Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Lineup (Columbia, 1958)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The Lineup is a quite good 1958 thriller set (and largely filmed) in San Francisco derived from a police-procedural TV show which apparently had the same title as the film on its initial showings, though when I caught it in reruns in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s it was known as San Francisco Beat. What makes this movie special is an un unusually intelligent script by Stirling Silliphant (who would later write the script for a more prestigious but not as good thriller, In the Heat of the Night), taut direction by Don Siegel (who 13 years later would make another, far more famous San Francisco-set thriller involving a psychopathic killer and a far less self-controlled cop, Dirty Harry) and a great performance by Eli Wallach in the lead role, a psycho hit man named John Evans but called throughout by his nickname “Dancer.”

According to Siegel, Wallach had just made his film debut in a prestige production at Warners, Baby Doll, written by Tennessee Williams and directed by Elia Kazan (both of whom Wallach had worked with on stage — Wallach had turned down Frank Sinatra’s role in From Here to Eternity to play in Williams’ fantasy Camino Real, whose Broadway production flopped, though with the far taller, more robust Wallach in the role Eternity wouldn’t have worked nearly as well as it did with skinny little Sinatra), and now found himself making what appeared to be a routine thriller for his second film. Then, midway through the shoot, Wallach realized he was actually playing a well-written role in a sophisticated genre film and started giving the part his all. Taking his cue from the name “Dancer,” Wallach chose to move like one, with all the agility and grace he could muster — indeed, he seems oddly reminiscent of Gene Kelly through much of it — and both his performance and the well-developed plot line Silliphant supplied for Dancer and his entourage made this far more than your routine policier.

The Lineup starts with an exciting and almost incomprehensible scene: a steamship returning from Hong Kong docks at Pier 41 and a bag belonging to one of the passengers is stolen. The thief throws it into a waiting cab (the driver is part of the criminal plot) but the driver, in a panic, runs down and kills a cop and then is killed himself when he crashes the cab while the police are shooting at it. The bag belongs to Philip Dressler (Raymond Bailey), an official with the San Francisco Opera, and turns out to contain a statuette that, when its base is open, reveals a secret compartment filled with heroin. It’s been put there by a drug ring whose means of smuggling the stuff into the U.S. is to insert it in trashy knickknacks and sell them to tourists, who unbeknownst to them serve as the drug ring’s mules. The cops, headed by TV series regular Lt. Ben Guthrie (Warner Anderson), at first suspect Dressler of being a smuggler but then realize the truth and try to get him to identify the porter who stole his bag — only he can’t be sure when he views the lineup (there had to be an explanation for the title somewhere!).

Later the porter is found dead and, to recover the other drug shipments, the gang flies in hit man Dancer (Wallach), his companion Julian (Robert Keith) — who basically serves as Dancer’s business manager and also has a fetish of his own, asking Dancer to remember the last words of his victims and tell them to him so he can write them in his notebook — and young driver Sandy McLain (Richard Jaeckel, an imposing apparition with white hair, either bleached or a sign of premature greyness on someone otherwise so young-looking) — to steal the knickknacks containing the drugs and, if necessary, murder their owners. Dancer and Julian kill an Oriental manservant at one of the homes and murder another man in a steam bath (which makes it look as if Silliphant had seen T-Men — a later Siegel thriller with hit-men as the main protagonists, the 1964 version of The Killers, also featured a murder in a steam bath as well as a similarly kinky relationship between two hit men working together, though Siegel said he wasn’t conscious of the similarities when he shot the later film and only realized them years after he’d made both).

They trace the third drug shipment to a single mother, Dorothy Bradshaw (Mary LaRoche), and her daughter Cindy (Cheryl Callaway), only to learn that the daughter found the heroin inside the doll her mom gave her and used it to powder the doll’s face. Desperate to explain why he was unable to recover a large (and expensive) chunk of the contraband, Dancer hits on the idea of taking the Bradshaws hostage and dragging them along to meet the ring’s leader, “The Man” (Vaughn Taylor) at Sutro’s Museum, where he was supposed to put the packet with the recovered drugs in a dead drop. In a scene copied quite closely in the recent film Collateral — with Tom Cruise in Wallach’s role as the desperate hit man who now fears for his own life — Dancer enters the museum and accosts “The Man,” who turns out to be a dapper middle-aged man in a wheelchair, only to be told, “You’re dead. Nobody ever sees me.” (Siegel told interviewer Stuart Kaminsky that in this scene “The Man” was a stand-in for God and the scene expressed his contempt at the way religions control their believers by giving them strict rules to live by and threatening them with eternal damnation if they don’t follow them — right on, Don!)

Meanwhile, the cops — ya remember the cops? — have traced Dancer and company to Sutro’s museum, where they give chase in a scene that ends on San Francisco’s notoriously unfinished Embarcadero Freeway, and in an exciting scene, McLain (actually doubled by the great stunt driver Guy Way) drives his car to the edge of the freeway, realizes in a panic that there is an edge of the freeway, and swerves just in the nick of time to avoid going over and killing himself and everybody else in the car (including the Bradshaws). The car finally ends up trapped in a dead end that was supposed to be an exit — only that part of the freeway was never built — and Dancer kills Julian and tries to escape on foot, uses Cindy Bradshaw as a human shield, is picked off by a cop with really good aim and falls to his death through a space between the freeway ramps.

Though not as good as the two best thrillers ever set in San Francisco, The Maltese Falcon (1941 version) and Vertigo, The Lineup is still a quite good movie, taut, exciting, genuinely suspenseful and held together ably by the performances of Wallach, Keith and Jaeckel as the forces of evil. (Let’s face it, in this sort of story the villains are always more interesting than the heroes.) It was probably a pretty violent film for 1958 but today it seems surprisingly restrained, and Siegel seems to be under the influence of Hitchcock here — Mary LaRoche is made up to look like a classic “Hitchcock blonde” and there really isn’t much violence until the closing scene (aside from the grim one in which, after his unsatisfying meeting with “The Man” — who prophesies, accurately, that Dancer will soon be dead — Dancer pitches the wheelchair-bound “Man” off the balcony at Sutro’s and he falls one story to his death on the floor below, à la the 1947 Kiss of Death but we don’t care as much because he’s the bad guy, not an innocent grandma). It’s a bit trapped by its TV-show origins but it manages to rise above them (even more so than the 1954 Dragnet movie did) and holds up quite well as a key film in the Siegel oeuvre as well as the evolution of the thriller genre itself.