Lawrence Tierney’s hallowed reputation as the real-life embodiment of a film noir tough guy endears him to most movie fans and generally insulates him from criticism. Hard core enthusiasts often establish their noir bona fides by slinging stories of his off-screen exploits. He’s the cinematic equivalent of a made guy. If you can’t get with Tierney, it seems at times, you might as well leave film noir well enough alone — it probably ain’t for you. In spite of all that, beyond Tierney’s unique one-two punch — leading man good looks and his spectacular ability to project menace — he wasn’t much of an actor. When a role came along that he couldn’t charge into with his head down and his fists up, as was the case with director Richard Fleischer’s Bodyguard, his performance comes up a few shells short of a stacked clip.
There’s little to care about here by way of story: Tierney plays a detective who gets pink-slipped on account of his strong-arm tactics, then framed for the murder of his lieutenant. That’s the extent of Bodyguard’s noir statement: wrongly accused ex-copper has to get out from under on his own steam. The rest is just running time. Along the way Tierney gets mixed up in some intrigue surrounding a murder cover-up at a meat-packing plant, and the wealthy owners who may or may not have had something to do with it.
Nevertheless, the critical mass surrounding Bodyguard is generally favorable, owing to some slick dialog and several deft directorial touches by Fleischer, just beginning his career. As far as Tierney is concerned, most other reviewers rehash the same tough mug platitudes that one bumps into when reading about Dillinger, The Devil Thumbs a Ride, or Born to Kill. In this case the praise isn’t merited. Tierney is miscast; and Bodyguard would have been a better movie with a more capable leading man. Woe is us that Paramount had Alan Ladd locked up at the time, because this is the kind of part that he was made for. Tierney is one-dimensional and flat; Ladd had something else. I’ll stop — I know the comparison is unfair.
Tierney had more in common with film noir’s iteration of Raymond Burr, and maybe even a leg up on him. Admittedly, this comparison is also unfair because Burr, in spite of his wide range and other special gifts as an actor, didn’t look like Ben Affleck. But can you imagine Tierney instead of Burr in Pickup? It’s at the very least intriguing. His air of corruption, the rough edges, the cheapness, and that hair trigger? Bodyguard asks him to holster all of these things, to sit on his hands, and one wonders if Priscilla Lane — she’s too perky not to like — wasn’t cast as the girl Friday in order to soften Tierney. After all, if we like her, and she likes him, we ought to as well, right? The hard sell goes even further: Tierney plays big brother to some neighborhood kids, tosses a ball back and forth with another, and drinks his milk like a good boy. But we’re unmoved; as an actor Tierney just wasn’t meant to be liked. Perhaps it took this movie to make sure of it.
* A note or two about the poster: In spite of the artwork, Tierney doesn’t rough up any women in the film. (For that matter, he never actually works as a bodyguard either.) Certainly the RKO brass were hoping the artwork would pull in the audience from his successful turn the previous year’s Born to Kill. And the image of Lane — it couldn't be less flattering.
Directed by Richard Fleischer
Screenplay by Fred Niblo Jr. and Harry Essex, based on a story by George W. George and Robert Altman.
Starring Lawrence Tierney and Priscilla Lane
Produced by Sid Rogell
Cinematography by Robert De Grasse
Released by RKO Pictures
Running time: 62 minutes