Columbia Noir: The Lineup (1958)

cnoirlineA case of saving the best until last (although both Drive a Crooked Road and The Gament Jungle make it a close-call) as Indicator’s excellent  Columbia Noir#1 boxset closes with its sixth film, Don Siegel’s crazed-hitman saga The Lineup. Based on a successful 1950s tv show, the film begins like the police procedural I expected it to be. At Pier 39 in San Francisco, a passenger ship arrives; subsequently whilst the passengers are disembarking a suitcase from the ship is stolen by a porter and handed off to a taxi that speeds away, running down a cop- the cops dying action shooting the taxi driver dead results in it crashing.  Two police inspectors arrive investigating the ensuing carnage, and discover that the stolen case belongs to an antique dealer returning from Asia, and that one of the items within it has a stash of illegal narcotics hidden inside. The inspectors deduce that drugs dealers are using tourists as unwitting drugs mules, hiding heroin inside items the tourists buy whilst on holiday in the Far East and tracking them until they arrive safely through US customs.

Unbeknownst to the police, two gangsters, Dancer and Julian, arrive in the Bay area tasked with tracking down the other tourists and relieving them of the hidden drugs. Dancer (Eli Wallach) is a crazy psychopath, being mentored by his elder partner Julian (Robert Keith) who is morbidly fascinated by the last words of Dancer’s victims, scribbling them down into his notebook: The Lineup takes an ingenious turn when it suddenly shifts from a police procedural setting up its premise to focus instead upon the twisted killer duo. Its almost like its two different movies and I have to wonder if writer Stirling Silliphant deliberately chose to write his twisted noir under the false pretence of a movie based on a TV cop show. By the time it hits its stride, the charmless police are forgotten and the crazy bad guys are suddenly the stars. Did the studio really appreciate the film Silliphant and Siegel were making?

This film reminded me so much of Kiss Me Deadly, that insane and violent  noir directed by Robert Aldrich that blew me away last summer. Both films are so very subversive, and so very noir, glorifying in their darkness and shocking in their violence. A particular pleasure of The Lineup is how it predicts thrillers that would follow like Bullitt, Dirty Harry and The French Connection, films that don’t visually nod to noir but nonetheless further the inherent sensibilities of noir. Dirty Harry of course was also directed by Siegel and set in San Francisco, and I imagine watching The Lineup and Dirty Harry together would make for a riveting and successful double-bill. As it is, The Lineup feels very modern and ahead of its time.

And to be certain, the violence is quite shocking in this film- the suddenness of it is quite harrowing, particularly the brutal conclusion of an exchange between Dancer and a villain in a wheelchair. I actually gasped at this scene, wondering if I’d actually seen what I thought I’d seen. Its wonderful when films do that, pulling the rug from under even seasoned movie-watchers such as I.

I understand Eli Wallach was a little dismissive about his role as the psychopath killer in this film, as if perhaps embarrassed by it or feeling guilty. I can see why the intensity of the finished film may have given him reservations afterwards but its in my eyes one of his very best performances (following a start in television, I think this was only his second movie). Quentin Tarantino practically made his career out of making films like The Lineup: I dare say this must be one of Tarantino’s favourite movies as it provided him a road-map for many of his own films. You can certainly see Pulp Fiction‘s Vincent and Jules in this film’s Dancer and Julian.

 

The Hunter (1980)

hunterSteve McQueen’s last movie.

Fate made it that- I believe that McQueen discovered he was seriously ill only after finishing shooting The Hunter, and sadly passed away in November 1980, at the age of just 50 years old; far too young, and a huge loss to American film. Not, perhaps, that you could tell that from the quality -or lack of- demonstrated in this mediocre action film, but anyone who knew of McQueen and was aware of his filmography, the roles that he had played, so many of them iconic, anyone could appreciate the loss. Most actors make good films, great films -if they are lucky- but most actors also make bad films, lousy films. Its just a bitter turn of fate that Steve McQueen, once the biggest star on the planet, made a pretty dire film for his last film.

The most shocking thing about The Hunter, to me, is just how much it looks like a tv movie, or the pilot of a tv series. Seriously, I wouldn’t have been surprised had I looked it up afterwards and learned that McQueen was dabbling with making a tv series and that this was a prospective pilot. And believe me, back in 1980, there was nothing good about that- the scale and ambition of HBO and Netflix etc were decades away, and television was really looked down upon as cheap and inferior, so a movie looking like an episode of The Fall Guy or Starsky and Hutch?  Featuring someone who was once the biggest male superstar in film? And it turns out to be his swansong, his last film, his farewell picture? Shocking, perhaps, is not strong enough a word.

True, The Hunter has its moments -very few of them, anyway- but mostly they are moments of nostalgia, from seeing familiar faces like Eli Wallach, Ben Johnson, and realising that yes, that’s Levar Burton (Star Trek :The Next Generation‘s Geordi La Forge) sharing scenes with Steve McQueen, by God! And sure, maybe there is some appeal in its simplistic, daft, easy going sense of very gentle fun. The film has an almost archaic, sweet sense of humour, and perhaps there are hints, in self-deprecating moments, of the approach and films that McQueen would have possibly made in later years, reflecting his age. But as a whole, it really doesn’t work, the screenplay appallingly predictable,  shamefully low-ambition, the film cheap and almost amateur in production, barring a few nice stunts/chase sequences in an era before green screen and CGI wire-removal made everything so safe and easy.

Had Steve McQueen not been involved, I am sure The Hunter would have been long forgotten. Maybe it has been, to a degree, other than being a pub-quiz question regarding what was McQueen’s last movie. There are far better films to remember Steve McQueen, the Hollywood icon, than what turned out to be his lamentable last film.