Monday, August 01, 2011

Bodyguard (1948)

Lawrence Tierney (whose brother was the equally tough actor Scott Brady) pushes his way through Richard Fleischer’s Bodyguard (1948) with the same brutal assurance he brought to such films as Max Nosseck’s Dillinger (1945), in which he played the title role of the notorious gangster with eerie intensity, and his finest film, Robert Wise’s Born to Kill (1947). But then again, in all his roles, Tierney was really channeling his real life persona of a rabble rousing hellion, who seemed absolutely incapable of staying out of trouble. Tierney is one of the cinema’s unique characters, indelibly identified with violent roles, and in real life, just as much of a loose cannon as he was on the screen.

Bodyguard is a distinctly down-market affair, with a running time of a mere 62 minutes, and was produced by RKO’s B unit, but it still packs a punch; in many ways, the noirs that Fleischer directed for RKO in the first days of his career, such as Follow Me Quietly (1949), Armored Car Robbery (1950), and The Narrow Margin (1952) are his best work, certainly worthy of more attention than Fantastic Voyage (1966) or Doctor Dolittle (1967), which typified the big budget films that dominated the bulk of Fleischer’s career.

Here, working from a script by Fred Niblo Jr. and Harry Essex, from a story by George W. George and Robert Altman (yes, that Robert Altman), Fleischer tells the tale of tough guy cop Mike Carter (Tierney), who is pushed off the force for cutting corners with little things like search warrants and beating up suspects to get a confession out of them, much to the delight of his immediate superior Lieutenant Borden (Frank Fenton). Fleischer stages the confrontation between Carter and Borden in a series of increasingly tight close-ups, in which each man gradually walks towards the camera, cutting back and forth, until both faces dominate the frame with overpowering intensity. The literal faceoff ends when Carter abrupt punches Borden in the nose, and is kicked off the force for good.

In his spare time, Mike looks after (in an odd sort of way) a group of young toughs as a sort of Big Brother, and the film quickly moves to a baseball game, where Mike has treated the kids to a doubleheader in the company of his girlfriend, Doris Brewster (Priscilla Lane, in her final screen performance). No sooner does Mike take his seat, however, than the slimy Freddie Dysen (Phillip Reed at his most disagreeable) skips in beside him, and offers him a job as bodyguard to one “Gene” Dysen, the owner of a meatpacking plant who has been receiving death threats. Despite a generous retainer, Mike turns the job down, but Freddie persists, and when Mike discovers that “Gene” Dysen is in reality Eugenia Dysen (Elisabeth Risdon, coolly professional as always), and there is another attempt on Eugenia’s life, Mike reluctantly accepts the position.

What follows is a typically violent 1940s noir, with Tierney walking through the role with his customary forthright arrogance - “one side, Dracula” he barks at Eugenia’s startled butler when first entering the Dysen mansion - and Lane offering capable support as his long suffering girlfriend. Naturally, there’s a murder, and Mike is implicated, and just as predictably, has to clear himself despite police interference. I don’t want to give the plot away, except to note that lurking behind the entire affair is the profit motive - capitalism turned to murder - and Fleischer effectively limns the dark side of post war Los Angeles with deft assurance, ably assisted by the cinematography of Robert De Grasse, and Elmo Williams’ editing.

Bodyguard is a straightforward, direct, no frills affair, designed to make Tierney an even more bankable star. But as any reader of Noir of the Week knows, Tierney had his own share of scrapes with the law in real life, and his career after the 1940s was severely curtailed, until it was resurrected late in life by Quentin Tarantino in his debut feature film, Reservoir Dogs (1992), which improbably led to a recurring role on the TV sitcom "Seinfeld" as Elaine Benes’ (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) father.

A 1955 newspaper article commented that Tierney had been arrested 16 times, more time than Dillinger himself, but Tierney always felt that, despite his gruff persona, he was perpetually miscast. As he told a interviewer Rick McKay towards the end of his life, “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” (as cited in Vallance). And yet trouble seemed to follow Tierney around wherever he went, and he spent the rest of his life living up, or living down, to his on-screen persona.

Bodyguard is one of Tierney’s more sympathetic roles; for once, he gets to play the good guy. And he does a creditable job of it, pushing his way through the film’s convoluted narrative with a matter-of-fact violence that effectively renders all efforts to stop him useless. The film is just the right length at 62 minutes, and features memorable supporting performances not only from Risdon and Reed, but also the always reliable noir heavy Steve Brodie, in for a brief turn as one of Freddie Dysen’s corrupt associates, up to no good as usual. It’s a short, brutal film, but it holds up well, and has finally come out on DVD in an immaculate transfer that really does the film justice. In short, highly recommended.


Written by Wheeler Winston Dixon

About the Author: Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Endowed Professor of Film Studies, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program at UNL, and with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, Editor-in-Chief of the scholarly film journal Quarterly Review of Film and Video. His newest books include the 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster; forthcoming, Rutgers University Press, 2011); A History of Horror (Rutgers University Press, 2010; second printing 2011), Film Noir and The Cinema of Paranoia (Rutgers University Press and Edinburgh University Press, 2009), and A Short History of Film, written with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster (Rutgers University Press and I.B. Tauris, 2008; five printings through 2011). As a filmmaker, his complete works are in the permanent collection of The Museum of Modern Art, following a career retrospective at MoMA in 2003.

Reference: Vallance, Tom. “Laurence Tierney, Obituary,” The Independent March 1, 2002. Web.

1 comment:

  1. Tierney should be played by Ben Affleck in a bio-pic- I think they look somewhat alike, and Affleck in The Town mode could actually work.


Comment above or join the discussion at the Back Alley Noir review section. All comments at Noir of the Week are shared at Back Alley