshadow his talents as an actor.

Toward the end of his life, in an interview with Rick McKay, Tierney said that he didn’t enjoy making The Devil Thumbs a Ride. He said, “I resented those pictures they put me in. I never thought of myself as that kind of guy. I thought of myself as a nice guy who wouldn’t do rotten things. I hated that character so much but I had to do it for the picture.”

Assuming Tierney wasn’t rewriting history, and he really did hate playing Steve Morgan, none of his discomfort is visible onscreen. Cruelty and duplicity are as natural for Steve as breathing, and despite this, he’s the most likable person in the film. The hapless salesman who gives Steve a lift is too goofy-acting and stiff to elicit much audience sympathy. And the cops who pursue Steve following his robbery of an old man outside of a San Diego bank are too incompetent and obsessed with playing poker to really root for.

Steve controls and manipulates people effortlessly. Within minutes of getting in Ferguson’s car, he’s renamed Ferguson “Fergie” and has picked up a couple of passengers of his own at a gas station — a bottle-blonde party girl named Agnes (Betty Lawford) and her prim, dark-haired friend Carol (Nan Leslie).

The Devil Thumbs a Ride is an hour-long paean to bad behavior. It moves too quickly for the viewer to stop and consider all the contrivances that lead Steve, Fergie, Agnes, and Carol to Fergie’s boss’s beach house in Newport. Along the way, there’s more boozing, lying, property destruction, and running from the cops than you’ll find in most movies twice as long.

It’s not quite a “lost classic” of film noir, like Detour (1945), and its humorous moments outweigh its chilling moments, but The Devil Thumbs a Ride is still well worth seeking out.

Back to Bataan (May 31, 1945)

BackBataan
Back to Bataan (1945)
Directed by Edward Dmytryk
RKO Radio Pictures

Yes, Back to Bataan is flag-waving agitprop. Yes, it features Anthony Quinn as a Filipino. But under the direction of Edward Dmytryk it’s all done really well. There are a number of gripping battle sequences, and John Wayne in his late 30s was still a lean, mean, ass-kicking machine. The human drama is a little stilted and the politics are simplistic, but when the bullets are flying, Back to Bataan delivers the goods.

The film begins with a battle sequence that depicts the raid at Cabanatuan, a Japanese POW camp, that took place on January 30, 1945. At the time the film was made, the raid was a current event, and was one of the big Allied successes in the Pacific theater. (Filipino guerrillas, Alamo Scouts, and US Army Rangers liberated more than 500 prisoners of war.) After the big opening battle, the film moves back in time to 1942, and tells the story leading up to the raid and the freeing of the POWs. Col. Joseph Madden (Wayne), voluntarily stays in the Philippines after Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his armies pull out. Madden teams up with Filipino guerrilla forces, training them and organizing them. One of his officers, Capt. Andrés Bonifácio (Quinn) is struggling to live up to the reputation of his grandfather, who was a national hero and liberator of the Philippines from Spanish colonial rule. And if that weren’t enough, Capt. Bonifácio’s former fiancée, Dalisay Delgado (Fely Franquelli) has apparently turned traitor, since she now makes regular radio broadcasts radio for the Japanese. Every time he’s near a radio, Capt. Bonifácio has to hear his sweetheart’s mellifluous voice spouting ugly Axis propaganda. Madden, of course, knows that Delgado is actually passing code through these broadcasts, but he’s ordered by his superiors not to tell Bonifácio, so Madden must use all of his skills as a commander to whip Bonifácio into shape and make him a leader of men, no matter how much Bonifácio’s heart may be breaking.

There are conflicting reports of how well Wayne got along with director Dmytryk and screenwriter Ben Barzman, both of whom had communist views. According to Barzman’s wife, they had a humorously antagonistic relationship due to their very different politic views, jokingly calling each other “goddamned communist” and “fascist.” Apparently Barzman and Dmytryk also enjoyed tormenting Wayne, who refused to use a stunt double, by devising scenes that would test his limits. Whether or not this was a friendly game, the results are sometimes stunning. There’s a scene in which Wayne is hugging the ground. A shell explodes right next to him, and his body is flung high into the air and dropped at least 20 feet away. If you rewatch the scene, you can see the wires attached to Wayne’s body, but during the first viewing, when you’re not expecting it, it’s a stunning effect.

The film ends with triumphant footage of some of the real men who were prisoners of war at Cabanatuan. They march together, filmed at low angles, while their names, ranks, and cities of origin are displayed on the screen. After seeing so many Hollywood actors playing soldiers in World War II, it’s interesting to see some of the real men who served. Some of them are handsome enough to have played in the movies. Some aren’t. Almost all of them look relieved and happy, but close to being emaciated. All of them, that is, except for one guy from Chicago who’s really fat and looked deliriously happy. I wonder what his secret was.

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