(He) was a big lug, broad-shouldered and handsome.
But his eyes narrowed into slits when he started thinking. And his thin-lipped grin was one of the most purely rapacious sights on film … He was the only actor in Hollywood who posed for more mug shots than publicity photos. — Eddie Muller, Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir.
Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, here to remember Lawrence Tierney, one of film noir’s most volatile actors who excelled at the rough stuff onscreen and off. Throughout his checkered but lengthy career (comprising some 100 titles), he was often known more for the latter than the former.
By the 1970’s, he was the aging actor familiar to the Variety staff on New York City West 46th Street for his regular office visits to pick up the Weekly edition on publication days each Wednesday. He worked all throughout his 82-year life, after all, and had to keep up with the latest show biz news.
By then, Tierney had lost some — but by no means not all — of the offscreen menace that he took with him everywhere he went.
Born in Brooklyn in 1919, the son of an Irish cop, Tierney somehow wound up in Hollywood in the early Forties, at first appearing in uncredited working-stiff parts such as a cab driver, federal agent, seaman.
What made his career was his portrayal of John Dillinger in low-rent studio Monogram’s 1945 biopic, Dillinger. From there, he made a splash the same year at RKO in director Edward Dmytryk’s classic John Wayne war drama, Back To Bataan.
While these titles are interesting, in our opinion, they don’t showcase the delights of Lawrence Tierney as does 1947’s Born To Kill, in which the actor commands the leading role of a former boxer given to murderous rages when crossed. “When I see what I want, I Take it. Nobody cuts in on me,” the character spits.
Anchoring the picture is Claire Trevor, whose femme fatale lead is the polar opposite of Edward G. Robinson’s used up singer-mistress (Gaye Dawn) in director John Huston’s 1948 classic, Key Largo. Tierney is her brutal lover; Trevor handles him in kind.
The actress’ terrifically strong performance is one of film noir’s most unforgettable screen turns. In fact, it’s hard to determine in Born To Kill which of the leading characters is the most twisted — Tierney’s or Trevor’s. What a recipe for delicious noir!
Describing the picture as a grim and complicated melodrama, Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward, editors of Film Noir: An Enyclopedic Reference To The American Style, make this additional point about the significance of Born To Kill:
It is the first of a number of noir films directed by Robert Wise, who had previously been associated with Orson Welles and then with the Val Lewton group at RKO. This leads to the interesting speculation that RKO developed the quintessential noir style of the 1940’s due to a unique synthesizing of the expressionistic style of Welles and the moody, Gothic atmosphere of Lewton.
“Born To Kill” is an excellent example of an RKO style, not only for its visuals but also for its offhand depiction of perturbed sexuality and extreme brutality. ( In other words, a perfect Lawrence Tierney vehicle.)
Despite all the offscreen boozing and barroom brawling, Tierney lived into this century. He put in an appearance in director Quenton Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs in 1992, as well as landing bit roles in the Hill Street Blues and Seinfeld TV series, intimidating cast members of both shows.
His final job was in a straight-to-video independent title, Evicted, directed by the actor’s nephew two years before the actor’s death in 2002. (Tierney, incidentally, was also the older brother of actor Scott Brady.)
If you have to limit yourself to just one Lawrence Tierney movie, make it Born To Kill. You won’t forget him.