Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Lawrence Tierney- Noir Tough Guy.

So I finally got a chance to look at a few of the pictures starring noted tough guy Lawrence Tierney. Up until recently I had only seen his role as the head honcho in Quentin Tarantino's "Resevoir Dogs". In that film, he barks out his orders and his snarling countenance brooks no disrespect. Sure, he gets his comeuppance in the movie... but Tarantino wisely keeps him around to the very end. That might have been one of Tarantino's wisest career moves- Tierney was notorious for being as mean in real life as he was onscreen.

I guess I can understand QT's glee in being able to cast Tierney in his caper film. Tierney made his name in similar roles as a young man. Two of his films are included in the Warner Brothers Film Noir Classic Collection Set #2. He plays the title role in the film "Dillinger", about the noted bank robber/master criminal planner. His cold demeanor seems to be appropriate for his depiction of this famous mad-dog criminal. In "Born to Kill", Tierney plays his character in much the same way. He kills a girl and her boyfriend out of jealousy, and then links up with a woman who proves to be his equal in pure ruthlessness. In this movie, he makes Elijah Cooke, Jr. (who commonly played loony-tune henchmen in noir flicks) look level-headed.

Having seen Tierney in his prime, I would have to say his craft seems pretty limited. There is little evidence in these films that the actor had a wide emotional range. We see steely resolve, blind rage, intimidating glowering, and emotional bullying. Even when it is called for, Tierney doesn't seen to elicit much viewer empathy. He's just kind of a dick. His character in "Born to Kill" is supposed to be irresistably attractive to the female sex, but his acting gives no indication as to why this should be the case. So often his supposed allure merely strains credibility. It would have been quite appropriate for casting agents to limit his opportunities to portraying menacing henchmen. He is the poster-boy for "wooden acting".

Evidently Tierney wasn't stretching much from his natural demeanor. A quick internet search brings up a wealth of anecdotes about his difficult personality and his penchant for brawling. He had a long rap sheet, with violations that include assaulting police officers and numerous barroom assaults. The commentary track on "Born to Kill" attests to some of his penchant for "acting out". His offscreen behavior and his alcoholism seemed to ensure a spotty employment history. It turns out that he spent a lot of time doing manual labor during long layoffs from Hollywood, especially in the sixties and seventies. He made a comeback with walk-on roles in several television series in the eighties, and then vaulted back into the spotlight in the abovementioned "Resevoir Dogs" (1991). That brought him renewed attention among hipster film aficionados. But it didn't spell the end of his disturbing track record of mayhem. He was not asked back to the set of Seinfeld after he concealed a kitchen knife under his suitjacket, with the intention of playing an improvised "Psycho" gag.

Tierney died in 2002 at the age of 82. From most accounts, he remained mostly piss-and-vinegar until his passing. But the tired cliche of being a sensitive guy under a gruff exterior seems to have adhered... even in Tierney's case (see this sentimental webpage). It just goes to show the advantage of outliving the other guy, even if that other is yourself.

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