Monday, November 12, 2012

Movie Monday: The Lineup

This week's Movie Monday selection is the 1958 film noir The Lineup!

Like last week's Foreign Intrigue, The Lineup is a movie that sprung from a TV series, which ran from 1954-1960. A sort of Law & Order of its day, The Lineup focused on the procedural aspect of cops n'robbers, though as we'll see, the producers decided to ramp things up a notch when going to the silver screen.
The film opens with a slam-bang pre-credits sequence: a porter unloading passenger cargo from a ship tosses a suitcase into a waiting cab, which speeds off. The driver panics and slams into a police officer trying to stop him, and then crashes into a steel post. Its over the crumbled car that the credits roll.

Two police detectives, Lt. Ben Guthrie (Warner Anderson, who appeared on the show) and Insp. Al Quine (Emile Meyer) investigate, and learn that a ring of heroin smugglers are now using innocent travelers as "mules"--stashing the drugs in their luggage and then retrieving them once they've arrived in San Francisco. The case they are investigating concerns some Oriental art brought back to America by a collector:
They have the man sit in front of a, yes, lineup, made up of porters, but the man cannot identify any of them as the one who stole his suitcase. Soon, the porter in question turns up dead.

The syndicate, worried about other shipments being intercepted, send experts to make sure the drugs are picked up successfully, two men named Dancer (Eli Wallach) and Julian (Robert Keith):
It's here, with the introduction of these two characters, that The Lineup really comes alive. Wallach's Dancer is a twitchy psychopath, insecure but with a hair trigger. Keith's Julian seems to be there just to keep Dancer from going completely off the rails, and their dynamic suggests just the slightest hint of a homosexual relationship. But of course that's left to the audience's imagination...

Dancer goes to pick up the shipments, and ends up killing anyone who gets in his way:
The third package came in with a single mother and her daughter, and Dancer has to try and pick the woman up so they can go back to her hotel together. Dancer has just enough charm, playing on the woman's insecurity about being alone, that she goes along with him and Julian.

Its at their hotel that they discover that the young daughter stumbled upon the drugs and, not knowing what they were, used them as make-up powder for her doll. Dancer flies into a rage, seemingly ready to kill both women, but Julian realizes that their bosses will never believe such a story, so they go against orders and meet with "The Man" (Vaughn Taylor) and explain what happened.

But of course it all goes wrong: "The Man" doesn't believe Dancer, and slaps him in the face. Dancer goes Coo-Coo for Cocoa-Puffs and pushes the wheelchair-bound man off a platform onto a skating rink below, in full view of dozens of bystanders:
Dancer, Julian, and their boozed-up driver McLain (Richard Jaeckel) take the women on a chase from the police, along the as-yet-completed highway system, which almost ends up with them dropping off a sheer cliff. With the cops on their tail, Dancer shoots Julian and grabs the little girl, using her as a human shield. But when he tries to jump from one overpass to the next, a policeman's bullet finds him, and he plummets to the ground, his body smashing into several concrete slabs on the way down.

The Lineup is extraordinary fun--tense and well-shot (it was directed by Don Siegel), its filled with great performances and some wonderful sequences set amid various San Francisco landmarks (the scene with The Man takes place at Sutro Baths, an indoor amusement park and pool, which burned down in 1966). If you're a fan of the City by the Bay, as I am, seeing what it looked like circa the mid-1950s really adds to the enjoyment of the film.

The police are fairly dull, nondescript characters, and even though they are in the very final scene of the movie they don't even get any dialog! Its clear the moviemakers knew that once Dancer buys it, the movie was over. Speaking of, Wallach and Keith make a great pair; the latter ever-so-slightly condescends to his high-strung partner; at first you wonder why he's even on this trip since Dancer does all the heavy lifting. Then it becomes clear that without someone to rein him in, Dancer is the kind of guy who would probably walk into police headquarters and start shooting after getting a ticket for jaywalking. For my money, I would have loved to have seen a prequel or something to The Lineup, featuring these two having more adventures. Nasty, nasty adventures.

Fun Fact: Keith has a scene with Jaeckel where he says this line of dialogue: "When you live outside the law, you must eliminate dishonesty", which was appropriated by no less than Bob Dylan for his 1966 song "Absolutely Sweet Marie", where he sings "To live outside the law, you must be honest." I get a chuckle thinking about then-17-year-old Bobby Zimmerman, sitting in a Hibbing, Minnesota movie theater watching The Lineup, and that line burrowing its way into his fertile brain. I wonder if Bob ever sent screenwriter Stirling Silliphant a copy of Blonde on Blonde?

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