Friday, April 16, 2010

The Lineup

Don Siegel's The Lineup is an interesting noir with an unusual structure, starting with the cops investigating the death of a cop during a drug smuggling ploy gone wrong, then midway through making a pair of out-of-town killers the protagonists instead. The film's opening seconds are a burst of sheer adrenaline as a porter throws a piece of luggage into a cab, which promptly speeds away, crashes into a truck, runs over a cop, and finally crashes again, killing the driver. All this happens in a rush before the film's title appears onscreen, but after this the story slows to a crawl as inspectors Quine (Emile Meyer) and Asher (Marshall Reed) show up to investigate the aftermath. Their plodding, careful investigation never really kicks into gear: as passionate as they are about finding out who's responsible for the death of a fellow officer, their efforts reveal just how routine, how dull, real policework can be. There's a sense that Siegel is trying to infuse a certain realism into his film, capturing the forensics, the slow process of gathering evidence, the frustrations of not having any leads. Even the titular lineup is a disappointment, not to mention a red herring: their sole witness to the incident, Dressler (Raymond Bailey), can't identify the porter who stole his luggage, and the cops half-suspect that Dressler's not so innocent anyway. Moreover, the porter soon winds up dead anyway; this story isn't about him any more than it's about Dressler or the cops. Siegel shoots these scenes with panache — the lineup itself, taking place on a strikingly bright set, is visually compelling — but can't disguise the fact that realism, at times, is kind of boring.

That's why it's so thrilling when, without ceremony, Siegel discards the story of the frustrated cops and instead switches focus to new arrivals Dancer (Eli Wallach, in only his second feature film after his electric debut in Baby Doll) and Julian (Robert Keith). They are quite an unusual pair. Dancer is a sociopath, a killer who perhaps enjoys his job too much; he sneers and delivers a chilly, unhinged stare that unnerves anyone who's on the receiving end of it. Julian, in contrast, is an older man, cultured and reserved, who keeps Dancer just barely reined in. He is, as their wheelman Sandy (Richard Jaeckel) observes at one point, like a "coach" to Dancer, encouraging him and making sure he doesn't go overboard. He encourages Dancer to learn good grammar, too, saying that it's the route to success. He seems to be of a literary bent himself: he records the "famous last words" of Dancer's victims, gathering material for a book, a psychological study of those facing death. Obviously, these are two Hollywood bad guys, with stylized eccentricities and exaggerated menace; their portrayals rub uncomfortably up against the bland stolidness of the police in the earlier scenes. It's as though the film really comes alive once they step onto the scene, trading weird banter and radiating a nearly Lynchian menace; they would fit in comfortably as a pair of outlandish thugs in one of Lynch's films.

After these two killers are introduced, the film becomes about their attempts to gather some drug shipments that had been placed in various knick-knacks carried into the country by unsuspecting tourists. This is a contrivance of the first degree, a needlessly convoluted plot that provides the engine for Dancer and Julian's sinister shuttling around town. They visit their marks in sequence, with Dancer calmly going about the business of getting the drugs and killing anyone who gets in his way. There's a casual brutality to Dancer's rounds that makes him a very disconcerting figure, especially when juxtaposed against the professorly Julian.

Each of these sequences is meticulously designed. When Dancer goes to see a seaman (William Leslie) who knowingly brought in the heroin, the two meet in a sauna where Dancer turns up the steam so that he remains obscured, a shadowy silhouette drifting through the fog. Later, he shoots a house servant while stealing a set of flatware with heroin stored away in the handles, and the shooting is captured in a mirror, the servant stiffening, his body at an oblique angle to the diagonals of a stairway. Siegel has a sharp sense of place and location that constantly informs the film, which uses its San Francisco settings to dramatic effect. The characters are continually framed in closeups with the scenery looming behind and below them, hills and valleys majestically framing the characters. When Sandy first appears at a remote hotel where Dancer and Julian are staying, he is poised on the edge of a cliff leading down to a valley below, where clusters of geometrically rigid buildings create patterns in the background. As he walks up to the hotel, the pillars outside the rooms divide the background into slim rectangular sections receding into the distance. Siegel has a keen eye for such geometric patterns and divisions, like a window that segments the San Francisco skyline into semicircles and polygons as two cops discuss their case.

The final car chase is another perfect example. It's a thrilling sequence that relies on the geography of the terrain, particularly a highway under construction where the criminals, confused by their circular turns and the road blocks erected in their path, are forced to flee. The final showdown takes place on this road that ends literally in midair, overlooking a massive drop, and then in a narrow cul-de-sac where Siegel plays with perspective: at first the road looks like an entry to a freeway and a clean getaway, but then the path narrows down to a point and it's revealed as a dead end. Scenes like this, where the raging insanity of Dancer plays off of Siegel's fascinating visuals, make the film worthwhile far beyond its rather ramshackle plot and uneven pacing. At times, the script falters and plods. It is front-loaded with some dull and preachy speeches obviously designed to teach the public about the horrors of drug use and drug smuggling, and its psychological characterizations of Dancer are sometimes far too on-the-nose. At one point, when someone asks him what makes him "tick," he responds, apparently without irony, that he never knew his father, a pat explanation that hardly accounts for the psychosis in his character.

Maybe that's the point. Wallach's performance as Dancer is startling in its intensity and brutality, his eyes flashing with lunacy. It's a truly unhinged performance, one that makes a mockery of the script's periodic stabs at psychological profiling. Dancer's confrontation with the mysterious criminal leader known only as "The Man" (Vaughn Taylor) reveals what happens when Dancer slips off his leash, when he can no longer control his violence or his rage. When The Man, a quietly creepy figure in a wheelchair, refuses to give Dancer the validation he asks for, and instead gently insists that Dancer is now a dead man, the killer can't control himself, can't hold back the rage constantly boiling beneath the surface. Siegel subtly encloses Wallach's performance within the film's hard lines and rigid separations between foreground and background, suggesting that Dancer is raging and fighting against the entire world, against the bounds of society. There is no better metaphor, then, than that climactic sequence in which what had seemed to be an open road closes down to an unpassable trap, closing off all exit for the criminal who wishes to push his way outside of the law. There is no way out from here, nothing left to say, and it's appropriate that Siegel doesn't have anything more to say either: the cops leave the scene afterward in silence as the camera pans away to take in the skyline in the background.


Unknown said...

Love this film. Don Siegel really knew how to get fantastic performances out of his cast and directed with a refreshing economy of style.

Writer James Ellroy is a big fan of this film and his audio commentary for the DVD is hilarious and well worth a listen if you're a fan of his work and gruff, tough guy persona.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Certain aspects of this Siegel are revisited in different form in his teriffic The Killers (1964) with John Casssavetes, Lee Marvin, Clu Gulagher, Angie Dickinson and (in his last film performance) Ronald Reagan.

Ed Howard said...

All very true, J.D., the film has great performances and a crisp style that's striking without being particularly showy at all. I'll have to check out the commentary, I don't listen to those too often but I like a good, informative one.

David, I love Siegel's take on The Killers, too, probably even more than the Siodmak version. It's great and very harsh.