His noir work in 1957, however, was limited to a two-minute morsel in the Russell Rouse prison yarn House of Numbers. Star Jack Palance, himself a scary guy in most roles, looks positively intimidated by Carey in a scene in which they play San Quentin cellmates. Carey sets the mood by spitting a cigarette butt into the commode. He fidgets with a transistor radio in his pocket. With another weirdly concocted brogue (he is playing an inmate named Frenchy), he tells a story about beating another prisoner with his tray in the mess hall for trying to steal his milk. And then he offers with a warped grin, “You been to any other colleges? I have. I spent six years in Sing Sing and four years in Joliet. I’m taking a postgraduate course. This is my second time here.” The film was actually shot in San Quentin State Prison using real prisoners as extras, but no one in it – real or staged – played an inmate with such – er, conviction. House of Numbers is worth viewing just for Carey’s tiny but tasty part.
Today’s pic is another from Harold D. Schuster‘s Finger Man (1955). Murderous thug Lou Terpe has finally been brought down by the eponymous “finger man,” Casey Martin (Frank Lovejoy). Cornered and pummeled by Martin, Terpe’s tough-guy act drops and he becomes the sniveling coward he is.
“But just when you’re convinced he’s the ultimate thug,” writes Carl Steward in “Timothy Carey: Noir’s Wildest Card,” “Lovejoy surprises him in an alley and only has to whack him a few times to reduce him to a simpering boob. It’s classic Tim Carey, offering up an unanticipated left turn that stamps his performance as unforgettable.”
That’s particularly true for his film noir roles. Few debuts in the genre have been more striking or unnerving than Carey’s brief interludes in Andre’ de Toth‘s atmospheric Crime Wave (1954). In the uncredited role of pervert-punk Johnny Haslett, who lives in the seedy Chinatown hideout used by crooks Ted de Corsia and Charles Bronson, Carey’s first appearance (more than 50 minutes into the film) is like a bucket of ice water hitting your face at high speed.
De Toth aims the camera directly at Carey, who flips on his psychotic high beams and blows the scene away. He sustains a deranged grin while uttering dialogue through gritted teeth, then goes into a series of goofy facial contortions, all the while nervously fiddling with a deck of cards. It’s warped, it’s wild – but it’s also wonderful.
It gets better, too, when Carey moves into the background in the next scene at the hideout. With de Corsia, Bronson, and Gene Nelson in the foreground discussing their plans, Carey draws attention to himself sitting on the floor nearby. He’s mugging for all he’s worth, puffing furiously on a cigarette and blowing smoke rings through his teeth. Then, when Nelson frets that he must leave his girlfriend (Phyllis Kirk) with this cretin while they all go out on a caper, Carey slurs a deranged, menacing one-liner while still hunched on the floor, smoking away: “I’ll give her your love, Steve!” Priceless.
When you line up Carey’s noir work, it’s clear that the idiosyncratic touches he gives his minor characters truly set them apart. In the undervalued Allied Artists cheapie Finger Man (1955), Carey gets quite a bit more screen time… and steals the film from stars Frank Lovejoy and Forrest Tucker as crime boss Tucker’s right-hand goon Lou Terpe. (You have to wonder, did Carey think up his own character names, too?)
In this one, Tim’s still toking the smokes to great effect, but he also incorporates obsessive knuckle-cracking and seems a lot more sinister. He delights in groping women, rearranging their faces in back rooms, even killing them and stuffing them in trunks, as he eventually does to Lovejoy’s squeeze. But just when you’re convinced he’s the ultimate thug, Lovejoy surprises him in an alley and only has to whack him a few times to reduce him to a simpering boob. It’s classic Tim Carey, offering up an unanticipated left turn that stamps his performance as unforgettable.
So should Carey’s film legacy really be taken seriously? Absolutely. A man of a thousand tics and tricks, Carey could do more in a minute to make his characters leap off the screen than any supporting actor in movie history. Some have claimed he was too over-the-top and hammy, including a number of the directors and actors he worked with (and often alienated). But in retrospect there is not much doubt that he improved virtually every film in which he appeared – sometimes greatly so – and often the ones where you dare not blink for fear you’ll miss him.