Violent, perverted, nihilistic noir classic.
By Paul Mavis
Feeling homicidal (have you read the news lately?), I looked around for something nasty to watch, and came up with a nice Sony DVD of The Lineup, the 1958 crime meller/actioner from director Don Siegel and screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, starring Eli Wallach, Robert Keith, Warner Anderson, Emile Meyer, Richard Jaeckel, and Vaughn Taylor. A cult favorite for fans of the genre and of the director, The Lineup doesn’t bear too close scrutiny when it comes to logical exposition―why, exactly, does “The Man” need these psychos from Miami?―but those bumps are quickly forgotten as Siegel moves relentlessly through his beautifully-staged set-pieces.
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Art collector Philip Dressler (Raymond Bailey), arriving from Hong Kong at San Francisco’s Pier 41, has his grip snatched by a porter and tossed into cabbie “Lefty” Jenkins’ (Guy Way) taxi…who promptly botches the boost by clipping a cop, who manages to plug Lefty before he dies. Enter San Francisco Homicide Lieutenant Ben Guthrie (Warner Anderson) and Inspector Al Quine (Emile Meyer), who quickly determine the reason Dressler’s bag was stolen: smack smuggled inside his Hong Kong knickknacks. Not sure if the effete, fey Dressler is part of the dope ring, they ask him to a police show-up to try and identify the porter who ripped off his suitcase.
Meanwhile, Miami psychopaths and probably more-than-good-buddies Dancer (Eli Wallach, crazy good here) and his cadaverous mentor, Julian (Robert Keith, at his ghoulish best), working for “The Man” (Vaughn Taylor), are assigned with tracking down the unsuspecting mules from the next Hong Kong freighter. With zero compunction for zapping anyone who gets in their way, Dancer and Julian relentlessly pursue the wayward horse, until they realize that final loose ends Dorothy Bradshaw (Mary LaRoche) and her little daughter, Cindy (Cheryl Callaway), have inadvertently disposed of the heroin—with Dancer and Julian convinced that only the testimony of the two terrified, kidnapped innocents can convince “The Man” that they didn’t rip-off the drug lord.
Probably for most noir fans, the 1958 movie version of The Lineup is far more familiar than the radio and TV series that inspired it. Originally an answer to the enormously popular, semi-documentary crime series Dragnet, that premiered on NBC radio in 1949, CBS radio’s The Lineup debuted in 1950, with Bill Johnstone voicing Lt. Ben Guthrie’s adventures in an unnamed “great American city.” When NBC’s Dragnet made a remarkably successful transition to television in 1952, CBS followed suit with The Lineup in 1954, shot partially on location in San Francisco, with scripts based in part on actual San Francisco police cases, and starring Warner Anderson as Lt. Guthrie, and Tom Tully as his partner, Inspector Grebb.
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While The Lineup never achieved the genuine pop culture iconic status of Dragnet, it was a highly-rated series during most of its 1954-1960 run, landing in the coveted Nielsen Top Twenty during its 1955 to 1957 seasons. Following Dragnet‘s lead yet again, when creator Jack Webb scored a box office bullseye with a movie version of his hit TV series, producer Jaime Del Valle felt in 1957 that 18th-rated series The Lineup would make for an ideal, pre-sold movie property (“First Full-Length, Life-Dimensioned Adventures of ‘The Lineup’!” the ads screamed).
Columbia Pictures set fast, cheap B-action director Don Siegel to helm. He had recently scored good notices and solid box office for unusually vibrant, energetic programmers like Riot in Cell Block 11, Private Hell 36, Crime in the Streets, and particularly, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Future powerhouse TV and movie writer Stirling Silliphant (TV’s The Naked City, Route 66, In the Heat of the Night, The Towering Inferno) was tagged for the script, with the recent Baby Doll “sensation” (as the posters stated) Eli Wallach, set to star. With a blaring ad campaign that promised widescreen thrills not to be found on the TV version’s little box (“Too Hot…Too Big…For TV! The Manhunt They Had to Put On the Giant-Sized Movie Theatre Screen!”), The Lineup was released in June, 1958, to mixed reviews and mediocre box office.
A violent, truly sick noir that, despite the outdated clothes and the cars and the now-tame mayhem, seems startlingly modern, The Lineup holds up very well today, registering as one of director Siegel’s best early efforts. As always with Siegel’s best efforts, I’m struck by his frequent ability to fashion this weird kind of subterranean, pulsating energy to his crime stories, this internal, driving hum, if you will, that somehow comes through his editing and his frames to help fashion these undeniably vibrant outings.
According to multiple sources, Siegel had little regard for making a straight-ahead big-screen version of The Lineup TV series, having to suffer through the movie’s opening 20 minutes or so of Dragnet-style police procedural to satisfy Columbia, before moving on and focusing on what really grabbed him: the crooks. And certainly you can see his energy and sense of perverse fun pick up once Wallach and Keith come on the scene.
Some critics and viewers see those opening scenes with coppers Anderson and Meyer as both slow and unnecessary, but I’d like to think that Silliphant and Siegel deliberately begin with that overly-familiar, conventional detective fare to more fully snap us to attention when the creepy psychos Wallach and Keith come onboard. Siegel and Silliphant do absolutely nothing to distinguish Anderson and Meyer as anything other than cardboard cutout versions of every flatfoot you’ve ever seen in a movie. We don’t know who these guys are, what they care about, what they think about―nothing (we’re given uncomfortably close views of the killers’ ways of thinking, though…).
And that sets us up perfectly; we think we’re watching a Dragnet-style procedural, and then…the cops largely disappear from the story, and the psychos are in control, roaming the streets of San Francisco with impunity, brazenly killing and kidnapping without any fear, while the cops are always two steps behind them. If you expect Siegel and Silliphant to give you the kind of meaningful cross-cutting comparisons Siegel would do 13 years later in Dirty Harry, visually (and thematically) linking Eastwood and villain Andy Robinson as two sides of the same coin, forget it here: you all but forget about absent Anderson and Meyer, before they pop up at the explosive finale.
That concentration on the killers, and de-emphasis of the law enforcement officers, is bracing here in The Lineup, contributing greatly to the movie’s modern, nihilistic feel. Other critics and viewers have noted with glee the all-but-blared homosexual subtext here, with Keith’s older, more educated mentor grooming and guiding ignorant hothead lover Wallach (just watch the steam bath murder―at the hilariously monikered Seaman’s Club―if you doubt what Silliphant and Siegel were up to). However, since nothing is really made of that subtext (it’s certainly not contrasted with Warner and Meyer―there’s a thought!), I find Silliphant and Siegel’s twist with Keith’s character far more interesting.
Usually, with these mad dog killer movies, there’s always someone closely associated with the psychopath―a sensible brother, a sympathetic best friend, even an empathetic undercover cop, posing as a crook―who keeps the killer on a more or less even keel, stopping him (or trying to…) from indiscriminately murdering, while reassuring us that some kind of normalcy of justice and authority, is present (think Edmond O’Brien with James Cagney in White Heat). Not here in The Lineup. Silliphant and Siegel set up the avuncular Keith as just such an ameliorator for crazy Wallach (see how nice he plays with that little girl?), before they pull the rug out from under us, showing Keith to be even worse than Wallach: a psychotic who not only enjoys Wallach ridding the earth of “weaker” people (especially dames), but who also enjoys recording the victims’ last words in a notebook he chortles over at a later time.
Keith is no brake on Wallach’s excesses; he encourages him at the same time he’s trying to mold the wild Wallach into a more refined version of himself, leaving no sense of relief or order or any sense of hope for the viewer to hang on to here. These killers know no inhibitions, and nothing seems to stop them (Siegel would brilliantly expand on this relentless illegality theme in his TV-shot, big screen-released The Killers, with Lee Marvin and Ronald Reagan).
Silliphant’s dialogue is clean and tight, with that trademark poetic bent already in evidence (when Wallach tells a contact, “I had an old man once,” the contact responds, “Most people do,” to which Wallach flatly answers, “I never met mine.”). Silliphant’s plotting, however, is problematic the closer you look at the logistics of everything, the main question being: why, exactly, are Miami creeps Wallach and Keith doing a job that “The Man” could easily have done by his own local men? As well, why does “The Man” show up himself for the final drop, exposing himself unnecessarily (particularly when it means death to anyone who sees him)?
To Siegel’s credit, though, these rather large plot holes are of little consequence as Siegel dazzles us with little tricks and inventive visual in-jokes, with the aid of ace cinematographer Hal Mohr. Check out how many sequences revolve around characters (and the viewer) not being able to see—literally and figuratively—the reality of their situation: murder victim and potential gay pickup William Leslie in the cloudy steam bath; the murder of the Asian servant reflected briefly in a stairwell mirror; Wallach picking up the unsuspecting, naive Mary LaRoche in the dark aquarium (you bring home two complete strangers―one heavy on the make—with you and your daughter?); Wallach constantly stealing glances away from his seaview binoculars to see what he shouldn’t see―”The Man,” who replies, “You’re dead. Nobody ever sees me!”
All of this, of course, leads up to the startling contrast of blinding sunlight at the baked white Embarcadero Freeway, where spoilers Wallach meets his cowardly fate, falling back into the darkness. This finale is flat-out brilliant, from the still-exciting car chase (sure there’s rear projection, but it’s cut so well and aggressive that you can still enjoy it), to the final, fated end-run on the still under-construction freeway, a road to nowhere (can you think of a better noir visualization?) that offers one wickedly cruel chance at escape…until Wallach and wheelman Jaeckel realize the off-ramp they took isn’t really a thru-lane at all, but a median that comes to a narrow, impassable point.
Hopelessness made concrete, all that is left to do is for Wallach to lose it completely, exiting the car while using the little girl as a shield from the police bullets, before he falls sickeningly to his death, thudding grotesquely over and over again as he hits the various overpasses below. What a crazy, sick sight that must have been to 1958 audiences….
PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.