*. This is a movie that was based on a television series, which in turn had been based on a radio show. Given the date I think it must have been one of the earliest such migrations.
*. Director Don Siegel had been involved with the TV show (he directed the pilot), but wanted to do something different with this movie. Specifically, he wanted to ditch the police-procedural part of the story and just focus on the trio of gangsters gathering the heroin. The studio, however, insisted on the tie-in to the TV series. Some might disagree, but I think this was wise, as I don’t find the villains here as interesting as many seem to. I don’t think they could have carried the whole movie.
*. It’s sometimes described as a film noir, and it’s even packaged as such in the first of Columbia’s Film Noir Classics sets, but I don’t think the label fits. Most of the key noir elements are missing. I’ll mention three.
*. First, there’s no sense of moral ambiguity. Dancer (Eli Wallach) is described as a pure psychopath, and there’s no reason to doubt he’s just bad all the way through. The only inner conflict he feels is in trying to keep his rage in check. “He pushed me too far!” is a great line — but only for Wallach’s delivery.
*. Second, it’s a day film. I’ve mentioned before how San Francisco has never struck me as a noir town because it’s just so bright and pretty (see my notes on The Sniper and Where Danger Lives). That sense of prettiness is emphasized even more here because all the action takes place during a single cloudless, fogless day (with no night scenes). And it’s not a city of grime or shadows. The settings are almost all very tony and attractive, with the junky driver’s room being the only exception I can think of.
*. Third, there’s no femme fatale. Indeed, there’s only one woman in the cast, and she’s a hostage (and single mom) who doesn’t provide any erotic spark. This lack of women opens the door for the kind of crazy speculations that James Ellroy makes on the commentary track about how many of the characters in the movie are gay. I think he goes further down this road than is warranted based on the evidence, though something is clearly being hinted at in the steam room scene, and the ambiguous relationship between Julian and Dancer, neither of whom seem attracted to women (Julian thinks they “have no place in society”), is up for grabs.
*. These three items aren’t determinative (apparently Eddie Muller and Ellroy consider the great theme of noir to be “we’re fucked,” which is certainly the case here), but in my book they count against considering The Lineup as a film noir. That said, it is a decent crime film.
*. Eli Wallach got star billing in what I think was only his second feature (after Baby Doll). For some reason he reminds me of Joe Pesci here. They have the same air of comic, weaselly menace. Of course given the role of Dancer he basically steals the show, but I think he would have managed that anyway. Eddie Muller: “there’s something scarily attractive about that character, you’re going to see a lot more of it in American movies after this.”
*. Everybody else, even the other crooks, seems ’50s square. I think there’s only one scene where they take their hats off.
*. The locations are fascinating, even if they do give the film a bit of the feel of a tour of SF landmarks after a while.
*. The direction is certainly “proficient” (Ellroy’s word) but also has a lot of nice flourishes. You have to love Dancer shooting the housekeeper being reflected in the mirror. Big style points for that one. Then notice how that scene in the crime lab at the beginning where they discover the heroin in the statuette is all done in one take. That’s pretty impressive as the camera moves around quite a bit and the scene moves through several distinct phases of exposition Then we’re taken to the opera house and a lovely tracking shot following our two detectives through the colossal halls. And even Manny Farber, who didn’t much care for Siegel, admired the Hitchcockian “minor masterpiece” of the Sutro’s Museum sequence.
*. Which brings us to the car chase. Siegel liked car chases (he’d already done at least one very good one in The Big Steal), and here he offers up an excellent mix of back projection (which Muller thought Siegel probably hated, but which he nevertheless handled very well) and dramatic locations (most obviously the Embarcadero Freeway, still under construction). Muller goes so far as to call it “the best car chase done in a movie up to this point,” and he may be right.
*. I wonder if it was that easy to pick up women in 1958, or if audiences at the time found the aquarium scene ridiculous. Forget the fact that Dancer’s a dangerous killer, even if he’d been on the level would he have been able to get such a woman to trust in him so quickly and so completely? Ellroy calls his method “the con of male isolation,” but I’ve never known that to be such a winner.
*. But then the entire plot is ridiculous. Ellroy: “never in the history of crime has something like this gone down, with the multiple kidnappings and murders . . . it’s a specious construction.” You can’t think about it for a second. Eddie Muller mentions how the whole plan would fall apart if Dancer didn’t happen to meet the cleaning lady in the hall of the hotel who tells him where his last mule has gone, and he’s right. But you can’t ask questions like that of a movie like this. It’s not built to make sense. I mean, Dancer doesn’t even have a remotely credible cover story for just walking into the Sanders mansion and getting them to give him their flatware. And the idea of taking the woman and her child hostage so that she can explain to the Man what went wrong is beyond ludicrous.
*. Even aside from the absurdities, the plot seems to me to be a very rough piece of work. What was the point of Raymond Bailey’s character Dressler? Just to introduce us to the mechanics of drug smuggling via unwitting mules? Surely that information could have been presented in a way more integral to the main action, as Dressler is dropped completely after the first third of the film and is never returned to.
*. As with any genre flick you have to appreciate the little perverse twists. Here these would include Julian’s collection of last words, the strange figure of the Man, in a wheelchair no less, and the little girl who winks at Dancer before the nuns take her away. What was that all about?
*. Today there’s more of a formula for this sort of film, but at the time this was a pretty daring piece of work. It’s still great fun, full of memorable if not quite classic moments. I’m surprised it isn’t better known, as it holds up well as entertainment. Looking into it as deeply as I can, I can’t see it as aspiring to be anything more.