Thursday, February 17, 2011

 

Just the Facts Remain in This Thriller

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of the For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blogathon hosted by Ferdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren. To donate to the fundraiser for The Film Noir Foundation, click here.


By J.D.
Coming early on in his career, The Lineup (1958) is the kind of no-nonsense crime film that director Don Siegel excelled at and, in some ways, anticipates the same approach he took in his remake of The Killers (1964) years later. He wastes no time as The Lineup (1958) starts off with an exciting chase as a taxi cab driver tries to drive away from a pier full of disembarking passengers with a stolen suitcase, runs over a cop and is shot and killed. Inside the case is a statuette containing $100,000 worth of heroin. The two detectives investigating the case — Lt. Ben Guthrie (Warner Anderson) and Inspector Al Quine (Emile Meyer) — return the case to its owner in the hopes that he’ll lead them to a narcotics ring.


For the first 22 minutes of the film, Siegel does a good job showing us the nuts and bolts of a police investigation: inspecting the crime scene, questioning witnesses, the forensics lab and organizing line-ups of potential suspects. Guthrie and Quine soon discover a rather elaborate heroin smuggling ring.

The first third of The Lineup has the look and feel of an episode of Dragnet as we follow around these two just-the-facts cops, but this changes once we are introduced to Dancer (Eli Wallach) and his partner Julian (Robert Keith) — two hitmen. They soon meet up with Sandy McLain (Richard Jaeckel), their wheelman who replaces the dead cab driver.

Eli Wallach plays Dancer, a sociopathic hitman who figures into the drug deal. He’s a consummate professional judging from the way he questions McLain about the job at hand. The beauty of Wallach’s performance is how Dancer gradually becomes unraveled over the course of the film and embodies Julian’s observation, “He’s a wonderful pure pathological study. A psychopath with no inhibitions.”

Veteran character actor Robert Keith (The Wild One) plays well off Wallach. He’s got a fantastic froggy, weathered voice that you imagine got that way from years of smoking and drinking. He’s the elder, cultured counterpart to Dancer’s younger vulgarian. Richard Jaeckel is excellent as the alcoholic driver who talks big and always tries to scam a swig of booze, much to Julian’s chagrin. In a nice touch, Emile Meyer plays one of the investigating detectives, the straight arrow counterpoint to the corrupt cop he played a year earlier in Sweet Smell of Success (1957).

The Lineup was based on the popular television series of the same name. The show’s producers had hired Siegel to direct the pilot episode and then Columbia Studios asked him to direct the film version. Siegel convinced the producers to hire Stirling Silliphant (In the Heat of the Night) to write the screenplay. The screenwriter started writing a story about two hitmen. He and Siegel felt that the film should not be named after the show because audiences would be confused and suggested The Chase instead, which, not surprisingly, the studio did not accept.

Siegel makes great use of all kinds of San Francisco locations, which really gives a sense of place, from the scenes at a pier to the Steinhart Aquarium where Julian and Dancer trail a mother and daughter who unwittingly carry a packet of heroin to the Sutro Museum with its ice rink and observation deck, the start of the film’s exciting climax.

The Lineup’s most memorable sequence is an intense car chase that takes place on the then-unfinished Embarcadero Freeway, anticipating another insane West Coast car chase, To Live and Die in L.A. (1985). Siegel’s film is a stripped-down film noir devoid of any narrative fat with a fairly simple, crime does not pay message, but within that structure is a pretty fascinating relationship between Dancer and Julian who carry on, at times, like a bickering old married couple — again a dynamic that Siegel would revisit in The Killers.


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Comments:
Good comparison to The Killers. What the two films have in common, especially, is the emphasis on the distinctive, compelling bad guys, who in this film completely dwarf the much more prosaic scenes with the cops chasing them. The film may have a "crime does not pay" message, but it also suggests that bad guys are so much more interesting, so much more fun to watch, than good guys.
 
That is so true, Ed. The killers are much more compelling and rich as characters than the boring, by-the-book cops. In THE KILLERS, Siegel dispenses with the cops altogether!
 
I grew up in San Francisco and I remember seeing The Line Up on television when I was fairly young. I was shocked to see all these things happening in places I had been, like Sutro Baths. Seeing the movielater in life, I appreciated the performances and Don Siegel's take-no-prisoners direction. Thanks for an enjoyable essay.
 
You are more than welcome. I've only been to San Francisco once but I was really taken with how well Siegel used all the various locations. You really get a sense of place.
 
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