Early in the 1947 film noir Born to Kill, Isabel Jewel is explaining what she likes about her new suitor.
“He’s the quiet sort,” she says dreamily, “and yet you get a feeling if you stepped outta line he’d kick your teeth down your throat.”
“I never knew a man like that,” sighs Esther Howard. “My two husbands was just turnips.”
“Most men are,” adds Claire Trevor acidly.
Archetypal scene: three women discussing what they like in a man—which, in essence, is that he not be a turnip. Yet what is it not to be a turnip? Apparently to be someone who, when ruffled, will boot your molars down your gorge.
Readers may not be surprised to learn that Jewell’s teeth-kicking beau ideal turns out to be Lawrence Tierney.
One of the few certainties in life is that Lawrence Tierney was no turnip. He was a lethal ladies’ man; gangbusters on wheels, Mount Vesuvius in a single-breasted suit; and he fit into the mean, hard, amoral noir universe like a fist into a mouth. Look at the titles of four of his best-known films: Dillinger, The Devil Thumbs a Ride, Born to Kill, and The Hoodlum. Right there, you know what these films are about and what Tierney is about. And it has nothing to do with the vegetable kingdom.
Tierney played psychopaths, and he played them awfully well. More, he played them essentially. He got the gist, the core, the stripped-down truth of these characters—possessed of a cold, scary darkness where the heart should be. You’d think any sane female would run like mad from such guys. But not when it came to Tierney. Women in his presence couldn’t run even if they wanted to; they’d gone soft at the knees. When Trevor in Born to Kill first gets a gander at Tierney—sucking on a cigarette while he dominates a craps game—she parts her lips as if about to pant. Their exchanged glances almost curl the celluloid in their generated heat. Later, he muscles her a room in a train’s club car, even though it’s closed. “I like to have the say-so myself,” he boasts. “You’re not a turnip,” is her admiring response. She never said anything truer.
What did Tierney have that women liked? One obvious reason was his looks. His face, with its drawn-cheek hollows and sculpted jaw, seems made to bounce off noir’s stark, high-contrast lighting. Indeed, Tierney had that unexpected, and unsettling, aspect seen in other psychopath-specializing actors like Steve Cochran and Richard Widmark; he was pretty. Early in his career he worked as a model and it’s not hard to see why. In youthful photos and in his earliest films, Tierney has an engaging boyishness; he’s handsome in a superficially teen-heartthrob way. His visage offered a pleasing balance of contrasts: wavy hair shadowing a broad forehead, high cheekbones that rise then drop straight toward a rock-like chin. It’s almost a classic beauty, severe, fixed, splendidly proportioned. It makes you overlook the stolid expression and the thin, grim mouth, as if sliced into his flesh.
But then you get to Tierney’s eyes…and everything changes. Those eyes come from a far place most of us don’t know about, don’t want to know. They’re as narrow and cold as razors, and they alter Tierney’s countenance, they make you see it differently, beyond the prettiness and good bone structure. It’s a brute’s face, lacking mercy; a smile on it looks unnatural. As Barry Gifford notes in The Devil Thumbs a Ride & Other Unforgettable Films (Grove Press, 1988), “there’s no decency at all in Lawrence Tierney’s face, the most cruelly handsome visage on film…there’s no relief in sight, [no] compromise.” It’s why this face is perfect for noir: it’s dark, ruthless, yet alluring. Other actors in noir’s stark territory gave us a range of feeling: Bogart’s weary dignity, Mitchum’s ironic humor, Dick Powell’s hard-bitten gentleness. But Tierney is unyielding ice. And, like anything that won’t yield, he has a purity that fascinates. Being one note for Tierney doesn’t pall; he perversely draws us, keeps us wondering what’s going on in those unrelentingly chilly depths.
Tierney was first under contract at RKO Studios, appearing in small roles (he’s the cheery sailor buried under a heavy chain in 1943’s The Ghost Ship). But it was Poverty Row that realized his potential. In the title role of Monogram’s 1945’s Dillinger, Tierney’s opening credit is introduced with a literal lightning clap; he’s the man to watch out for. The film’s posters focused on his brutally beautiful face, its thousand-yard stare glaring at any viewer brave enough to look. And the film dares you to look, presenting Tierney as an object of desire, a ladykiller who drives ‘em wild. (A young woman robbed by Dillinger eyes him in a line-up and refuses to pick him out; she dates him instead.) Tierney did not get along with director Max Nosseck, but Nosseck got at his actor’s essence: point the camera at him and let the scene happen. It’s not that Tierney expresses anything. He’s equally impassive whether plotting a bank heist or shoving a broken glass into Lou Lubin’s face. It’s that you can’t shift your eyes whenever he’s on.
Felix Feist must have understood this when directing Tierney as the ultimate blank psycho in 1947’s The Devil Thumbs a Ride. Try this: watch any sequence with Tierney with the sound off. Watch how his gorgeously hard, vacant expression is all that’s needed to tell the tale. Feist keeps cutting to Tierney’s face, as stony as an Easter Island statue’s—it’s a void screen, a tabula rasa, presented for scrutiny but resistant to our watching. Yet we want to see that featureless map, we wait for that nerveless gaze, unmoved as the action spirals out of sanity for the other characters. The eyes barely flicker, they’re as calm as a snake’s, but they provide the real drama. They’re the abyss that looks back and tempts us to jump in.
In the same year as Feist’s film, RKO, having caught on to Tierney’s allure, released Born to Kill, fashioned as a star-making vehicle that attempts to define Tierney’s perverse glamour. Magnifying Tierney’s rough appeal is how director Robert Wise embeds the actor’s crime-thriller persona into what’s basically a woman’s film—one with nihilist undertones, but still angled as classic woman’s-film fare. Along with typical woman’s-film accoutrements of girl talk, high fashion, and a swooning score rounding off every libidinous plot twist, Born to Kill is structured around an (anti-)heroine’s quest for fulfillment and romance. And that includes the bad-boy romantic object. The film exploits Tierney’s feminine fascination, his long, empty stare staged in close-ups as an erotic come-on (it doesn’t hurt that he’s photographed like a diva, lighting caressing his cheekbones). Every female character encountering Tierney salivates over him because he’s bad—from housemaid Ellen Corby squealing on how his eyes “run up and down you like a searchlight,” to Trevor moaning over his “strength, excitement, and depravity.” Even the men take note. “Is he—actually so attractive to women?”, bleats hapless turnip-type Phillip Terry. (Oh, very much yes, says the film.)
Tierney’s attraction here is more than his looks. The film nastily suggests that what women really want is a caveman in trousers. “When I want it, I take it,” he declares, and he does: exuding the sensuality of a swimming shark while offering every lady he meets the wanton sensation of surrendering to dominance. He’s the middle-class notion of Sadean lewdness, kinkiness in a clean kitchen (ironically, Tierney’s first crimes in the film occur within that very household space). Trevor’s own desire for Tierney’s killer finally erupts as she heats milk on the kitchen stove, her bland domestic task boiling over into seething lust. Like a shark, Tierney was an alpha primitive, his berserk-macho presence mocking civilized beta males held in by turnipy restraint. Instead, he went for blood, and women lined up to be devoured. No wonder Bosley Crowther huffed that the film’s “malignant” story “pander[s] to the lower levels of taste.” It’s a woman’s film for the S&M crowd, with Tierney a sex object out of Krafft-Ebing.
Born to Kill was probably Tierney’s career highlight. He starred in a few more films, such as 1948’s Bodyguard, playing a good-guy cop incongruously paired with Priscilla Lane, an actress who represented staggeringly benign normalcy on screen. Usually Tierney snacked on such sweetheart types (like Audrey Long in Born to Kill) for cocktail hors-d’oeuvres; was RKO trying to tone down his rogue persona? (Tierney himself had said he hated his thug roles and wanted to play nice guys.) But by now Tierney had begun his own slide to the lower levels, with offscreen brawling and boozing and real police collaring him for real crimes. His sordid reality overtook the Hollywood construction, and he became too risky, too troublesome, too much the bad boy in fact for the fantasy of film.
But as his movies got cheaper and the roles smaller, Tierney’s bleak mask could still blister our eyes. That retina-peeling trait blasts out in 1951’s The Hoodlum, in which, reunited with Nosseck, Tierney etches one of his best performances, playing a lifelong criminal who, like a one-man Mongol horde, destroys his whole family. These include real-life brother Edward as his turnip-style onscreen sibling and Allene Roberts as the brother’s vacuously sweet fiancée whom Tierney seduces, then drives to suicide. In the most harrowing scene, Lisa Golm as the hoodlum’s dying mother curses her son from her deathbed; and Tierney (whose own mother would later kill herself) breaks down, his beautiful, glazed face cracking open and spurting out feeling like a geyser. It’s a rare display of emotion from an actor who’s practically an icon of minimalism, and, as usual, we can’t turn our eyes away. That was Tierney’s cinematic power: his gaze commands ours, making us look deep at him. But it also stares back into our own far places, beckoning us to turn round and gape at what’s in ourselves.
This article originally appeared in (and has been slightly modified from) The Dark Pages‘ September/October 2014 issue on Supporting Actors in Film Noir. Please click here for more information on The Dark Pages newsletter.
BONUS CLIP: What makes Lawrence look? Innocent Ted North doesn’t realize what he’s getting into when he picks up hitchhiker Tierney in The Devil Thumbs A Ride:
More bonus: you can watch The Hoodlum here online, complete. The opening credit sequence features the two Tierney brothers staring long and hard at the camera and at each other—the Tierney Look in stereo.