Tuesday, October 9, 2007

“When you live outside the law you have to eliminate dishonesty…” – Julian (Robert Keith), The Lineup (1958/Columbia)

One of my earliest posts here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear was an essay on The Lineup, a CBS radio series that premiered on July 6, 1950 as an imitator of the then-popular police procedural Dragnet and lasted on the air until February 20, 1953.  Scripted by future film director Blake Edwards (who also created Richard Diamond, Private Detective for actor-crooner Dick Powell), the series starred OTR stalwart Bill Johnstone as Lt. Ben Guthrie and Wally Maher as Sgt. Matt Grebb (previously played by Joseph Kearns).  Lineup differed from Dragnet only in that its dramatized cases were mostly fictional, compared to Jack Webb’s “liberation” of actual police files from the L.A.P.D.

The Lineup was one of a handful of CBS radio series that made the successful transition to television, premiering October 1, 1954 with Warner Anderson taking over for Johnstone as Guthrie and Tom Tully pinch-hitting for Maher as Grebb (who had since been promoted to Inspector).  A third character, Inspector Fred Asher (Marshall Reed), was also added to “the lineup,” and the series had a home at 10:00pm on CBS’ Friday night schedule for five seasons before being expanded to an hour in the fall of 1959 on Wednesdays.  Tully and Reed got their pink slips, and a new cast joined Anderson: William Leslie as Insp. Dan Delaney, Tod Barton as Insp. Charlie Summers (that name sounds familiar), Skip Ward as Officer Pete Larkin and Rachel Ames as Policewoman Sandy McAllister.  Whether it was the brand-new cast or brand-new time slot—or simply that the series had worn out its welcome—the changes did little to keep the program on the air, and The Lineup left CBS-TV on January 20, 1960.  It was syndicated soon afterward; its name changed to San Francisco Beat.

During its stint on CBS, someone got the idea to produce a theatrical version of the series, a B-picture that has acquired a sizeable cult following due to its crisp, no-nonsense direction by the legendary Don Siegel (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dirty Harry) and suspenseful Naked City-type script by Sterling Silliphant (In the Heat of the Night).  Indeed, The Lineup starts off with a bang: the audience is taken to a pier where boat passengers are disembarking when a porter swipes a grip from art dealer Philip Dressler (Raymond Bailey, sans his Milton Drysdale toupee), throws it into the back of a waiting cab, and the cab heads off for points unknown.  The cabbie fails to see a large truck backing out in his path and he rams into it, causing the truck’s driver to exit his vehicle to start the usual “Why don’t you look where you’re going” brouhaha.  The cabbie drives around the truck, and plows right into a beat cop who’s motioning for him to stop—and as the cop’s body hits the ground he manages to get off a shot that hits the cab driver and causes him to ram into the back car of a stationary train.

Lt. Guthrie (Anderson) and Insp. Al Quine (Emile Meyer—apparently Tom Tully wasn’t available to reprise his TV role as Grebb) are curious as to why the fuss over a simple suitcase has resulted in two deaths—and soon learn that a statue inside Dressler’s case is the hiding place for a nice little stash of heroin.  A narcotics smuggling ring is operating in Frisco, whereupon innocent tourists have smack planted on them and then are relieved of their cargo once they’ve left the boat.  That confiscation job falls to a pair of hoods played by Robert Keith and Eli Wallach; Wallach is the gunman described by his mentor (Keith) as “a wonderful, pure pathological study…a psychopath with no inhibitions.”  (Maybe so, but Keith comes across as a pretty creepy customer, too—particularly his habit of writing down the last words of dying individuals in a little notebook.)  Keith and Wallach (and wheelman Richard Jaeckel) have to obtain three parcels of heroin from three separate passengers and have it ready at a checkpoint before 2:00pm.

I had seen The Lineup one time before, and to give you an idea of how long it’s been it was on a television station that interrupted the movie with commercials.  I’ve come to appreciate it a little more with a second viewing, though I’m still not certain why it’s held in such high regard by cultists—there are an awful lot of slow spots in the film (primarily the scenes in which the cops appear…when your villains are more interesting than the law you’re bound to have trouble) and many of its memorable moments and ideas have been cribbed from earlier noir movies (T-Men, Kiss of Death, The Lady from Shanghai, etc.).  It does have a wild climactic chase that kicks in around the seventy-six minute mark, and the performances (particularly Wallach and Keith) are first-rate; my biggest delight while watching the film was recognizing right off the actor who plays Wallach’s contact as Bob Bailey, a.k.a. Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar (his voice was a dead giveaway).  (Jack “Rocky Jordan” Moyles has a bit part in this one, too, as a steam room attendant.)  My copy of The Lineup came courtesy of Five Minutes to Live, which is a nice site to locate hard-to-find noirs. 

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