Bodyguard (DVD Review)21 Feb, 2011 By: Mike Clark
Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Stars Lawrence Tierney, Priscilla Lane.
So just what was Robert Altman doing in those years between the end of World War II and those arduous itinerant years when he was slaving it out making industrial films in Kansas City two decades before he caught a life-altering break with MASH?
Well, as is readily apparent from one beach photo in Mitchell Zuckoff’s 2009 oral history of the filmmaker, Altman had a fabulous-looking first wife — so one can hope that the daily routine included some sand-and-surf cavorting. But for a less speculative answer, there’s the more solid evidence of his opening Hollywood salvo — a shared “story” credit with George W. George for this speedy 62-minute RKO melodrama, another of the fleeting postwar attempts to make Lawrence Tierney a star.
Tierney had the lead in 1945’s self-descriptive Dillinger, a Monogram cheapie release produced by the cost-cutting King Brothers that caught on with the public. After this, but before Bodyguard, he starred in two very nifty noirs: The Devil Thumbs a Ride and Robert Wise’s atypical-to-him Born To Kill (in which Tierney played one of the meanest and most irredeemable cruds in RKO history). Even on screen, the actor had lot of rough edges — but off screen it was even worse, given his penchant for public brawls that in at least one case involved policemen. His career quickly faded until, decades later, Tierney would more or less fall into a huge comeback as the bald jewel-heist mastermind in Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 breakthrough Reservoir Dogs.
This movie, whose actual screenplay was by Fred Niblo Jr. and Harry Essex, continues in the same vein. Tierney plays an L.A. detective who responds to a chew-out over some infraction by popping his boss with fists in the latter’s office and getting suspended from the force. After taking a break to see a baseball game (more on this later), he gets approached by a suspicious-looking nephew to act as bodyguard for a well-heeled Pasadena resident named Gene, who turns out to be an elderly meatpacking heiress who wants nothing to do with this the idea. Neither, in fact, does Tierney, but flying bullets have their way of changing work dynamics.
The obligatory girlfriend at police headquarters is played by Priscilla Lane, an actress who combined blondeness with a sexy oversized mouth long before Julie Christie exploited the combination. After a career that included Four Daughters, The Roaring Twenties, Hitchcock’s Saboteur and Arsenic and Old Lace, this was Lane’s last movie, and her character has a refreshing nonchalance about performing tasks that will presumably get her character fired instantaneously if discovered. This is also a woman who opts to spend her future honeymoon at the World Series — which, given that oversized mouth, just about makes her perfect. For bonus points, the movie throws in some decent local color — as when it visits one of those vintage arcades where customers could make recordings of themselves. It even has a listening booth like the one we see early on in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train.
You don’t get a sense from any of this that anyone involved would someday be involved in movies as disparate as Brewster McCloud, 3 Women or A Prairie Home Companion, but even a behind-the-camera superstar has to start somewhere. Not quite a decade later but still long before his career truly clicked, Altman would reteam with his co-writer (who the hell would name a baby George George?) on a mildly creepy 1957 documentary called The James Dean Story, which was cobbled together as a cash-in a couple years after the star’s death. I saw it as a child in a neighborhood double bill with Bob Hope in Beau James — another of many instances in which my local film booker must have just scored with his cannabis connection.
Keeping Bodyguard moving, which is the salvation here, is Richard Fleischer, who was much more interesting as a ‘B’ director in this period (Armored Car Robbery and the minor classic The Narrow Margin) than he was getting mired later in hopeless ‘A’ projects (Doctor Dolittle, Che!) or botching others that should have been great (Fantastic Voyage). This is a speedy, efficient melodrama — just like countless others designed for the bottom half of a double bill and nothing more lofty. Yet as things worked out, it did capture some careers at interesting junctures. Altman and Fleischer had splashy futures, Lane immediately got out of the business to continue being an air force wife and Tierney was on the fast track downhill until he caught up with Mr. Pink, Mr. Blonde and all those other pigmented dogs from Mr. Tarantino’s reservoir.