Richard 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.*
*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.