Long before Don Siegel turned Dirty Harry loose upon the streets of San Francisco to track down Scorpio he unleashed a cold blooded hitman named Dancer played by Eli Wallach to hunt down key targets in the city on one sunny afternoon.
“There’s never been a guy like Dancer. He’s a wonderful, pure pathological study. He’s a psychopath with no inhibitions.”
When a ship arrives at a San Francisco pier in the opening scene, returning Hong Kong tourist Raymond Bailey (aka Mr. Drysdale from The Beverly Hillbillies) has his luggage snatched which quickly ends in a speeding car running down a police officer before crashing leaving the driver dead on the scene. And so begins this tough crime melodrama that sees a pair of detectives, Warren Anderson and Emile Meyer, looking to bust a heroin smuggling ring.
Injecting the feel of a police procedural into the film the detectives are seen using the force’s lab to unlock the secrets of the recovered luggage stolen from Mr. Drysdale. If you love the Naked Gun flicks then you’ll understand my expecting Leslie Nielsen to turn up with an all too obvious comment.
Flying into San Francisco is Wallach and his partner/handler played by screen veteran Robert Keith in one of his finest performances. They’ve been assigned a Transporter of their own and it’s not Jason Statham but rather another all time favorite character player, Richard Jaeckel, manning the wheel of what will be their getaway car. The assignment given Wallach and Keith is too recover three packages of heroin contained in the luggage of three separate passengers who came in on the ship from Hong Kong.
They’ve also been assigned to leave no loose ends by their unseen employer.
Siegel has wisely filmed The Lineup on location giving it an authentic feel not always seen on the big screen circa 1958. Studio back lots were still the preferred method of filmmaking by the majors. The coastline and hills of San Francisco have always added flavor to the movies made there. Just look to Steve McQueen’s joy ride in 1968 for confirmation.
Wallach, Keith and Jaeckel are on the move. First stop is a men’s sauna to make contact with a sailor who has brought back a statue filled with the illegal drug. Foggy and steamy, this scene proves to be one of the film’s highlights when Wallach’s killer meets his target in the sauna. Reminded me of a “hit” over a decade earlier in the excellent Noir, T-Men, when killer Charles McGraw sadistically took out Wallace Ford.
Maybe it’s just that sauna’s lend themselves admirably to a filmmaker’s creativity. Even Blake Edwards used one memorably when he put Peter Seller’s Clouseau in one allowing the bumbling Inspector the opportunity to bust our funny bones as he attempted to get a peek at a disrobed Catherine Schell.
Next up is a stop that will see Wallach’s crazed killer murder a valet to reclaim a case from a wealthy traveler leading to the third target which won’t go according to plan. You’ll need to get yourself a copy of this crime thriller to see how the final half hour plays out but I will say there is a killing in the final stretch that is jolting and recalls the famous clip of Richard Widmark throwing an elderly lady down a staircase while strapped to a wheelchair in 1947’s Kiss of Death.
Factually this movie was apparently an extension of the popular TV series, The Lineup, which ran from 1954 through to 1960 and did star Warren Anderson yet Siegel was apparently more interested in following the killers around as opposed to concentrating on Anderson and Meyer’s tracking them down. Smart move as it gives both Wallach and Keith the opportunity to shine bright.
Already a celebrated stage actor, The Lineup, was just Eli Wallach’s second film following 1956’s Baby Doll for Elia Kazan. From ’58 forward the beloved actor would leave us countless movie memories with his Tuco of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly leading the way.
While Wallach’s movie career was about to take off, Robert Keith’s was coming to close. His acting career dates back to the early thirties but it wasn’t until the 1950’s that he became a prolific character actor on screen turning up in memorable films of the decade including The Wild One (1953), Guys and Dolls (1956), Written on the Wind (1957) and Anthony Mann’s excellent Men In War (1957).
For more on Richard Jaeckel have a look at a recent feature I spotlighted him in.
I discovered the films of Siegel for myself early on as a budding movie buff in love with cinema and the films featuring the many tough guys I came to idolize as a kid. Before the internet made it easy I began to focus on the credits and was pleased to see his name while watching films like Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954), Hell Is For Heroes (1962), The Killers (1964), Dirty Harry (1971, The Shootist (1976) and Telefon (1977). And then I find out he actually directed 1956’s classic sci-fi thriller, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which is most likely the first film I’d ever seen that he had directed though I didn’t know it at the time thanks to Mom introducing me to it on television as a youngster.
Be sure to see The Lineup for the director, the cast and the scenic locales of San Francisco and if you’re like me you’ll be reaching for the converter to freeze frame the picture when Jaeckel and company drive past the Nob Hill Theater to see what’s playing. Turns out it’s a first rate double bill. The billboard has Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant starring in An Affair to Remember followed by Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb in 12 Angry Men. Where’s my time machine!
The Lineup should be easy to locate as it’s been released on both DVD and blu ray. I caught it on blu ray via the excellent boxset from Indicator with Wallach on the box cover, Columbia Noir #1. It’s accompanied by the Noir titles, Escape In the Fog (1945), The Undercover Man (1949), Drive a Crooked Road (1954), 5 Against the House (1955) and The Garment Jungle (1957).
I love this movie, and as you say, they made absolutely the right call in concentrating on the criminal trio vs. the grim, grey cops. Eli Wallach apparently didn’t like the role at the time, thinking it might be a career killer, but recalled it more fondly years later. The local color of the Bay area is utilized to perfection!
Anytime we watch an older flick pre 1960 and are treated to a real location shoot is rare but often rewarding. It’s also a window to the past of many things that are no longer standing.
Mike, can you add my comment, seems I can’t. 🤔
“This is an ABSOLUTELY FANTASTIC and VERY hard-boiled crime drama with EXCELLENT and very brutal (totally ” unacceptable”, as wokes will say today) dialogue. I saw it on Youtube some 2 years ago and was surprised I’d never seen it before, tough I am also an admirer of Don Siegels work. Somehow it always escapted me. I will definitly re-watch it in some 2, 3 years.
This is one for the ages, a classic, and I would even go as far to call it a masterpiece due to its tight direction, superb acting, snappy dialogue, awesome photography and memorable on location-shooting.
A must-see, trust me.”
Snappy dialogue a good way to describe the interaction between Eli and Keith. A definite winner and worth tracking down for those unaware.
22:30 Eli and Keith discussing grammer (Eli reading a book about English grammar!!! a criminal interested in speaking better English … get that, LOL), 1:11:20 Keith about women, violence and society… and so on.
1:16:08: do not be rude if sitting in a wheelchair …
And the name: Dancer, wow!
´It is on YT, chanel “Old Time Movies”. Must-see!
Great film. Like you, I caught up with it when I first discovered Siegel. It’s the kind of film that would work well as a remake. Siegel always did well with his killers.
Yeah I could see this one as a remake and didn’t even think about it as I wrote this up but I guess Siegel kind of revisited this with Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager in 64’s The Killers.
Sorry to disagree, but I can not see this being remade in a watchable manner: just who would be able in todays woke Hollywood to do such a great job as DP …?? Crystal clear b/w photography … this would NOT work in “colour” … and you see, those are all white heterosexual males and females … most of them without values, conscience or morals …
I tried to watch John Wick 4 and turned it off after 5, 6 minutes … because it already started so utterly stupid … if they can not even do a hitman movie these days, which frankly does not require a lot of elaborate storytelling, then forget about ever seeing any watchable noir being made today …
Sure, everything can be re-made, but it would just be a run-of-the-mill shit like remakes usually are: see eg all the Death Wish re-makes (K. Bacon, B. Willis).
I enjoyed the first John Wick film but for me they have morphed into video games without me holding a controller. And I don’t play video games. Good point on the Death Wish example. The Bruce Willis version was ok as a straight action flick for today’s audiences but there is no overall impact that remains with us. The Bronson flick was a game changer for the genre at the time and the actor. Now we are just too desensitized to really experience a movie that can deliver that kind of cultural impact. Still there is always something around the corner from an up and coming filmmaker. I hope.
I’m saving up that one for a rainy night.