The Lineup (1958) – Don Siegel

The port city of San Francisco serves as the backdrop for this noir thriller that features Eli Wallach as a homicidal criminal on the trail of a heroin shipment from Hong Kong he’s expected to collect and deliver.

Each shipment has been stowed in statuettes, dolls, and other such trinkets, all in the hands of unsuspecting travelers who don’t know what they are really carrying. When a delivery goes bad, ending in the death of a driver as the film opens, the SFPD gets called in to investigate.

Examining the porters working that day in the lineup, the cops look for leads, and two detectives, Al Quine (Emile Meyer) and Fred Asher (Marshall Reed) begin to figure out what is going on.

But Dancer (Wallach) is in town to finish the whole thing, and make sure that all the shipments get collected and delivered to The Man (Vaughn Taylor). He is assisted by his mentor, Julian (Robert Keith), who is always interested in a person’s last words, and inscribes them in his book, and a functioning alcoholic, Sandy McLain (Richard Jaeckel) as their driver.

Things seem to be going well for Dancer and his cohorts, they seem able to stay ahead of the cops by a step or more the whole way through, even as the occasional break comes the detectives way. Things take a turn for the worse, however, when Dancer tracks down the last shipment, or at least, the item the shipment should be inside, and discovers it’s gone.

Now there’s going to be trouble, and time may be running out for a mother and daughter, whose lives hang in the balance, even as the cops draw closer to their suspects.

Wallach’s story is the heart of the film, though it starts almost a third of the way through the film. The cop story, which, to me, was the more fascinating angle, I wanted to see how they would track down Dancer, is routine, and unfortunately doesn’t really stand out. But that just made Wallach pop more, and his story actually really took me.

There’s a lot of personality, and things going on in his narrative, and Julian and Sandy make for interesting companions, but it’s the final confrontation with The Man that shows how dangerous, and uncontrollable, Dancer may actually be.

It’s surprisingly dark for its time. Though you can imagine if it was made today, or even a couple decades after it originally came out, Dancer would have been even more dangerous, and none of them would have been dressed in suits and look so presentable – even the baddies were dudded up nice.

Still, this one was a solid piece of noir that, once again, I had somehow missed, but loved being introduced to.

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