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The Lineup (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on July 8, 2012

A movie doesn’t have to be perfect to be great.  The Lineup is not a perfect noir.  Taking place entirely in the daytime, it lacks the rich chiaroscuro lighting associated with the genre.  There’s no femme fatale.  It utterly lacks moral ambiguity, with absolutely clear demarcations between the good guys and the bad guys, the guilty and the innocent.  And the heroin smuggling scheme these guys have concocted is absurd.

It’s not a perfect noir.  But it is a great one.  Largely because of the film’s two primary villains.  On the one hand, you have Dancer (Eli Wallach), a sociopathic, psychotic fella who can charm his way into any situation and shoot his way out.  And then there’s Julian (Robert Keith), the older veteran with words of wisdom, a cool head in the middle of a crisis, and a little notebook where he records victims’ last words.  These guys have a riveting, nutty dynamic.  Julian serves as Dancer’s mentor, and when they’re not in the process of collecting junk from unsuspecting mules, they’re sharpening Dancer’s grammar.  Julian’s a father figure… but what he doesn’t realize is that when the heat is really on, Dancer’s daddy issues come to the fore in a big way.

Even the routine police procedural stuff at the beginning of the film (it’s about 20 minutes before we meet Dancer and Julian) is reasonably entertaining, with enjoyable cop performances by Marshall Reed and especially Emile Meyer.  Sure, the film only really gets cooking when Wallach and Keith are onscreen, but the policework is compelling enough to keep things chugging along.  And the use of San Francisco locations is dynamite.  The evil lurks among the innocent pleasures of an aquarium or a skating rink.  It seeps into majestic opera houses.  It careens through the city streets in one of the great cinematic car chases.  If the movie lacks the characteristic high-contrast photography, it still looks beautifully composed against the city’s locations, and it also contains some impressive tracking shots.

The film’s acts of violence are unique, intense, shocking and gripping.  The first couple of minutes catch your attention, a burst of sudden vehicular manslaughter right out the gate.  I won’t spoil the others.  Of course, it ends as all noirs must, with the bad guys getting their due.  Few get it in such spectacular fashion.  The time I’ve spent with these nasties has been so enjoyably twisted, it makes me immediately want to watch the whole thing again.  Rating: Masterpiece (96)


3 Responses to “The Lineup (rewatch)”

  1. JC said

    Just finished watching this one.. fantastic film even with those issues that this film lacks. I love the film’s focus shift onto the villains Dancer & Julian and makes for great storytelling. What I noticed most is the locations – the opera house as they scream down the hall at a janitor and walk through the large hallways, the steamroom, the skating rink, and the highways.

  2. […] 118. The Lineup (1958, Don Siegel) […]

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