' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Lineup (1958)

Friday, November 14, 2014

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Lineup (1958)

Director Don Siegel based "The Lineup" on the CBS television series that began in 1954 for which he directed the pilot, and initially it really shows. The first twenty minutes feel less like a hard-hitting piece of noir than a basic if solidly helmed police procedural. Its seeming protagonist, Lt. Ben Guthrie (Warner Anderson), is sensible but wholly drab and you wonder why they centered an entire TV show around him. But then police procedurals on the boob tube take solace in the familiar, a structure repeating week after week, and that structure is the set-up for Siegel's macabre joke, one in which the cops in grey suits are just stiffs and the robbers are vibrant if disquieting personalities.

 
Guthrie attempts to piece together a crime involving an apparent wheelman named Lefty (because one in three 1950's wheelmen were named Lefty) who steals a taxi to abscond with a briefcase only to shoot a cop and get killed in return. When Guthrie determines the case belongs to American tourist who has returned from Hong Kong, he and we are immediately suspicious at the revelation of a statutette contained inside. After all, if the movies have taught us anything it's that no stautette is merely a decorative artifact. Indeed, the porcelain piece is hiding heroin, and though this would appear to put the finger on the tourist, that's too obvious. And at this point, "The Lineup" goes its own way. It is said, in fact, per TCM, that Siegel was wary of giving the film the same title as its source material, and it is understandable. You don't need a lineup to pinpoint the main attraction of "The Lineup."

If noir so often gives a voice to the anti-hero, here it gives a voice to a straight-up miscreant. Dancer (Eli Wallach) is a bad man. I don't mean bad as in good - I mean bad as in bad. "A psychopath with no inhibitions" is what Julian (Robert Keith), his boss, calls him glowingly, like a starstruck father. Over the course of their mentor/protégé relationship, however, that gives the film its wickedly crooked heart he will come to understand the full weight of that statement. Gradually, insidiously and hypnotically, he has control of his operation wrested from him, and, in turn, Wallach the actor wrests control of the film from everyone around him.

The bad guys’ game is to have unwitting, unknowing vacationers become drug mules, a racket that is not only effective but that effectively demonstrates their feelings toward humanity - as in, non-existent. This is embodied in a hauntingly matter-of-fact sequence that finds Dancer more or less flirting with a young mother, Dorothy (Mary Laroche), to get to her daughter to get to her doll to get to his heroin. In spite of the preceding violent and chilly air he has so ably cultivated, Wallach in this moment skillfully flips on a dime and exudes such warmth that it reels you in even if you know it's a put-on.

As the film winds thrillingly through the streets of San Francisco to a concluding car chase that cleverly puts the squeeze on our chief villain by way of freeway concrete, it becomes abundantly clear that Julian had it right – Dancer has no inhibitions. And when he takes Dorothy's daughter hostage in a last-ditch attempt to evade the inevitable vice it'll put a lump in your throat. Heck, even Julian looks at him with a taken-aback gawk. In that moment, you believe he could be capable of anything.

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