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.