THE LINEUP (1958; starring Eli Wallach, Robert Keith, Richard Jaeckel, Mary La Roche; directed by Don Siegel; 75 min.; DVD with commentary, available from Netflix or from Amazon as part of a boxed set, “Columbia Film Noir Classics I”)
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IT WAS TOO BIG to be just another TV episode. In fact, it was “The manhunt they had to put on the giant-sized movie theater screen!” That tagline is referring to the popular television show of the same name, later known in syndication as San Francisco Beat. It had been on the air since 1954 when this feature-length version was made.
It’s 1958. We’re near Fisherman’s Wharf, when a porter grabs a suitcase from a disembarking passenger, (played by Raymond Bailey, famous as the banker, Mr. Drysdale, on The Beverly Hillbillies TV show). The porter tosses it in a cab, which quickly tears away, only to end up in a deadly crash. Mr. Drysdale is suspected when heroin is found inside suitcase. Is he guilty? Maybe, but police are on the case, and they think there are more people involved. Drysdale is brought in to face–you guessed it–“The Lineup”.
Right about here is where director Don Siegel loses interest in the cops. He turns his attention to the criminals, and the movie really finds its groove. In the freewheeling DVD commentary, noir expert Larry Muller and brazen author James Ellroy recount how director Don Siegel (DIRTY HARRY, THE KILLERS) had little interest in the show’s signature, DRAGNET-style police work, but instead wanted to focus on the crime and, especially, the more intriguing and complex lawbreakers.
The drug-trafficking trio of Wallach, Keith and Jaeckel have a mission to recover the drugs that other, unsuspecting travelers have carried to the city by the Bay. And they have no qualms about procuring them by any means necessary. Particularly in the case of the near-psychotic Wallach. But also with the more complacent but equally creepy Keith, who keeps a notebook in which he gleefully records victims’ last words. Jaeckel is the getaway driver–a young and immature hotshot.
As the killer named “Dancer”, Wallach displays an easy, genial nature on the surface, but in fact he has a rolling-boil of a temper that explodes into a furious rage against anyone who stands in his way, even children and men in wheelchairs. I can imagine Joe Pesci watching Wallach as he prepared for his “What’s so funny?” scene in GOODFELLAS. Method actor Wallach (97 years old, at this writing) starred in dozens of TV shows and movies.
The father of Brian Keith plays Julian, a fussbudget who has little tolerance for mistakes, and lots of advice for his two partners. Two years prior to THE LINEUP, Keith had a major role as Jasper Hadley in Douglas Sirk’s WRITTEN ON THE WIND.
Last but not least are the San Francisco locations. Besides the Wharf area, there’s the old police headquarters with it’s half-moon windows, the Customs House including its interior, the eerie, seaside Sutro Baths near the Cliff House restaurant, and a couple of half-completed freeways. A lengthy, tense finale foreshadows the classic car chase sequence in BULLITT (1968).
THE LINEUP is a fast-paced, cold-blooded film noir that, ironically, doesn’t hit its stride until it lets go of its TV show constraints. Hang on and enjoy the entertaining ride when it does.
Dave is a graphic designer (www.dhdd.net) and movie lover, and the caretaker of “The 3 Benny Theater” (also known as his living room). The moniker was inspired by an extinct movie house–The 3 Penny Theater–and by his black Manx cat, Benny. Favorite films: North By Northwest, The Third Man and The Dekalog.