The Second Half of "Chrome-Plated Crime" at the Alex Theatre: The Lineup
November 23, 2014
A few months ago I wrote about watching one of my favorite movies, Gun Crazy (1950), on the big screen at the Alex Theatre in Glendale (to read the piece, click here). Gun Crazy was the first film screened that evening in a Film Noir double feature bill entitled “Chrome-Plated Crime;” the other movie was The Lineup (1958), which I had never seen before.
Banner for the movies in the Alex Theatre's courtyard (Picture by Kim Luperi)
Noted noir scholar Alan K. Rode returned after the screening of Gun Crazy to introduce The Lineup. Made in 1958, almost a decade after the evening's first film, The Lineup's journey to the big screen came via the small screen, a forerunner of TV series, such as Dragnet, that were being adapted into movies. In fact, The Lineup actually extends one generation further: it started as a radio show, then was turned into a TV series that ran from 1954-1960, and finally the movie was produced during the TV show's run in 1958.
Don Siegel, the director of the TV show's pilot, was brought back to helm the big screen version of the story since the series was so successful. Siegel, an expert tennis player and one of Hollywood's most gifted poker hands, was known for exuding a cranky, “take no prisoners” attitude on set. By the late 1950s, his list of accomplishments in Hollywood had grown quite long and distinguished: his uncle had been a friend of Hal Wallis,' and he started in the 1930s toting film cans around before landing a job in the montage department, where he was responsible for splicing scenes together in all those montage sequences so popular in the 30s and 40s. Siegel was finally given a chance to direct in 1946, left Warner Brothers, and worked on significant low budget films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Despite his lengthy history in the industry, Rode believes that Siegel is perhaps best known today as a mentor to filmmakers such as Clint Eastwood and Curtis Hanson, both of whom hosted a tribute to Siegel held at the Academy about 10 years ago.
The script was penned by Stirling Silliphant, a writer whose work on this film Rode felt was rather underappreciated. Instead of adapting what existed of the series so far for the feature version, Silliphant shifted the focus to two hit men, Dancer (Eli Wallach) and Julian (Robert Keith), traveling to San Francisco to recover a stash of drugs.
The Lineup marked Wallach's second movie after 1956's Baby Doll; up until this point, Wallach primarily acted on the stage and small screen. As a peaceful guy, Wallach found his character quite a departure for him, and he said jokingly to Don Siegel: "I'll tell you what. You need to pay me 10 grand for each person I kill in this movie," to which Siegel exclaimed, "Welcome aboard!" Dancer's violent tendancies and hard-hitting actions didn't just surprise Wallach either; his wife, Anne Jackson, leaned over to him during the film's premiere and whispered, "If you kill that nice lady, I am leaving you!" After you see the movie, you'll know which scene she was referring too. Luckily, Rode didn't spoil it for the audience!
Eli Wallach and his wife, Anne Jackson. Did his character let her down in the movie? You'll have to watch to find out!
The Lineup kicks off with a mixture of two very different paces. One is fast: during a short yet exhilarating chase, a porter steals a man’s luggage, jumps into a cab that peels off and hits a cop car, and the cop shoots the driver dead. The other is slow in the form of a semi-PSA: a voice of authority announces that the cops know drugs are coming into the country illegally, but they don't have the manpower to catch all the perpetrators (which includes those who placed the drugs in the luggage in the opening car chase scene).
Lobby card for The Lineup.
The pace - or tension at least - quickens the moment the other angle, aka the criminal side, enters the picture, which Siegel follows for the rest of the film. Dancer and Julian fly into San Francisco and are given directions to retrieve drugs planted unknowingly on three separate travelers. Aided by overzealous driver Sandy (Richard Jaeckel), the trio hunt down their targets at various locations, including a ritzy home and a sauna; along the way, the body count rises steadily. With two successful pickups (in drug terms, not human life) and only one more to go, Dancer and Julian arrive at the residence of Dorothy Bradshaw (Mary LaRoche) and her little girl, Cindy (Cheryl Callaway). They grab Cindy’s doll, where the drugs are hidden (and that’s no easy task), but to their surprise, the drugs aren’t there. Obviously, Cindy didn’t know the white dust she found in her toy would be wanted by murderers, so she used it to powder her doll’s face! That's not good for Dancer and Julian, who are scheduled to hand off the entire stash very soon, so naturally they take Dorothy and Cindy hostage.
Dancer (Eli Wallach) takes Dorothy (Mary LaRoche) and Cindy Bradshaw (Cheryl Callaway) hostage with Julian (Robert Keith), while Sandy (Richard Jaeckel) drives.
Julian carefully preps Dancer for his meeting with The Man (Vaughn Taylor), where he has the super fun (not) responsibility of informing The Man they don’t have all of the drugs – and you can’t blame or kill a little girl for her innocent mistake, can you? Well, I wouldn't put it past these guys...
In a terrifically nail-biting scene, Dancer cautiously slithers around a variety of telescopes and other intricacies while waiting for The Man, whom he has never met, to recover the (partially-there) pile. Obviously, trouble ensues, resulting in at least one more death and a high speed chase on a freeway that is under construction, which means at some point, there has to be a stand-off…and boy is there ever!
Besides the obvious shared car factor, I noted numerous similarities between Gun Crazy and The Lineup. Just as Gun Crazy includes a now-famous bank robbery sequence, The Lineup is well known for having one of the greatest chase scenes in movie history, certainly a forerunner for 1971's Dirty Harry, Rode pointed out. The infamous scene he was referring to at the end of the movie - and many of the other car chases - was partially filmed from the 5th floor of a YMCA in San Francisco. At the time of production, the Embarcadero Freeway was still under construction. Rode gave the audience a heads up on some of the more daring sequences near the film's end that were shot on that freeway; he said when he saw them that we had to remember 'yes, they actually did that!' In fact, when Siegel returned to San Francisco over a decade later to film Dirty Harry and met with local police before filming, an older member of the force came up to him and said, "Welcome back Don. You know your chase the last time you were here 10 years ago - that's what turned my hair all white!"
This would be the white-hair-turning scene...
The coupling of the main characters in both movies also mirror each other in certain ways. Just as Laurie seduces and then guides Bart through their violent life on the lam, the quiet, seemingly debonair Julian acts as a mentor to Dancer, an up and coming hit man constantly on the brink of exploding who still needs some guidance, since he does show small fits of compassion here and there. However, unlike Bart, who is not an inherently violent person at heart, both Dancer and Julian are downright vicious characters. In particular, Julian, an old school criminal who has seen it all, clearly possesses a dark, cold blooded heart (despite that air of decorum about him), which is fully evident late in the movie when he unleashes his violent, misogynic views on a completely horrified Dorothy.
In fact, in his own way, Julian's callous and ruthless attitude towards his occupation and duty is comparable to Laurie's insensitivity and selfishness regarding what happens to those around her; both are stuck in their tiny, psychotic, cruel little worlds, and in Laurie's case, the only other person she cares about (well, sort of) is Bart. As for Bart and Dancer, though they differ in temperament, both require some hand holding from their stronger counter parts to get the job done - a duty Dancer is fine with fulfilling, while Bart never can get on board with the idea of murder.
Though only eight years stand in between Gun Crazy and The Lineup, the stakes, and specifically violence, in the two movies feel worlds apart. Due to innovative camera techniques (in Gun Crazy) and on location shooting (in Gun Crazy and The Lineup, but used more actively in the latter), both pictures portray an effectively realistic sense of their respective environs; those worlds, however, differ dramatically: in Gun Crazy, though Annie ends up killing two people, the couple simply wish to live without working, while in The Lineup, Dancer and Julian are working alright, but their occupation is a little more high-stress and involves a higher body count than Annie and Bart's. Of course, due to the consequences of all four character's actions, Production Code era-Hollywood couldn't let any of them live, and in their own spectacular ways, Gun Crazy and The Lineup do not disappoint in their climactic scenes.
"Too hot...too big...for TV!"
Accordingly, The Lineup is clearly the more violent of the two, not only content-wise, but also surely due to the loosening of the Production Code, which still extended a strong hold over Hollywood in the late 1940s when Gun Crazy was in production, before real competition from television and foreign films threatened the industry. Add to that a rapidly changing culture in the 1950s, and the walls surrounding many ideas and themes that were previously off limits began breaking down; for example, in 1956 parts of the Code were amended to recognize topics such as prostitution and adultery. Consequently, the violence in Gun Crazy doesn't really compare to that in The Lineup; Gun Crazy's killings are short, sweet (as far as murders go), and almost unseen and/or viewed from afar, while the acts of violence in The Lineup are more in your face and brutal, because the violence the studios could get away with showing in 1958 definitely differed from what was passable in 1950.
The Variety review I read from the year of The Lineup's release highlighted the movie's San Francisco setting and also the aforementioned chase scene during the film's climax; however, the reviewer downplayed the acting, particularly Wallach's, who he believed was "wasted" in his role. Though I agree with the first two points, I disagree with Variety's assessment of Wallach (and their omission of Keith too). Viewing the movie in 2014, I felt The Lineup still packs a punch today, more so due to the characters and locations and less story wise; the dynamic between Dancer and Julian and their physical movements within the city, which appears as a supporting character, kept my attention better than the narrative itself. While I noted above that the Production Code was beginning to break down by the time The Lineup went into production, I was still taken aback by the rather nonchalant manner in which Dancer and Julian watched the bodies pile up, and by their own hand(s)!
Watcha lookin' at Dancer?
How to witness The Lineup unfold:
The Lineup is available for purchase as a single DVD from Amazon.com here, or if you throw down a few more dollars, you can own it as part of a Columbia Pictures Film Noir set here. I just found out about the latter myself, and in my mind, the more film noirs, the better - that's my recommendation!