Friday, May 14, 2010

Underrated Movie #69: The Lineup

Title: The Lineup
Year: 1958
Director: Don Siegel (Charley Varrick)
Writers: Stirling Silliphant
Stars: Eli Wallach, Robert Keith, Richard Jaeckel, Mary LaRoche, Warner Anderson

The Story: A pair of San Francisco detectives discover that steamship passengers are unknowingly smuggling heroin into the city inside small staues. When the scheme falls apart, two strange hitmen arrive to clean up the mess.

How it Came to be Underrated: This wasn’t ever on video or DVD until a few months ago, when it was finally released in the same great box set that has The Sniper and Murder by Contract.

Why It’s Great:

  1. This became a odd recurring event in Siegel’s career: he would get hired to make a TV movie, then use the money to make a movie that was too big and violent and shocking for TV, which would force them to release it theatrically. He did it three times! Nobody could ever understand how he could make something that looked and felt like a real movie on a TV budget, but he was the most efficient of all great directors.
  2. The movie was a spin-off of a Dragnet-esque TV show, also called “The Lineup”. Siegel was stuck with wooden series star Warner Anderson, but he brought in the great character actor Emil Meyer to play Anderson’s new partner, and, more importantly, he quickly shuffles the cops into the background and makes it all about the criminals, who pursue their agenda largely without interference. (Something writer Stirling Silliphant knew all about from creating “Naked City”)
  3. The movie is a standard police procedural until 22 minutes in when the killers come to town and it elevates into greatness. They have one of the most bizarre character introduction scene ever: Arriving on a commercial airplane, hot-blooded Dancer is puzzling his way through a book of English Usage and Grammar, while cold-blooded Julian is trying to sleep. But Dancer finally has to ask: “Julian, you take this whole business about the subjunctive. I dunno...” “Alright, Dancer, alright, what’s so difficult about the subjunctive?” “Well, you take this for instance: ‘If I was you’ That’s all wrong. It says here, ‘If I were you.’ How far can you go with this stuff?” “It sets you up, Dancer, it sets you up. You know that. How many characters hang around street corners can say ‘If I were you.’ How many, huh?” Dancer thinks: “'If I were you’… Yeah, yeah, I see…” Thoughtful pause, then Dancer pipes up again: “It’s going to be a good day. Real good one, I can feel it.” “It’s going to be a tight one, Julian, that’s what it’s going to be. In and out.” Gravely: “No, Dancer, it’s going to be a good one.” Dancer accepts this mysterious rebuke and quiets down. The plane lands.
  4. This movie has the first great San Francisco car chase. They intentionally set out to top this movie when they made Bullitt. They succeeded, but not by much.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: This was a bit of a dry-run for Siegel’s more famous movie about a sexually-ambiguous hitman duo roaming California: a great 1964 remake of The Killers.

How Available Is It?: The beautiful new DVD has an introduction by Chris Nolan and a great commentary by scholar Eddie Mueller and crime novelist James Ellroy, who is off his meds and riffing like an all-night DJ.

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