Tuesday 16 January 2018

The Lineup (1958)

Director: Don Siegel
Writer: Stirling Silliphant
Stars: Eli Wallach, Robert Keith and Warner Anderson

Index: 2018 Centennials.

It would be difficult to make films without actors, but the people behind the screen are just as important. My centennial reviews in 2016 began with a director, Masaki Kobayashi, and the first notable centennial of 2018 is of a writer, Stirling Silliphant. It would be easy to pluck out famous titles from his career because it’s hardly lacking them. The most obvious would be 1968’s In the Heat of the Night, which won him an Oscar and the first of two back-to-back Golden Globes; the second was for Charly, his adaptation of Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. He was often nominated for awards: The Slender Thread and The Towering Inferno also received Golden Globe nods, Telefon was nominated for an Edgar and Village of the Damned was up for a Hugo, not just once but twice. However, each of those worthy screenplays was an adaptation of someone else’s material: usually novels but, in the case of The Slender Thread, an article in Life magazine. His script for The Towering Inferno was based on two entirely unrelated novels, blurred together.

So Silliphant was very good at adapting existing works into new ones, but that wasn’t all that he did. Hilariously, given that he had a consistently strong career, full of quality films, I first wrote about him in my review of perhaps the worst feature ever made. No, he didn’t write Manos: The Hands of Fate, but he did directly prompt its creation by betting an El Paso fertiliser salesman, Harold P. Warren, that he couldn’t make and exhibit a feature film. Warren did and so Silliphant lost that bet, but the results were not good, to say the least. Even the execrable contributions to film of Robert Silliphant, Stirling’s brother, were better than that and he was the writer behind The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!? Oh, and he wrote the story that became The Creeping Terror too. I wonder what it must have been like over at the Silliphants at Thanksgiving, with Stirling talking about his award nominations and Robert talking about what he’d just done for Ray Dennis Steckler.

Silliphant wasn’t only known for his film work. He started out as a publicity director for Walt Disney, but was fired when his ideas for The Mickey Mouse Club weren’t as successful as the company had hoped. He did find great success on television though, not least as the creator or co-creator of a number of famous shows, including Naked City, Route 66 (with Herbert B. Leonard) and Longstreet, a fascinating seventies show starring James Franciscus as a blind insurance investigator. The first episode of that show co-starred an iconic name to us today, Bruce Lee, with whom Silliphant studied martial arts later in the decade; Lee had also appeared in the film Marlowe, which Silliphant had written, and he would go on to appear in three further episodes of Longstreet. They also collaborated with James Coburn on a feature written as The Silent Flute and released as Circle of Iron five years after Lee’s death. In total, he wrote 700 hours of primetime television, over 40 feature films or TV movies and over 50 books. He was a prolific but consistent writer.

I chose to remember Stirling Silliphant through The Lineup, a 1958 feature which I first saw when author James Ellroy screened it as a guest presenter on TCM. It’s an adaptation of sorts, given that it was based on a successful TV show of the same name, which ran from 1954 to 1960 and so was still on the air when this feature length take was released to theatres. In fact, the TV show was, in turn, also an adaptation, of the radio show which ran from 1950 to 1953, again with the same title. However, Silliphant wrote a completely original screenplay, retaining only the title of the show which inspired it, its lead character and, inevitably, a police line-up. That the latter has little bearing on the rest of the movie isn’t particularly important and this can easily be watched on its own merits, entirely in isolation from what had gone before, even with Warner Anderson reprising his TV role as Lt. Ben Guthrie of the San Francisco Police Department. His co-star, Tom Tully, didn’t appear here, replaced by Emile Meyer as Insp. Al Quine.

The Lineup is an underrated and underseen feature that remains notable today for a number of reasons, Silliphant being but one. It was directed by Don Siegel, long before his collaborations with Clint Eastwood, when he was a director for hire, doing more with a set of limitations than most would have managed. He must have been happy to be working with a writer of Silliphant’s stature and it’s supposedly Siegel who fought for the story to be told as much from the perspective of the criminals on show as the cops trying to catch them, even though the show and the film both proudly proclaimed to be made with the cooperation of the SFPD, with the former supposedly based on real life cases. On television, The Lineup was an attempt to capture some of the success of Dragnet, still perhaps the quintessential police procedural show. Both shows told their stories from the perspectives of the men in blue (well, as blue as they could be in black and white) as they solved their cases. Siegel took this film in an impressively different direction.

The star is Eli Wallach, in only his second feature film. He earned a few television credits in the early fifties but he exploded onto the big screen in 1956’s Baby Doll, third billed in an Elia Kazan film written by Tennessee Williams, and he followed it up with this. It has been said that he was confrontational because he saw this as a routine thriller, but gradually came around when he realised the quality in the writing, especially of his character. He plays Dancer, a psychopathic criminal, who’s being groomed by an older man, Julian, to be highly successful. Robert Keith effortlessly steals our attention as Julian, with his big eyes and odd pastimes (he collects last words but never in person), but we can never quite let Wallach be. He tries to be anonymous, a key asset for a killer, but he fails because he’s not good socially and he gets nervous and awkward. There’s a scene where he walks through an arcade but somehow comes across like an alien in a human being suit, trying to be nonchalant but being all the more notable for failing.

We spend much of the film with Dancer and Julian, along with their new driver, Sandy McLain, played by a young Richard Jaeckel. He’s on board because ‘Lefty’ Jenkins, their initial driver, played by Guy Way, the film’s stuntman and prolific screen heavy, dies in the spectacular opening scene, whose mystery sets up the film. A porter at Port 41 in San Francisco throws a suitcase into a yellow cab and Lefty heads off at a real clip. Distracted, he crashes into the side of a truck. Then he mows down a cop, who manages to get one shot off before dying in the street. That shot is a good one, so Lefty bites it too and is already dead when he crashes again into some sort of rolling stock on the train tracks. Lt. Ben Guthrie and Insp. Al Quine are soon on the scene and they find that the bag is the property of Philip Dressler, a big shot at the local opera company, and it contains items he recently picked up in Hong Kong. He has no idea why anyone would want to steal it and he tries but fails to identify the porter in the one and only lineup in the film.

Crime labs sure have changed since 1958, if primetime television has anything to say about it. The SFPD’s lab sure ain’t CSI, but it’s believably authentic and it figures out the first half of the mystery. One of Dressler’s statues shows up as hollow under special light and there’s something inside: a bag containing a quarter kilo of uncut heroin. All these scenes are believable, whether they feature our cop heroes visiting Dressler to figure out if he’s in on the scheme or the US Customs House to be told just how much traffic San Francisco gets. With four hundred ships a month and a million people a year, the official poses a fair question: ‘Where do you look when every tourist is a potential runner?’ And, of course, that’s what we have here. The crooks are stuffing drugs into objects they put into the hands of sailors or regular passengers, without them knowing what they have, then sending Dancer to steal them back in the US. It’s a good scheme and Silliphant’s treatment of it is backed up by technical advice from Insp. John Kane of the SFPD.

Everything is strong here except perhaps some of the rear projection work, which isn’t hard to recognise. It’s the only flaw in the opening scene and it’s there during the big chase towards the end, though it’s less problematic there. The cinematography is good, courtesy of Hal Mohr, who had already won his pair of Oscars, for A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the 1943 version of Phantom of the Opera. It’s not flashy but it is effective, with a few really notable shots that stand out. One in particular comes at the Sanders place, where Dancer goes to steal the chest of flatware that Mr. Sanders doesn’t know has heroin stuffed into all its handles. His Chinese servant runs out of frame to wake his boss, only for Dancer to shoot him dead at the exact moment he gets far enough up the stairs to be visible in a mirror. It’s beautifully done. The music is good, courtesy of the uncredited Mischa Bakaleinikoff, towards the end of a stellar career that saw his scores for over sixty Columbia pictures reused as stock music in hundreds of others.

The editing is good, courtesy of another Columbia veteran, Al Clark, who had three Oscar nominations behind him and two more imminent. He often cuts scenes as if this was a B movie with a running time of seventy minutes or less, but that no nonsense take on the material works just as well at ninety minutes, keeping us on the hop and never letting up. It fairly reflects the attitudes of the cops at the heart of the picture too. Everyone here is no nonsense, except the crooks, who should be. And the acting is good, the stars not huge names at the time but respected veterans or capable newcomers whose fame was rising. Two pictures on for Eli Wallach would be The Magnificent Seven, billed above everyone except Yul Brynner. Richard Jaeckel, who never seemed to age, had just made 3:10 to Yuma. Notable to me was twelve year old Cheryl Callaway, who is very believably distraught when Dancer rips her Japanese doll apart in front of her eyes. Surprisingly, this was her last of ten features but she continued her career on television.

The direction is good too, with Siegel demonstrating once again how to do a lot with a little. He may well have had a lot to do with the location choices, which are more than good. The film uses a number of San Francisco landmarks to good effect, many of which are no longer there, because of damage caused by the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, like the Steinhart Aquarium, the De Young Museum and the Embarcadero Freeway. The Sutro Baths, an incredible location, were already gone, having burned down in 1966. Perhaps most notable today are the scenes shot on the Embarcadero Freeway, which was under construction at the time. I’m sure that you’ve seen many a movie car chase that ends up on a freeway to nowhere because the road isn’t finished yet. Well, this one is one of the first, if not the first, because the United States freeway system wasn’t authorised until June 1956 and this picture was on screens in 1958. Whether this was due to Siegel or Silliphant, it’s great to see where a time honoured cliché may have begun.

And we have to work our way back to Silliphant, who would have been one hundred years old today. His most memorable scripts, from Village of the Damned and In the Heat of the Night in the sixties to The Poseidon Adventure and The Enforcer in the seventies and, of all things, Over the Top in the eighties, were usually commercial and critical successes that audiences still claim as reference points today. Behind the most famous films, though, are a collection of underrated gems and not just on the big screen either. Nightfall is as underrated an early Silliphant as The Lineup and, if he hadn’t died in 1996, he’d surely be recommending his television work, on many different shows. He’d probably call out his eleven episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and long runs of Naked City, Route 66 and Longstreet. In fact, Wikipedia suggests that he was quoted as saying that some of his scripts for Naked City were better than the one that brought him his Oscar, but I’m not seeing a citation. It would be a great thing to quote, if it is indeed real.

Perhaps his most prominent talent was his use of dialogue, often in scenes of confrontation. His most famous exchange, of course, was delivered by Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night. "Virgil? That’s a funny name for a nigger boy that comes from Philadelphia," sneers Steiger as a racist southern police chief. "What do they call you up there?" Poitier, a cop himself, but of colour, replies, "They call me MISTER Tibbs!", a line so dynamic it became the title of the film’s sequel. There’s fantastic dialogue in The Lineup too when Sandy McLain talks off the cuff about Dancer. "I knew a guy like him once," he mutters and Julian snaps back at him: "No you didn’t. There’s never been a guy like Dancer. He’s a wonderful, pure pathological study. He’s a psychopath with no inhibitions." As Julian, Robert Keith gets many of the best lines, such as this subtle example to justify Dancer’s brutality: "When you live outside the law, you have to eliminate dishonesty." Even Bob Dylan borrowed that one.

And, sadly, it’s mostly in odd ways like that that this film lives on. Another suggestion is that Joe Pesci borrowed his persona from Eli Wallach here, especially for his more brutal roles for Martin Scorsese. There are vague similarities in appearance but they get much closer when Dancer’s enthusiasm lights up at inappropriate moments, like when Sanders’s Chinese servant won’t let him at the flatware he’s come to collect. He knows that it’s going to prompt the man’s death and his eyes start to gleam. In moments like that, it’s hard to see him as Eli Wallach and not Joe Pesci. At least this movie can still be seen though. The TV show on which it was based ran for 201 episodes, one of which was nominated for a primetime Emmy. However, I could only track down 8 of the 17 that seem to be circulating on the grey market. The preceding radio show ran for 130 episodes and only 64 of those are extant, though the community working to preserve old time radio is seriously dedicated. Sometimes we film buffs don’t realise our luck.

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