Netflix classified The Lineup (1958) as a film noir, which it most certainly is not, but it’s pretty dark nonetheless, and a crackerjack crime film that I thoroughly enjoyed. Great location shots in San Francisco, an excellent high-speed chase long before McQueen did Bullit, a full rogues gallery of outlaw characters, and some great dialog: just hold on through the pretty dull first thirty minutes of police procedural until Eli Wallach, as hit-man Dancer, makes his entrance, and enjoy the ride.
It’s called The Lineup, because it’s based on a TV show that ran in the early fifties under that name. The episode with an actual lineup is quite a small part of the story. The film is an expanded treatment of one story from the series, and it’s directed by Don Siegel. One of the posters for the film says, “Too hot for TV!”
Before the credits role, we are in the action as a porter rips off a passenger’s bag, and throws it into a cab which then races away. As they say, a chase ensues, and the cabbie, after running down a cop who dies later, is hit by a lucky shot. The luggage contains a statuette stuffed with high-grade heroin, part of a shipment run by a secretive outfit headed by The Man. The Man thinks things out thoroughly, and he foists junk on unwitting overseas tourists who work as his mules without their knowledge. Once they reach the States, the gang gathers up their souvenirs in whatever way they must.
Here, the police do their work methodically, checking in with the head of customs, whom the Lt. initially blames for the cop’s death. After all, why didn’t they catch that heroin in the statue? The customs man shows a map and calmly explains that there is just too much territory, too many ships for him to handle. Pretty routine stuff, but I like the guy on the left, although I could not find his name.
Our first glimpse of the bad guys, Robert Keith as Julian, and Eli Wallach as Dancer. Julian is Dancer’s handler, coaching him on ‘delivery’ verbal and ballistic. He wants Dancer to improve his grammar so as to be able to move more easily among his victims. Their first dialog is a discussion of the subjunctive. Dancer is incredulous that anyone would say, “If I were…,” rather than “If I was…” He’s not alone, but Julian is firm with him. After the fiasco with the cabbie, The Man brought them in to clean up things.
Julian knows that Dancer is a cold-blooded psychopath, filled with hate. he says as much to another gang member. Dancer later reveals that like everyone else, he had an old man once, except that he never knew him. Is Julian his father-figure, or is there a homo-erotic attachment here..?
Sandy is “their boy,” designated driver, except that he has a liking for drink. Julian slaps his bottle to the ground, and calls him “Dipso” from then on. But Sandy has a souped-up auto, and he can drive it, fast!
The one to see is a seaman on the boat who was given a hollowed out antique horse. They are told to find him in the steamroom in the Seaman’s Club. Two guys in a locker room…wearing hats. Dancer is convinced that this whole job is going to be a sticky one because the first shipment went awry, while Julian insists, no, it’s going to be an easy one. All done by 4:30pm.
Dancer undresses to go meet the man, and Julian offers to fold his clothes. He tells him “Go easy…,” but the contact figured out that he was being used as a mule, so he asks for a few grand to make it worth his trouble. Did they think he would believe that line about just carrying some art to a friend in the city for a favor? Big mistake for them, and for him too.
…while Dancer explains the facts of life to the upstart seaman. He does it silently, shall we say. Their driver asks if he really had to kill the guy, and Julian responds, “When you live outside the law, you have to eliminate dishonesty.” Bob Dylan may have taken note.
Next up, a set of fancy cutlery with powder stowed in the ivory handles needs to be repossessed from a rich pillar of society. The butler is not comfortable with the story of an accidental mix up of shipments. Dancer tries to talk his way out using his newly acquired gift for upper-class gab, but is not successful…
Dancer does a fine job at trying, but not too hard, to pick up the woman. She has a sad story about hoping that her divorced husband would have the decency to meet them at the dock to see his little girl, but no dice. He’s lonely too… He’s pretty convincing. Good enough to get her to an accept an offer of a drive with his friends to her hotel so she doesn’t have to bother with all those packages.
Once in the room, when mom leaves for a moment, they go for the doll, not the kind you carry around all the time. The stuff isn’t there, and under threat of death for her mom, the kid reveals that she found the powder and used it to freshen up the doll’s face! “That’s the most expensive face powder you could have used, kid.”
But he’s not about to let the enraged Dancer finish the conversation by shooting the two females, although that’s what Dancer is set to do. Interesting logic here, and strangely compelling: The Man is going to be mightily upset at getting a short shipment, and will likely conclude that Dancer and Julian did a little business of their own on the side. That will not be good for the duo, who will be dead in short order, so Julian concludes that they must force the ladies to go with them, to meet The Man, so that he will see that their explanation, which would be hard to believe, don’t ya’ think, is for real. It’s their only chance.
So they all drive to the coast, to Sutro’s Maritime Museum, all that’s left of the legendary Sutro’s Baths, an early 20th century amusement center, and another great SF location. Julian waits in the car with the ladies while Dancer goes in to meet The Man. He is repelled by their weakness, and explains “that is why there are so few women in the crime world. You just don’t understand the criminal’s need for violence.” He’s very thoughtful…