In style if not entirely in execution The Lineup exhibits some similarities to Murder by Contract from the same year. Both films choose to take hit men as their main characters and it becomes a surprisingly intriguing way to look at a crime. Because the killers are a certain brand of sociopath who make film criminals all the more compelling based on not only on the way they carry themselves or the actions they take but the very words that leave their lips.
For the modern viewer, it’s very possible to miss the fact that The Lineup was a Dragnet-like detective show of the 1950s and this film installment carried over some of the same hallmarks from the program.
The police lieutenant is played by a no-nonsense Warner Anderson who utters every word as if he has marbles crammed in his throat. The other man (Emille Meyer) is what you expect from a second fiddle, a bit more flabby, a rounder face, and a funny intonation to his voice. Still, together these two men represent the arm of the law in San Fransisco, only two hardworking men in a vast force of crimefighters.
Don Siegel does well in all facets of the film from the opening mayhem on the streets of San Francisco that set the groundwork for all the rest, guiding the plot through the rhythms of procedures, hits, crime scenes, and casings. The climatic scenes on the Embarcadero pack the type of gratifying wallop you would hope for.
Meanwhile, Stirling Silliphant’s script has an odd cadence to it that’s particularly entrancing. It’s not hardboiled patter and that’s perhaps signified best by the fact that we meet our two main villains mid conversation on an airplane. One lauds the use of proper grammar and diction while the other, an out of town killer only known as Dancer (Eli Wallach) reads a grammar book to improve himself. After all, who’s ever heard a killer who knows their subjunctives?
From one end we follow the police as they look into a few big payloads of heroin that are being shipped in from Asia using unsuspecting tourists. There are no solid leads but they have enough competency to know something is up. They do all the things that they’re supposed to in order to nab the wanted parties. But it’s not that simple.
Because we also see a bit of what’s going on with the other side of the law. Dancer and Julian (Robert Keith) are called in to retrieve the payloads for a shadowy Mr. Big orchestrating everything from the background. And these are two of the most peculiar criminals you’ve ever known. Dancer’s a bit of a tough guy and he’s almost never caught without his trusty briefcase that carries his silent killer. He’s not about to take any flack from their chatty wheelman (Richard Jaeckel) either.
Except Dancer listens to Julian, an older fellow (obsessed with last words) who seems to serve little purpose except to be Dancer’s constant voice of reason and his coach giving him pep talks and guidance from every location. First, a Seamen’s club near the Bay, then a local residence, and finally an aquarium where they track down their last unsuspecting carrier, a young mother (Mary LaRoache) traveling with her little daughter.
But all great crime pictures must have some kind of twist, a wrench in the plans or an about face and The Lineup likewise begins to tear at the seams. Except it actually begins to mean something because in some ways we’ve built more of a connection with the criminals than the good guys.
With its surprisingly authentic images of San Francisco preserved from the 1950s, you can definitely trace a line between this film and Dirty Harry another Siegel picture that made extensive use of SF’s iconic terrain as well. Silliphant also graduated to several big crime films most notably In the Heat of the Night. But there should always be a place for smaller gems like this because they must differentiate themselves from the pack in the ways they draw up their characters and how they choose to rehash themes that have existed all throughout the tradition of gangster flicks and film-noir. That is the only chance they have to be remembered. The Lineup certainly stands out amid the fray.