Not Noir, but Pretty Dark

August 8, 2014

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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..?
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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!

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The three get to know one another on their way to get initial instructions on who the marks are they have to see to retrieve the smack.  The information session is placed down by the docks.
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I love the way Siegel took advantage of the location to add this bit of action:  as the car drives up, the boat is pulling out to sea.
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One of many nice SF shots, as Dancer gets his info – he never writes anything down – from the contact.
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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.
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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.
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Meanwhile, the police trudge on…
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…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.
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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…
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Get your hands off that silverware!
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The butler runs to call the man of the house, but Dancer nails him.  It looks as if he’s shooting wild until you realize that you only see the butler in a mirror on the wall.
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Time to get out of there, and another SF location shot…
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The final mark is a woman who was on the boat with her daughter:  the stuff is stashed in the kid’s doll.  They catch up with them at the aquarium.  That Julian, he must love kids!
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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.
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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.”
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Well, all the veils have fallen.  “Get out, now!”
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Julian does not like being told what to do by a woman, no sirree bob!
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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.
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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…
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Meanwhile, The Man doesn’t find his package, but sees Dancer watching him.
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Dancer sees that he sees him, and goes over to make the drop, a bit short, it’s true, and to explain the situation.
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The Man doesn’t care for explanations.  “You’re dead,” he says.  “Nobody sees me.  You’re on borrowed time now.”
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His last words – Julian likes to record the last words of their victims in a little book he carries – are “Get out!”  Then he slaps Dancer hard.
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Dancer won’t take that crap.  He pushes him off the ledge onto the rink below.  It’s a great scene.
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Sandy is a driving kind of man, and his skills are now in demand since the cops have finally caught up with the three crooks.
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The pursuit scenes through the streets of SF are surprisingly effective given that they were all done in a studio in front of a projection screen.
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Sandy can drive, but he doesn’t always go the right way.  They end up at an elevated dead end on a freeway under construction.  Love that!
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Dancer is not impressed.  “Get us out of here if you want to live!”
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Sandy does a quick turn, and complies…
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…but he gets caught in an off-ramp going nowhere, and can go no further.  Dancer conks him over the head; Julian tries to surrender, but Dancer will have none of that!
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Put those last words in your little book!
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The cops get Dancer, Mom and daughter are okay, and it’s all in a day’s work for these two unexciting guys.5

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Baby Doll

July 24, 2009

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This film came to my attention on reading the obituary of Karl Malden – it got his career off on its very long run.  Elia Kazan directed, Carol Baker and Eli Wallach starred as well.  Tennessee Williams provided the story of corruption, repressed, seething sexuality, vengeance, race relations, and a whole lotta other stuff.

Some discuss this film as a comedy, a campy masterpiece, but I see it as much more than that.  It’s a finely wrought drama about three strong, conflicting characters in a moral quagmire.  It has humor, but it’s kind of sad.

Archie Lee is married to Baby Doll – her daddy wanted to provide for her as he was dying.  She wasn’t ready for marriage, so he extracted a promise from Archie not to touch her until her twentieth birthday.  She sleeps in the nursery, in her old crib, in a broken down plantation mansion that Archie Lee bought to convince her daddy he was coming up in the world.

Archie’s plans to expand his business and restore the house fall victim to Mr. Vacarro, a recent arrival who bought up some old farms and cottin gin mills and cornered all the local business, including Archie’s.  He’s not well liked, but he is respected for his business acumen.  During a party he throws for the community to try and smooth over hard feelings, Archie, the only local planter not attending, torches his mill.

Vacarro vows to get his own justice.  He contracts with Archie to gin his cotton, and then moves in on his “wife.”  Does he want to sexually possess her, or just get her support for a legal action against Archie?  In the end, he does both, but he doesn’t “touch” her either.  He knows she’s “just a child” and he has some decency – but there is, as he admits to Archie when insisting that he “took nothing else from her,” an attraction between them.


All the actors do a wonderful job, but Carol Baker, in her first big role, is remarkable.  Malden is great, and a figure of pathetic fun, but she and Wallach are amazing in their sexual pas de deux.  Much of the humor in their exhanges comes from her ridiculous affectations of proprietry, despite her obvious, wilting fascination with Mr. Vacarro.  When he offers her a pecan nut he cracked with his teeth, she demurs, “Oh, Mr. Vacarro.  I could never accept a nut that had been in a man’s mouth.”  He replies, “You’ve got many refinements.”

Baker’s career was rocky, and she eventually left Hollywood for Italy.  Before she left, her second husband fashioned her into blonde bombshell sex symbol, and she starred as Jean Harlow.

Carol Baker as sex symbol

Some clips of my favorite scenes are linked below: