For this edition Shadows of Film Noir, we take a look at Don Siegel's The Lineup, produced by the "B" unit at Columbia Pictures in 1958. It was unavailable for years, but Sony thankfully released it as part of the 2009 Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics DVD box set.
Behind the Scenes
Director Don Siegel was born in Chicago in 1912 and was educated at Cambridge. He landed a job as a "montage" director at Warner Bros., and made most of those little transitional sequences you see in Casablanca and the Bette Davis movie Now, Voyager. He made his feature directorial debut in 1946 with The Verdict, and continued making low-budget crime films (along with some Westerns and war films) -- including The Lineup -- for over a decade. His biggest hit from this period was, of course, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). In 1960, he directed what many consider Elvis Presley's best film, Flaming Star. In 1968, he began an important relationship with actor Clint Eastwood, and they made five key films together, including the smash hit Dirty Harry (1971). He also made such classics as Charley Varrick (1973) and The Shootist (1976), but ended his career on a down note with the much-hated Jinxed! (1982).
The Lineup was based on a 1954 TV series of the same name. The screenwriter for the feature film was a hard-working Detroit man named Stirling Silliphant, who worked in television for years before going on to win an Oscar for In the Heat of the Night in 1967. As for the cast, they were mostly unknowns, though Eli Wallach might have been recognized for his performance in Elia Kazan's Baby Doll (1956), and he would certainly be recognizable ten years later for his role as "the ugly" -- alongside Eastwood -- in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Siegel considered Wallach's performance in The Lineup one of the two or three best performances in any of his films.
What It's About
A ship arrives in a San Francisco pier. A man throws a suitcase in the back of a cab, and the cab speeds off. It smashes into a truck and hits a cop. The cop fires a shot and hits the cabbie. The cab smashes into a barrier. The cops check the suitcase and discover a statue filled with heroin. The owner of the suitcase is a respectable San Francisco citizen, a director at the Opera. The cops must decide whether the man is a drug smuggler or a dupe. Meanwhile an expert crook named Dancer (Wallach) shows up in town, and it's his job to collect the various suitcases filled with smuggled drugs, and carried by innocent mules. Unfortunately, there are many, many complications with this plan, and Dancer's job does not go according to plan. It all ends with a spectacular car chase through San Francisco's hilly streets.
The Lure of the Underworld
Usually, a noir hero makes a bad choice that sends him running irrevocably down the wrong road, and it usually has something to do with either money or women. The Lineup is an interesting case, since it's mainly a police procedural, but the cops more or less fade into the background in comparison to the charismatic Dancer. Dancer is a pure bad guy, through and through. He answered his call to the underworld a long time before this movie ever started. Yet Dancer is easily the film's most compelling character, and we actually begin to root for him, and against the uncontrollable forces that are dominating him. We'd much rather see him succeed in his task than to see fate stick out a foot and trip him for no reason at all.
The Femme Fatale
Many films noir have a "femme fatale" character -- also named by the French -- who is responsible for the hero's downfall. The Lineup has no femmes fatale, and indeed, it seems unlikely that Dancer would ever let a female get the best of him. The movie's main female characters are unwitting drug mules.
The Lineup is shot documentary-style, with lots of real San Francisco locations, and including some old landmarks that aren't there anymore, like one of the early incarnations of the Cliff House and the old Sutro Museum, which houses the film's climax. It's interesting to note that, despite this attempt at observational realism, Siegel still subtly shifts the emphasis away from the hero cops to the more interesting, more villainous Dancer character.
"When you live outside the law, you have to eliminate dishonesty."
What Was Said
"The final car chase in The Lineup... [is] among the most stunning displays of action montage in the history of the American cinema." - Andrew Sarris
"A major B movie by one of Hollywood's most accomplished craftsmen." - Dave Kehr