Sunday, March 3, 2013

Lawrence Tierney and the art of self-delusion

My favorite character in my favorite Tarantino movie is Joe Cabot, the old, bald-headed tough guy who sets up the robbery that goes so very, very bad and runs the criminal crew. It's Tierney hunched over the table at the diner, his voice sounding like he gargles with razor blades, who insists that Steve Buscemi will keep the nickname "Mr. Pink" and like it. Case closed. Lawrence Tierney is the actor who plays this glowering badass and let's just say the role wasn't much of a stretch. Tierney was a classic, the-world-is-a-dangerous-cesspool film noir actor. He began is career playing the lead in Dillinger, 1945, and quickly becoming the go-to guy when the studio needed a menacing thug or an amoral mobster who killed without raising his pulse.

In the first fifteen minutes of The Devil Thumbs a Ride, 1947, Tierney's character shoots an old man in the back and takes his money, commandeers a couple of honeymooners for a drive up the California coast, insults a gas station attendant - when the man proudly shows Tierney a photo of his baby girl, Tierney sneers "From the looks of those ears, she's gonna fly before she can walk." - and then runs over a motorcycle cop.

In In real life, Tierney, the son of an Irish cop, was a nasty drunk with a rap sheet as long as Tolstoy. In 1948 he spent three months in jail for busting a guy's jaw in a bar fight. That same golden year he was arrested for kicking a cop while being arrested for drunk and disorderly. He beat up another cop in 1956 and dished out another broken jaw in 1958. The day his mother killed herself in 1960, Tierney drowned his grief by kicking down a woman's door and assaulting her boyfriend. None of this hurt his movie career, and we can only assume that film geek, Quentin Tarantino, knew just who to go to for the character of Joe Cabot, a brutal guy tough enough to keep his crew of crooks in line.

What I really like when I researched Tierney is his lack of self-awareness of his own nature. Or maybe he was just lying.

"I resented those pictures they put me in," Tierney was quoted in a British newspaper, the Guardian. "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."

Yeah, Larry, you're Tom Hanks.

I am indebted to Eddie Muller and his book Dark City, the Lost World of Film Noir, for filling in the blanks of my knowledge. I thought I knew noir until I read this book..