Friday, July 4th, 2008

Year: 1958

Director: Don Siegel

Cast: Eli Wallach, Robert Keith, Richard Jaeckel

Before moving on to the “A” list and making classic actions films like, Charley Varrick, Madigan, and being a mentor to a fledging director named Clint Eastwood, Don Siegel was a “B” film director. He made classic “B” films like Riot in Cell Block 11, Baby Face Nelson, The Killers, and a little science fiction classic called Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The Lineup fits neatly into the “B” category. Based on a TV series that ran for six years back in the 1950’s The Lineup is an action packed thriller. The TV show, like the movie, was filmed on the streets of San Francisco and was a precursor to latter San Francisco cop shows like The Streets of San Francisco. The show starred Warren Anderson as Detective Ben Guthrie and Marshall Reed as Inspector Fred Asher, both, recreating their roles in the movie, though Reed’s role is small in the movie. According to his autobiography, “A Siegel Film” he also directed the pilot for the TV show.

A porter tosses a disembarking ship passenger’s luggage through the open window of a waiting taxi. The taxi quickly speeds of f along the San Francisco docks crashing into a truck before hitting a police officer. Before dying, the cop shoots the cab driver. All this happens before the opening credits role in this early Don Siegel action thriller. After the credits finish, two police inspectors Ben Guthrie (Warren Anderson) and Al Quine (Emile Meyer) arrive to investigate the scene. They find a gun and a syringe lying next to the dead body. The police confiscate the stolen luggage and back at the station, find a hollow Chinese sculpture stuffed with a bag of pure heroin. The police conclude the local mob is using innocent unsuspecting businessmen and tourists to smuggle heroin into the country.

To ensure safe delivery of the remaining smuggled drugs, the mob brings in Dancer (Eli Wallach), a psychotic crazed killer, and his partner and mentor, Julian (Robert Keith) from Miami, to retrieve the remaining three heroin packages. The first two jobs go smoothly, at least for Dancer, though not so well for the two carriers. The third pickup turns out to be more of a problem. It involves a mother and a young daughter who have come to San Francisco in hopes of reconciling with their husband/father. The package of heroin is hidden inside a Chinese doll the young girl’s mother purchased for her in Hong Kong. While on the ship, the little girl found the package and used it to powder the doll’s face. By the time they were stateside the heroin was all gone. Dancer, ever trigger-happy is ready to shoot the two however Julian, the more level headed of the two, explains that their employer may not understand or believe what has really happened here. He may think they are trying to cheat him and subsequently he and Dancer could become the hunted instead of the hunters. They decide to forcible bring the mother and child to “The Man” to help them explain what happened. They meet at an ice skating rink, which was originally the location for the final drop off for the exchange of heroin and money. Unfortunately, The Man does not understand. Wheelchair bound, he sits there as Dancer explains what happened. Finally, he says, “You’re dead.” Dancer continues trying to explain but “The Man” tells him “No one has ever seen me. You’re dead!” Enraged, out of control Dancer pushes the wheelchair bound drug lord off the balcony of the ice skating rink plunging to his death…on ice, a scene reminiscent of “Kiss of Death with Richard Widmark. In the meantime, the police have been following Dancer’s deadly trail and slowly have been closing in on him and Julian. The film ends with an exciting car chase through the streets and highways of San Francisco cumulating a thrilling and deadly finish.

Siegel moves smoothly back and forth between the police investigation scenes and the criminals. The police scenes are standard 1950’s TV fare, flatly filmed and rather dull. The two police inspectors seem a little too old for the job and very Jack Webb like in their roles. Much better and holding up well are the crime scenes where most of the action is. Credit this to Siegel who started out doing montage sequences at Warner Brothers. Acting honors go to Eli Wallach, Robert Keith and Richard Jaeckel who are all very good in their roles as Dancer, Julian, who seems to have a disdain for women, and MacLain, their professional getaway driver, with a drinking problem, who in the end is the reason they get trapped. However, it is Wallach who is the stand out as Dancer, an unrefined, short-tempered psychopathic killer. The Lineup was only his second film. He first appeared as the Italian husband in the Elia Kazan/Tennessee Williams film Baby Doll. Wallach would go on to have a great career and today is best remembered for his roles as Calvera the Mexican bandit in The Magnificent Seven and Tuco in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

Shot on location, historic scenes of San Francisco are plentiful. Siegel would return to San Francisco some thirteen years or so later with a little film called Dirty Harry. Though many of his films are or have been available on home video, some important ones remain unavailable. Baby Face Nelson, Riot in Cell Block 11, Crime in the Streets are among some of his best and among the missing in the home video market. Writer Stirling Silliphant, best known for The Poseidon Adventure, In the Heat of the Night and The Towering Inferno, wrote the screenplay.

The Man in Possession (1931) and Personal Property (1937)

The Story: Raymond Dabney returns to his family after serving a prison term. His adoring mother welcomes him back with open arms, but his uptight father and brother Claude want to pay him to leave town. Raymond refuses the insulting offer and stumbles into a job working for the sheriff as a man in possession, assigned to the home of socialite Crystal Weatherby. Crystal is formerly wealthy, but has fallen on hard times after the death of her husband and cannot pay her bills, so Raymond must stay at her house and make sure she doesn’t try to sell any of her possessions. Crystal, meanwhile, is attempting to marry a rich man who can take care of her problems.

The fundamental difference between these films comes down to the times in which they were made. Six years may not seem like that much of a difference, but in terms of filmmaking it’s an enormous difference. The Man In Possession was made in the middle of the pre-code era, when a story about a morally questionable man staying alone in a big house with a sexy socialite could flourish. In 1937, the production code was being strictly enforced, and so many possibilities for this story are simply not allowed.

The Man In Possession….. Directed by Sam Wood
Robert Montgomery, Charlotte Greenwood, Irene Purcell, C.Aubrey Smith, Reginald Denny, Alan Mowbry

Robert Montgomery is cast as Raymond, and there’s nobody who could have played the role better. He was the best actor of the era. He had a huge range, but he seemed to delight in playing these kinds of roles – sexually charged, morally questionable, but ultimately decent and incredibly romantic men. He rules the role with a special gleam in his eye. He’s sexy, he’s mischievous, and we can tell from the very beginning that no lady would stand a chance resisting him. He’s not at all intimidating, though. He’s charming, and as the film goes on he becomes more and more romantic.

Irene Purcell is his leading lady. Purcell was a stage actress, and she made less than 10 films (and only a few of note). But she’s really a delightful actress. She has a quality that makes her perfect for Crystal in a way no other actress could be. She doesn’t feel like a movie star, which makes her more believable and likeable as social climbing schemer. Actresses like Joan Crawford or Constance Bennett could have played the role, but not as convincingly as Purcell. Crystal is a really unique character. She’s classy in a way, but it’s a feigned class. Like Montgomery, there’s a little gleam in her eye. She’s just coarse enough to be his perfect match.

The Man In Possession uses its pre-code status to perfect advantage. Like I said before, it’s a story that’s tailor-made for the era. These two beautiful, mischievous people spending the night in a house alone together? How can that be anything else but a pre-code set up. Their chemistry alone in scenes where they’re simply verbally sparring almost seems indecent. And then there’s the sex. It’s some of the most blatant I’ve ever seen in classic film. Obviously, it’s not an explicit sex scene, but it’s more than implied with the two of them kissing, falling back on the couch, the light turning off, and Crystal sighing Raymond’s name. And then, if there was any doubt about what happened, the next morning the maid finds Crystal’s nightgown at the end of the bed. Ripped in half.

But beyond the pre-code goodness, it’s just a great romance because of the chemistry between Montgomery and Purcell. They don’t just have sexual chemistry. They fell like two souls who are perfectly matched. It’s more than sex. It’s completely believable that in the span of one night together the two have fallen completely in love. That’s why the film works so well. It’s more than just a fun sex romp. It’s a wonderful love story.

Personal Property
……. Directed by WS Van Dyke
Jean Harlow, Robert Taylor, Reginald Owen, Una O’Conner

Robert Taylor doesn’t really fit into the role of Raymond. He’s incredibly handsome, and he has a certain sex appeal to him, but not really the kind that the character needs. Try as he might, Taylor never seems like he can really be a bad boy criminal, at least not in this point in his career. In the 1940s, he created a fantastic gangster in Johnny Eager, but obviously in 1937 his talent hadn’t really evolved past the handsome good guy leading man roles. He never pulls off the mischievousness that is the main characteristic of Raymond. Nor does he really pull of that raw sexuality that initially draws Crystal to him in the first place.

I adore Jean Harlow, but she isn’t right for the role of Crystal either. Harlow was a wonderful actress with a huge range, and it seems like she should be able to play Crystal, perhaps as a lighter version of her Dinner at Eight character. But somehow in this film she doesn’t find the proper balance that the character needs between crass gold digger and romantic heroine. Most of the time she simply comes off as too unlikable and completely without class. It’s such an odd performance, because Harlow was one of the sexiest, most charismatic actresses of her time, but here she is neither charismatic nor sexy.

Of course, the biggest flaw of Personal Property is that it’s not a pre-code film. It’s kind of baffling that anyone would think it was a good idea to make this story into a movie during enforcement, and it’s a little baffling that the Hays Office would even allow the story to be made. What results is one of the most ridiculously tame films that’s just huge film of untapped potential, and the whole thing just feels completely off.

Perhaps some of the film could have been saved had Taylor and Harlow had the chemistry to at least make this a decent love story. You’d think that two such beautiful people would have better chemistry, but there’s absolutely none there. It’s impossible to believe these two are even attracted to each other, much less falling in love with each other. It seems possible that they don’t even like each other. Personal Property doesn’t work as a sex romp, it doesn’t work as a romantic comedy. It doesn’t work at all.

By Katie Richardson