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The Killer Is Loose

The Killer Is Loose(1956)

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teaser The Killer Is Loose (1956)

Cult director Budd Boetticher is usually associated with the seven Westerns he made with Randolph Scott, beginning with Seven Men From Now (1956) and ending with Comanche Station (1960). Just before these classic adventures of the old west, Boetticher directed a dark tale of justice and revenge set in the modern west, The Killer Is Loose (1956).

When robbers invade a bank, mild-mannered, bespectacled teller Leon Poole tries and fails to stop them from escaping. He seems like a hero at first, but Detective Sam Wagner (Joseph Cotten) quickly discovers he was the inside man on the job. Attempting to arrest Poole, Wagner accidentally shoots and kills his suspect's wife. As Poole is led off to prison after his trial, he vows to seek his revenge. A couple of years later, he escapes. His target is not the detective, but his wife Lila (Rhonda Fleming) as he plans to inflict on Wagner the same pain he is suffering. Taken from a Saturday Evening Post story, this straightforward revenge thriller would later be mirrored in two much more intense film noirs - the two versions of Cape Fear (1962 & 1991). However, Boetticher and his cast manage to give The Killer Is Loose a decidedly offbeat edge which climaxes with Poole disguising himself as a woman to accomplish his goal.

Wendell Corey, probably best known to movie lovers as James Stewart's skeptical detective friend in Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954), gives what may be the best performance of his career as the killer Leon Poole. Derided during the war as "Foggy" for his thick glasses, Poole is an utter milquetoast, the sort of person who is usually a victim of crime in movies, not a perpetrator. Corey plays Poole as perpetually cowed, using a soft voice even when threatening others with death. It's a tightrope performance that has audiences sympathizing with him and, at the same time, being repulsed by his twisted logic and heinous behavior.

To further complicate the mixed emotions of the viewers, the potential victim, Wagner's wife Lila, is utterly unlikable. Always fearful of her husband's safety, she demands he leave the police work he loves for a desk job, selfishly arguing that he let other policemen take the risks. Wagner goes through elaborate charades to keep her from discovering the danger that faces them both. Well before the end, viewers will have lost patience and feel Wagner might be better off without her.

Boetticher uses his locales for a number of unsettling effects. A brightly lit, bland Southern California street becomes the setting for a robbery, a typically suburban kitchen of the 50's a scene for terror and murder, and a residential neighborhood a tense lookout filled with hidden policeman scanning the neighborhood foot traffic for signs of sinister intent. Cinematographer Lucien Ballard, who later that year would shoot Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956), contributed greatly to the look and feel of the film.

The Killer Is Loose was a quickly produced B-picture with a grade B plot but Boetticher and his actors infuse it with enough twists to make the movie interesting. If he had not immediately turned to directing Randolph Scott riding tall in the saddle, Boetticher could still have made a name for himself creating thrillers like this.

Producer: Robert L. Jacks
Director: Budd Boetticher
Screenplay: Harold Medford, based on a story by John Hawkins and Ward Hawkins
Art Direction: Leslie Thomas
Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Original Music: Lionel Newman
Film Editing: George Gittens
Set Decoration: Morris Hoffman
Costume Design: William Sarris
Principal Cast: Joseph Cotten (Det. Sam Wagner), Rhonda Fleming (Lila Wagner), Wendell Corey (Leon Poole), Alan Hale, Jr. (Denny), Michael Pate (Det. Chris Gillespie), John Larch (Otto Flanders), Dee J. Thompson (Grace Flanders)
BW-73 min.

By Brian Cady

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