The villains and the final chase scene in The Lineup (1958) are unforgettable, as are the movie’s iconic San Francisco locations.
Two gangsters are smuggling heroin into San Francisco, hidden in the bags of unsuspecting cruise ship passengers. When a shipment isn’t where it’s supposed to be (in a girl’s doll), the gangsters take the doll’s owner (Cindy Calloway) and her mother (Mary LaRoche) hostage and then try to hunt down the contraband in San Francisco’s underground. Will the crooks find the junk? Will they harm the hostages? Will the cops find them first? The suspense builds until the man hunt turns into a spectacular chase through San Francisco.
The bad guys, Julian (Robert Keith) and Dancer (Eli Wallach), really set The Lineup apart from other crime dramas of the period. Julian is ruthless, but always controlled and strategic. One of the most self-aware villains in cinema history, Julian says things like, “Crying’s aggressive and so’s the law. Ordinary people of your class, you don’t understand the criminal’s need for violence.” He describes his partner Dancer as “a wonderful, pure pathological study. He’s a psychopath with no inhibitions.”
Robert Keith’s son, Brian Keith, became a much bigger star in the TV series Family Affair and a host of Disney productions. But Robert Keith was himself a fine actor, especially as a PTSD-addled colonel in Men in War (1957). The role of Julian, with its unusual combination of cool smarts and calculated malevolence, became one of Robert Keith’s finest performances.
Julian’s biggest challenge is operating with a psychotic partner (Wallach’s Dancer) who is ready to explode in violence at any moment. Wallach was a great movie character actor who had the gift of packing maximum entertainment value into any role. Movie fans will probably best remember him for two bandito bad guys – Cavela in The Magnificent Seven and Tuco in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. But here he is, just three years after his feature film debut in Baby Doll, and Wallach is seething with intensity as he gives pychopathy an especially bad name.
To make their situation even edgier, Julian and Dancer have hired a local getaway driver (the ever reliable character actor Richard Jaeckel) who is a raging alcoholic.
There isn’t any lineup of note in The Lineup, which was a theatrical feature seeking to exploit a police procedural TV series of the same name, hence the reference to “30 million fans” in the trailer. Warner Anderson co-starred in the series and plays the cop in the movie. The real juice in this movie, however, comes from the criminals that he is chasing.
The Lineup was brilliantly directed by the grievously underrated Don Siegel. Siegel was a master of crime movies (and was the primary filmmaking mentor to Clint Eastwood). I particularly love Siegel’s 1973 neo-noir Charley Varrick, the guilty pleasure Two Mules for Sister Sara and John Wayne’s goodbye: The Shootist. The Lineup is right up there with Siegel’s best.
The biggest star of The Lineup, however, is the San Francisco of the late 1950s. The Lineup starts on the waterfront and ends in a chase that careens from the Cliff House all across the city to the then unfinished Embarcadero Freeway (now itself torn down decades ago). The story also takes us to the old Embarcadero YMCA, the Golden Gate Bridge, War Memorial Opera House, US Custom House, Nob Hill, Russian Hill, Legion of Honor, the old DeYoung Museum and the Mark Hopkins Hotel. There’s even a critical scene in the Sutro Baths – which had become an ice skating rink when the movie was filmed.
The Lineup (one of the few DVDs that I still own) plays occasionally on Turner Classic Movies and is available to rent on DVD from Netflix.