It was a coincidence that I happened to watch Eli Wallach in the 1958 film The Lineup a few months after his death at the age of 92. Best known as a character actor, Wallach could be a unique addition to a film and become one of the most interesting aspects within it. Which is what he accomplished in The Lineup.
The Lineup is actually a film version of the then popular police procedural radio/television show at the time. Directed by Don Siegel, it tells parallel stories of criminals in the midst of a crime and the police investigating and trying to catch them before inevitably their stories catch up with each other in the end.
A police investigation that starts with a very public murder uncovers a larger smuggling caper. Lieutenant Ben Guthrie (Warner Anderson) and Inspector Al Quine (Emile Meyer) set about to unravel the mystery of this crime and catch the parties who are involved.
Meanwhile, our second story is naturally those criminals. Dancer (Wallach) and his associate Julian (Robert Keith) are hired killers assigned to pick up the smuggled dope and hand it over to ‘The Man’ (Vaughn Taylor) for a big important payday. Unfortunately, what was thought would be a smooth day spent in San Francisco ends up getting complicated and Dancer leaves a trail of bodies behind him, which helps the cops get closer to finding him.
Just like it’s storyline, The Lineup is a half and half type of movie for me. The police investigation is clearly the weaker part. It’s a series of very by-the-numbers scenes with the detectives arriving at crime scenes, interviewing witnesses, formulating theories, figuring out their next move. It all plays rather flat and not particularly compelling.
At the time it was probably exciting for audiences to see these police stories. Watching the ins and outs of detectives arriving at a crime scene and questioning witnesses was eye-opening.
Yet, today it plays very stodgy and routine. The actors have piercing no-nonsense stares, unwavering deep voices and look great in their suits though. Somehow movie police detectives looked much cooler back in the old days than today. The pace does pick up towards the end when it becomes a race against the clock for the detectives, but the cops are not the stars of this flick.
Things are continuously much more exciting on the criminal side! Dancer and Julian meet their driver for the day Sandy (Richard Jaeckel) and set out from one tense encounter to another as they go around picking up the dope from a variety of unsuspecting ‘mules’. Passengers onboard an arriving ship are unknowingly carrying the smuggled dope in their possessions and it’s up to Dancer to relieve them of it any way he can.
Unlike the usual noir devices and settings of dark shadows and rain-soaked nighttime streets, the sunny setting of San Fran is used as a contrast to the psychologically unhinged Dancer and what he’s about to unleash onto the city. Most of the movie was shot on location and it utilizes the city locations quite effectively. It’s interesting to see Siegel use the backdrop of the city in a crime story years before he would revisit it again in Dirty Harry.
There’s some surprisingly shocking moments of violence for its time. Dancer has no remorse in what he needs to do to accomplish his job and the film doesn’t try to soften the brutality that explodes out of him. And Wallach excels in the role.
While Julian is less hands on in this assignment – he’s more like Dancer’s keeper – he keeps him focused on what needs to be done and reminds him of what exactly he is – a ruthless killer. One of the most interesting character quirks of Julian I really liked was his perverse fascination of knownig the final words that uttered from Dancer’s victims. He may not get his hands dirty with the work, but he’s just as twisted a character as Dancer.
Overall, it’s a decent enough little flick. It begins to drag in the middle portion as the police detectives take up screen time, but things liven up when our pair of criminals take center stage and we watch them go about their business. Wallach really makes it worthwhile. So the bad guys do win in a sense.