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Two professional killers, hired by a powerful heroin trafficker, arrive in San Francisco to track down three separate drug parcels that were recently smuggled into the country from Asia. One is in the possession of a merchant seaman who is aware of the contents, one is hidden in the suitcase of an unsuspecting married couple, and one is stashed inside a Japanese doll bought as a gift by a single mother for her young daughter. The deadly duo methodically locate and repossess the missing packets, eliminating any witnesses along the way, but soon encounter an unpredictable flaw in their mission when they finally corner the little girl and her mother and learn the fate of the third heroin packet. The surprising revelation proves their undoing and the hunters become the hunted.
As cold-blooded and efficient as its two central hitmen - Dancer (Eli Wallach) and his mentor, Julian (Robert Keith) - The Lineup (1958), directed by Don Siegel, is a departure from the film noirs of the forties with most of the action taking place in exotic locales in the glaring sunlight instead of atmospherically lit studio sets. The film is also a warm-up for Siegel's later remake of The Killers in 1964 in which two contract killers become too curious about "The Man" who hired them for the job and become liabilities. Siegel's The Killers was originally made for television but was released theatrically instead because of its violent content. The Lineup is no less brutal in its depiction of Dancer and Julian's methods, especially for the fifties, but it was actually inspired by the popular Dragnet-like TV series The Lineup, which ran from 1954 to 1960. Like the series, Siegel's film was set in San Francisco but it was a complete departure from the series format and only a few of the show's regular players were featured in the film with the focus clearly on the hired killers.
In his autobiography, A Siegel Film, the director recalls his struggle with the producers - Frank Cooper and Jaime Del Valle - over changing the title: "Frank Cooper was an agent who also put together deals - a deal-maker, not a picture-maker. Jaime Del Valle was strictly a television producer. Lineup was his first feature. I got him to hire Stirling Silliphant to write the screenplay. Stirling was enormously talented, with many years of experience. He not only wrote fast, he frequently wrote two scripts, for different producers, at the same time...We both felt strongly that it was a fatal mistake to use the title The Lineup. Most people would confuse it with the series, which they were seeing each week on TV. We felt a title like 'The Chase' would fit the picture and entice people into the theatre." Copper and Del Valle prevailed, however, saying that Columbia Studios had approved the title, believing that the successful TV series would guarantee an equal success for the feature film.
The Lineup is a prime example of Siegel's creative approach to the B-movie genre film which is what he specialized in until the early sixties when he graduated to A pictures such as Hell Is for Heroes (1962) and Madigan (1968). His skill at expertly staged action sequences was well known and the white knuckle finale to The Lineup is especially memorable. Siegel said, "I try to make escapes and chases as hairy as I can. A near-miss is more exciting than one that's too far. That chase was difficult and dangerous to do. Years later, when I returned to San Francisco to shoot Dirty Harry , a police sergeant came up to me and pointed at his grey hair, 'You did that to me when we worked with you on The Lineup. I'll never get over that chase. How we didn't kill anybody, I'll never know.' And I didn't know myself. The shot in which the car comes to a sudden stop at the edge of the unfinished freeway was no trick shot. There was a five-storey sheer drop. We were photographing the action from the fifth-storey window of the city's YMCA. The stuntman who drove the car, Guy Way, had to be part insane. His girlfriend, doubling the mother [in the film], was in the car with him. She was hysterical for days after the shot. Dick [Richard] Jaeckel was doubled by Way; the rest were doubled by other professional stuntpeople. There was no way we could protect them...Way knew what he was doing, but I was nervous as the San Francisco police. If a tyre blew, or he slid too fast, they were all dead."
When Siegel first screened a rough cut of the chase sequence without sound for Del Valle, however, the producer stunned him with his response, "Not very exciting, is it?" Siegel recalled, "I pulled myself together and realized I had made a stupid mistake. There was nothing wrong with the film. What was wrong was running it without any sound. I had the editor carefully cut in sound effects and occasionally dialogue, consisting of the mother and daughter screaming, Julian yelling and Dancer enjoying it, laughing maniacally. I ran it again for Del Valle. This time, when the lights came on, he shook my hand in congratulations. His palm was wet with sweat."
Just as memorable as the climactic car chase in The Lineup is Eli Wallach's chilling portrayal of Dancer, a role that he had reservations about accepting and later regretted. In his autobiography, The Good, the Bad and Me, Wallach recalled "I first met Siegel at the plush Columbia Pictures office in New York, where he told me he wanted me to play the role of Dancer, a sadistic professional killer..."The guy has to kill five people in one day," I said. "That's not for me; I'm not that sadistic." "Oh, it's only a movie," he said. "Besides, you'll enjoy San Francisco." "All right, "I said, then added as a joke, "But I want ten grand a killing."
Wallach, who was primarily a stage and television actor at this point in his career, had only appeared in one film prior to The Lineup and it was Baby Doll (1956), directed by the great Elia Kazan. Siegel stated in a later interview that he believed The Lineup "was quite a come-down for him [Wallach]. He couldn't believe the pace of our shooting, he couldn't believe it could possibly be any good. He had just finished working with Elia Kazan. We're about as far apart as two directors can be, if for no other reason than Elia can afford to take his time and I can't."
Wallach confirmed Siegel's observations, writing in his autobiography: "During the filming, I wasn't happy and he sensed it. I felt I'd made a Faustian deal. I was compromising. The money seemed more important than the challenge of acting in a worthwhile project." When Wallach later attended the premiere of The Lineup with his wife, actress Anne Jackson, he was particularly put off by the scene in which he terrorizes the little girl and her mother. "I want that doll!" I snarled, and the child began to cry. I opened my attach case - click! click! And as I reached in to get the gun, Anne whispered, "If you shoot that woman, I'll never talk to you again." "I've had it!" I thought. Did making movies mean that I would only play villains - a vengeful Sicilian [in Baby Doll], a hired killer? "Why am I playing these oddball characters?" I wondered. A good Catholic sees his priest and confesses. Even as a non-Catholic I had to find a way to atone for my behavior."
Siegel's initial fears that the film's title would hurt its box office potential proved to be true and The Lineup generated very few ticket sales and was dismissed by most critics as an undistinguished crime drama. Despite Wallach's low opinion of the film, The Lineup is now acknowledged by such respected film scholars as David Thomson to be "very influential" in the development of the noir genre and Blake Lucas in the reference work Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style wrote that "the final chase, although half of it takes place before a back-projection screen, is more visually precise than many spectacular chases in recent films."
Producer: Jaime Del Valle
Director: Don Siegel
Screenplay: Stirling Silliphant
Cinematography: Hal Mohr
Film Editing: Al Clark
Art Direction: Ross Bellah
Music: Mischa Bakaleinikoff
Cast: Eli Wallach (Dancer), Robert Keith (Julian), Warner Anderson (Lt. Ben Guthrie), Richard Jaeckel (Sandy McLain), Mary LaRoche (Dorothy Bradshaw), William Leslie (Larry Warner).
by Jeff Stafford
A Siegel Film: An Autobiography by Don Siegel
The Good, the Bad and Me by Eli Wallach
Underworld USA by Colin McArthur
Who the Devil Made It? by Peter Bogdanovich
Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style edited by Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward