Based on a TV series that ran for about six years back in the 1950’s The Lineup is one of director Don Siegel’s earlier crime thrillers. The TV show, like the movie, was filmed in San Francisco and was a precursor to latter San Francisco cop shows like The Streets of San Francisco. The show starred Warren Anderson as Detective Ben Guthrie and Marshall Reed as Inspector Fred Asher, both recreating their roles in the movie, though Reed’s role in the film is minor. According to his autobiography, Siegel also directed the pilot for the TV show.
In the film, a porter tosses a disembarking passenger’s luggage into a waiting taxi. The taxi quickly speeds off triggering an out of control wild ride along the San Francisco docks. The speeding driver recklessly crashes into an oncoming truck. He quickly backs up and takes off speeding down the street where he next runs down a cop. The injured cop gets off one gunshot before dying. The bullet hit the cab driver, causing the taxi to crash again, this time for good. All this happens before the opening credits role in this early exciting Siegel thriller. Police inspectors Ben Guthrie and Al Quine (Emile Meyer) arrive to investigate the scene. In the cab, they find a gun and a syringe lying next to the dead body of the driver. The police confiscate the stolen luggage. Back at the station, they find a hollow Chinese sculpture. Stuffed inside the sculpture is a bag of pure heroin. Conclusion: someone is using innocent unknowing businessman and tourists as mules to smuggle heroin into the country.
Three other passengers on the ship, just back from Hong Kong, were also used unknowingly to transport heroin. The boss of the organization or “The Man” as he is known decides to bring in Dancer (Eli Wallach), a psychotic crazed killer, from out of town, along with his partner and mentor Julian (Robert Keith) to retrieve the remaining three packages. Also along is McLain (Richard Jacekel), the new getaway guy replacing the dead cab driver. A ship worker is the first pickup who Dancer meets at the San Francisco baths. A little too smart for his own good, he wants to be cut in on the deal. Unfortunately, Dancer has his own plans and quickly resolves this problem. A well to do businessman, and a mother and daughter are the others on Dancer and Julian’s list. The last pickup turns out to be the most problematic. During the voyage, the young girl discovered the heroin hidden inside her Chinese doll. Thinking the dope is powder, she uses it on the doll’s face. Dancer, ever trigger happy, is ready to shoot mother and child but Julian stops him explaining their employer may not understand or believe this last turn of events. He may think he and Dancer are trying to cheat him subsequently they could become the hunted instead of the hunters. They will need the mother and child alive to prove what happened.
With dead bodies piling up, the police have been putting the pieces of the case together and start to close in on the killers. Dancer sets up a place to meet and explain to “The Man” what went down. However, the boss is not buying it telling Dancer, “You’re dead.” Dancer’s temper explodes, more bodies pile up along with an exciting car chase through the streets and highways of San Francisco leading to a thrilling and deadly finish.
The police investigation scenes are standard 1950’s style TV fare; the cops are straight laced, very Jack Webb like in their roles. The killers are a much more interesting lot. Screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, best known for his screen adaptation of In the Heat of the Night, gives additional depth to the criminal gang providing quirky dialogue and banter between them. Additionally, Siegel makes good use of the San Francisco locations anticipating “Bullitt” and his own film, “Dirty Harry” with a high-speed car chase that ends on a half finished highway. Like the unfinished highway, Dancer’s life runs out of road.
Eli Wallach as the short tempered, edgy psychopath killer with a penchant to improve his vocabulary is the standout as Dancer. The Lineup was only Wallach’s second film. He first appeared as Silva, the Italian husband in the Elia Kazan/Tennessee Williams film Baby Doll. Wallach would go on to have a great career and today is remembered best as Tuco in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Richard Jacekel, one of the great character actors of the 1950’s and 1960’s, also gives a fine performance as the getaway driver with a drinking problem as does Robert Keith, a well-known character actor, is also first rate as Julian.
Don Siegel has been a master of the action film. In The Lineup, the parallel action between the police and the drug-dealing criminals keeps the film at a good pace throughout, though the scenes with the criminals grab you more by the throat. Shot on location, scenes of San Francisco are plentiful with historic shots of many landmarks.