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Lawrence Tierney: Hollywood's Real-Life Tough Guy Review

Co-director James Harrison delves into the world Lawrence Tierney (1919-2002) thanks to Burt Kearns' recently published biography on the troubled star.

“Who’s Lawrence Tierney?” Someone asked me over a couple of drinks during the Cinema Rediscovered Film Festival earlier this year in Bristol.

“Well, you’ve seen Reservoir Dogs yeah?” I asked

“Sure” came the reply.

“Well, he’s the boss who names them all… You know… Mr Brown, Mr Blue etc” Trying to do my best impression of Tierney saying the names.

“Ah him! Yeah alright, I got him now. Didn’t set the world on fire tho did he?” My fellow drinker said.

“Well. Funny you say that, he set a lot of things on fire I think!” I said.

Firstly, I’ve been having to hold reviewing Burt Kearns’ Lawrence Tierney: Hollywood's Real-Life Tough Guy for quite some time, mainly because I just haven’t had time to put pen to paper (or fingers to keys). So my apologies to Burt from the outset. But at last, I can really crash my thoughts on views on one of Hollywood’s biggest Hellraisers ever to walk the streets.

To be honest, using the word ‘Hellraiser’ for Lawrence Tierney (1919-2002) is very much an understatement. From the outset of Kearns’ extensive biography we start with a key moment in the later part of Tierney’s film career, an incident which has now become infamous with early 90s independent Hollywood. From there, the book becomes a rollercoaster of ride of booze, run-ins with the law, court room appearances and jail terms. There's a lot of lose of blood along the way as well.

At points, the book can become rather repetitive due to the amount of times Tierney gets into trouble. Although, any book covering the life of a man like Tierney (Robert Seller’s excellent What French Lunacy is This? Oliver Reed comes to mind as well) is going to have issues when it comes to mapping out Tierney’s life let alone his film work. I mean, there is a lot of trouble infused throughout this book and I felt myself lost on which year we were in let alone what month.

What is incredible however is looking at the impact of Lawrence Tierney in certain periods of his career, particularly, understandably, in the first part of his career which was probably his most successful.

Starring in films such as Dillinger (1945) and San Quentin (1946) very much established his stardom, particularly Dillinger. A figure which Tierney could well have set himself on. At least, that’s what many thought at the time (and maybe even now). But for me, it’s three key films between 1946 and 1948 which really establishes something truly terrifying onscreen.

Films like The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947), Born to Kill (1947) and Bodyguard (1948) really do showcase Tierney as a true terrifying figure onscreen. And yet, you can’t take your eyes of him. This is an actor who clearly wants to be someone who truly wants to make an impact on film and does it without ay issue whatsoever.

There is also the feeling on how suave Tierney is throughout this time, whether being in trouble or being on the big screen. He is incredibly handsome after all. Handsome. But deadly. I just wish more care and attention was dedicated to his films, particularly restoration wise. If there one an actor who needed to be rediscovered it is Lawrence Tierney.

But does Kearns’ book try to fly the flag for him? Of course, in fact, the biography covers so many aspects of Tierney’s life and troubles, it feels that his film career is almost forgotten along the way. But that isn’t, like the constant reporting of Tierney’s encounters with the law, the authors fault. This is the story of a major Hollywood troublemaker who couldn’t take hold of his own celebrity.

Is this biography worth it then? Hell yes, if you are after the biography of one of the first (and probably) biggest Hellraiser Hollywood has ever seen, then you won't be disappointed.

If you are after a book trying to explain the reason for such a monster (there I said it) then you might still have unanswered questions by the end. But, with a man like Lawrence Tierney you will probably never get those answers anyway. Burt Keanes’ biography is the perfect book to take you onto a journey of chaos. Enjoy!

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