Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

THE LINEUP. Columbia Pictures, 1958. Eli Wallach, Robert Keith, Richard Jaeckel, Mary LaRoche, William Leslie, Emile Meyer, Marshall Reed, Raymond Bailey, Vaughn Taylor, Warner Anderson. Screenplay: Stirling Silliphant. Director: Don Siegel.

   The Lineup is a visually captivating thriller set in the historic buildings and on the daytime streets and roadways of San Francisco. It stars Eli Wallach (The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly), in one of his earliest big screen roles, as a Brooklyn-accented sociopathic hired gun for an international heroin smuggling operation.

   Directed by Don Siegel (Dirty Harry), The Lineup is best interpreted as two distinct films wrapped together in one package. Indeed, the film, based on both a CBS radio show (1950-1953) and television show (1954-1960) of the same name, is two movies in one: a formulaic, somewhat forgettable, police procedural and a very good, albeit under-appreciated, film noir. It’s the story of a disturbingly violent, and somewhat pathetic, criminal on the margins of polite society, a man whose own unbridled rage propels him to his inevitable doom.

   The film begins as a standard police procedural, opening with a fast-paced action sequence near the San Francisco docks. A porter throws a suitcase into a cab that promptly, and recklessly, speeds away, ramming into a truck and killing a police officer in the process. Lt. Ben Guthrie (Warner Anderson, reprising his role in the TV show) and his partner, Inspector Al Quine (Emile Meyer) are called on to investigate.

   Neither of the characters come across as particularly devoted to the task at hand, although Anderson’s portrayal of a detective is far more engaging than is Quine’s. But the movie isn’t really about them — more on that in a minute.

   The two San Francisco cops discover that the cab driver was part of a heroin smuggling operation and that an international cartel is utilizing unsuspecting passengers from East Asia to smuggle heroin into the United States. One such passenger is Philip Dressler (Raymond Bailey), a prominent member of San Francisco society employed at the architecturally impressive San Francisco Opera House. Dressler is called into the police station to witness a lineup, but he doesn’t recognize the porter who yanked his suitcase from his arms and threw it into the cab. Still, it’s not long until the porter shows up dead.

   The film quickly shifts gears from a police procedural to a film noir about two hit men tasked with finding — and killing — other passengers who inadvertently smuggled heroin into the United States and to deliver the dope to a criminal known only as The Man (Vaughn Taylor), a real piece of work who only appears on the screen for a several minutes.

   We first see the film’s protagonist/anti-hero, the brutal hired gun Dancer (Wallach) sitting on an airplane with his partner and mentor, the incredibly creepy Julian (Robert Keith). Dancer is reading a book of English grammar in an attempt to learn how to properly use the subjunctive tense so as to sound less like a New York gangster. This, of course, was Julian’s idea. Somewhere along the way, Julian made Dancer his pet project and clearly wants to smooth over the killer’s rough edges.

   The men arrive in San Francisco and are quickly greeted by their driver, Sandy McLain (Richard Jaeckel). The three men, all losers each in their own way, successfully track down the first two carriers. It’s when they are tasked with retrieving the heroin from a woman, Dorothy Bradshaw, and her daughter Cindy that things, in classic noir fashion, all fall apart. The turning point in the film occurs when Dancer wants to kill Bradshaw and is stopped from doing so by Julian.

   Wallach is simply excellent in this film. He portrays Dancer, a man born of rage and without a relationship with his father, convincingly. Watch throughout for his Dancer’s eye, and facial, expressions, particularly during his showdown with The Man in Sutro’s Museum.

   Keith is equally convincing in his portrayal of Julian, a bizarre man who enjoys jotting down the last words people say before they die. In a one remarkably unsettling scene that shows characterization, Julian, upon seeing his female hostage weep, bursts out with his own self-serving pseudo-intellectual rhetoric. It’s not so much his misogyny that’s appalling; rather, it’s that he actually seems to believe his own nonsense:

   â€œSee, you cry. That’s why women have no place in society. Women are weak. Crime’s aggressive and so is the law. Ordinary people of your class—you don’t understand the criminal’s need for violence.”

   She replies (how else could she reply?): “You’re sick.”

   But as The Lineup shows us, that type of criminal sickness has real consequences. By the time the movie ends with a dramatic car chase on the unfinished Embarcadero Freeway, both Julian and Dancer, not to mention The Man, are dead, with their own character flaws playing significant roles in their not particularly tragic demises. Although the film takes place during the day rather than at night, it’s noir at its very best.