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 Big Combo (1955)

big1Another lapse on my disc buying- a sale on the Arrow website for a budget re-release of their previously OOP Four Film Noir Classics Blu-ray set was like Kryptonite straight to my current weak spot (£25 for four noir in HD with plenty of extras seemed a steal). So we start with what seems to be the highest-regarded film of the set: The Big Combo (a no-doubt inebriated Time Out reviewer during a 1970s revival gushed that it was the greatest film of all time, or something along those lines).

The Big Combo clearly isn’t the greatest film of all time, or the greatest noir film, either, but it is a very solid and beautifully photographed piece of work (the great cinematographer John Alton truly painting with light in this- its an exquisite-looking film, one of the most beautiful noir’s I’ve yet seen and a wonder to behold on Arrow’s disc). The music score is also particularly memorable, a moody, jazzy score typical of the genre but definitely one of the better ones I’ve heard. The film is very inventive in places- it features a truly bizarre torture scene and a later on a murder scene that plays out in complete silence: I can easily understand why the film is so highly regarded.

big2Its also, having watched Kiss Me Deadly the night before, a refreshingly subtle film (although to be honest, compared to that film, what film wouldn’t seem subtle?).

Sure, this film was quite dark and violent, full of typical noir tropes but it didn’t feel the need to bash me over the head every few minutes, and strangely enough, in the end this film was possibly even more subversive and daring in many ways. Gangster boss Mr Brown (a smooth but threatening Richard Conte) has two henchmen- Fante (an impossibly-young looking Lee Van Cleef) and Mingo (Earl Hoffman) – who are homosexual lovers, something not made explicit but clearly signposted for anyone paying attention. Beautiful blonde Susan (Jean Wallace) is Mr Brown’s girl, but she’s captive lover, a trophy for the big tough boss (she’s already tried suicide as a way out). One evening during an argument when they are alone in his apartment, Mr Brown grasps at her and she tries to push him away, but he persists, lowering his head behind her out of camera view, and she eventually lets out a near-orgasmic sigh of guilty pleasure at whatever he’s doing to her (I’m not sure how this got past the censors at the time). This film seems to be confirming what other film’s good guys always suspected- the bad guys are better lovers.

Certainly the hero of the film, Police Lieutenant Diamond (Cornel Wilde) who is himself unhealthily obsessed with Susan, seems a rather impotent individual (his ill-fated girlfriend is a nightclub dancer who hints its been six months since she last saw him). Diamond is wound up too tight, obsessed with bringing down Mr Brown and rescuing Susan -indeed  its suggested that he is so focused on Mr Brown simply because of Susan, the object of an unrequited love. As usual with these roles, Mr Brown is obviously the more interesting of the two- dynamic, strong and bold, while Diamond is very square, repressed and frustrated. Its interesting that at the close of the film (and I hope I’m not crossing too far into spoiler territory with a film 65 years old), that Susan and Diamond don’t fall into a typical clinch at the end- suggesting that Diamond may have saved the girl, but he won’t necessarily get the girl. This was really very refreshing, frankly, and typical of the restraint and sophistication of the film and how it bucks trends with impressive grace. This film is definitely one of the greats, and that Time Out reviewer wasn’t far wrong.

 

The Criterion Six

criterion6I don’t really write much about disc purchases too often of late. Its true that I’ve even tried to limit those purchases, mainly because I’ve so many discs now, too many double-dips across so many formats over the years (even for a film-lover that can be wearing) and too many on the shelf still unwatched. There’s only one thing worse than spending too much money on films I only watch once, and that’s films I still haven’t gotten around to watching at all.

In any case, sometimes sales get the better of me, and in the past week or so a sale on Criterion discs across most vendors here in the UK has just proved too much to resist, especially as I’ve recently been turning my attention to older films that I’ve missed. So here is the Criterion Six- six films that I have bought in the past two weeks while the sale was running. I’m intending to make a point of both watching and reviewing these films to justify, well, buying them.

I tried to be a bit canny choosing the films- indeed I actually struggled to pick six (the offer was two films for £25 so I had to pick films in pairs) as some films in the offer I already owned and I wanted the ones I chose to be films I was really curious to watch, rather than films that might just end up on that shelf. Naturally another thing was to choose films I hadn’t seen before (although one slipped through that net) so that nixed the temptations of the Criterion Solaris and Stalker. So anyway, a few notes about the films I chose:

c6cranesThe Cranes Are Flying: This is a film/release that exemplifies what is so great about boutique labels like Criterion, Arrow etc: up until about a week ago, I didn’t even know this film existed. The beautiful cover art on the Criterion caught my eye first (so yeah, good graphic design still matters!), and then investigating it, the film became irresistible to me. A Russian film from 1957, its described as being beautifully shot and powerfully affecting, and someone online reckoned it was similar in theme and mood to Legends of the Fall, only better. That’s a hell of a bait to someone like me, and got to be worth what amounts to a £12.50 punt: blind buys can be exciting and so rewarding. Besides which I really don’t see enough World Cinema, so should be a welcome change of pace.

c6kissKiss Me Deadly: The first thing I looked for when going through the Criterion’s in the offer was film noir, because that’s what I’ve been settling into the past few weeks (blame Covid 19 I suppose) and a genre I’ve always found enjoyable: pretty much a safe bet for a blind buy. As usual I’ve avoided any details and dodged the trailers, but it looks pretty wild from what I’ve seen of it.

Anatomy of a Murder: This is the film that got me onto this Criterion deal in the first place, so has a lot to answer for. Bunny Lake is Missing and Laura brought me to this one, as its directed by Otto Preminger, and I seem to be going through his filmography at the moment. The fact that it starred one of my favourite actors, the great James Stewart sealed the deal and had me looking for another Criterion to go with it. I actually watched this last night and really enjoyed it, so review coming soon: I will just say that this film is so morally obtuse it should have been re-titled Fifty Shades of Grey.

Detour: Another film noir and one with quite a reputation by all accounts, and another one of those films that I had no idea even existed a few weeks ago. Its cheaply made on half a shoestring and perhaps as a consequence of that is very short (69 mins, crikey) and used to be available only in horrible prints, apparently, but this release followed an extensive restoration. Really curious about this one, but I have the feeling I need to wait for the right night to watch it (suspect its absolutely a late-night experience like most, if not all, film noir but maybe in this case especially so).

c6kluteKlute: I’ve heard about this one but never seen it. I’m a big fan of 1970s American Cinema and love the frequent sense of paranoia that infects so many films of that era (The Conversation, Three Days of the Condor etc). I’ve never really had much time for Jane Fonda in films, no doubt one of the reasons I’ve never seen this before, so I’d be pleasantly surprised if her turn here impresses me, but I am a fan of Donald Sutherland so hopefully worth the punt at the price being asked. I’m reminded however that I never bought Three Days of the Condor on Blu-ray, so if this reignites my penchant for 1970s American Cinema it could turn out be more expensive a purchase than initially thought.

c6failFail Safe: The one film of the six that I have seen before- once, and many years ago: late at night on BBC2 when it blew my mind. It used to be so great, watching late-night films, its something nobody seems to do anymore on the network channels. Anyway, I’m looking forward to watching this again after so many years in a much better presentation than all those years ago.