Underrated Movie #69: The Lineup

Title: The Lineup
Year: 1958
Director: Don Siegel (Charley Varrick)
Writers: Stirling Silliphant
Stars: Eli Wallach, Robert Keith, Richard Jaeckel, Mary LaRoche, Warner Anderson

The Story: A pair of San Francisco detectives discover that steamship passengers are unknowingly smuggling heroin into the city inside small staues. When the scheme falls apart, two strange hitmen arrive to clean up the mess.

How it Came to be Underrated: This wasn’t ever on video or DVD until a few months ago, when it was finally released in the same great box set that has The Sniper and Murder by Contract.

Why It’s Great:

  1. This became a odd recurring event in Siegel’s career: he would get hired to make a TV movie, then use the money to make a movie that was too big and violent and shocking for TV, which would force them to release it theatrically. He did it three times! Nobody could ever understand how he could make something that looked and felt like a real movie on a TV budget, but he was the most efficient of all great directors.
  2. The movie was a spin-off of a Dragnet-esque TV show, also called “The Lineup”. Siegel was stuck with wooden series star Warner Anderson, but he brought in the great character actor Emil Meyer to play Anderson’s new partner, and, more importantly, he quickly shuffles the cops into the background and makes it all about the criminals, who pursue their agenda largely without interference. (Something writer Stirling Silliphant knew all about from creating “Naked City”)
  3. The movie is a standard police procedural until 22 minutes in when the killers come to town and it elevates into greatness. They have one of the most bizarre character introduction scene ever: Arriving on a commercial airplane, hot-blooded Dancer is puzzling his way through a book of English Usage and Grammar, while cold-blooded Julian is trying to sleep. But Dancer finally has to ask: “Julian, you take this whole business about the subjunctive. I dunno...” “Alright, Dancer, alright, what’s so difficult about the subjunctive?” “Well, you take this for instance: ‘If I was you’ That’s all wrong. It says here, ‘If I were you.’ How far can you go with this stuff?” “It sets you up, Dancer, it sets you up. You know that. How many characters hang around street corners can say ‘If I were you.’ How many, huh?” Dancer thinks: “'If I were you’… Yeah, yeah, I see…” Thoughtful pause, then Dancer pipes up again: “It’s going to be a good day. Real good one, I can feel it.” “It’s going to be a tight one, Julian, that’s what it’s going to be. In and out.” Gravely: “No, Dancer, it’s going to be a good one.” Dancer accepts this mysterious rebuke and quiets down. The plane lands.
  4. This movie has the first great San Francisco car chase. They intentionally set out to top this movie when they made Bullitt. They succeeded, but not by much.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: This was a bit of a dry-run for Siegel’s more famous movie about a sexually-ambiguous hitman duo roaming California: a great 1964 remake of The Killers.

How Available Is It?: The beautiful new DVD has an introduction by Chris Nolan and a great commentary by scholar Eddie Mueller and crime novelist James Ellroy, who is off his meds and riffing like an all-night DJ.

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Underrated Movie #2: Charley Varrick

Title: Charlie Varrick
Year: 1973
Director: Don Siegel (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dirty Harry)
Writers: Howard Rodman and Dean Reisner, from the Novel “The Looters” by John Reese
Stars: Walter Matthau (The Odd Couple), Joe Don Baker (Walking Tall), Felicia Farr, Andy Robinson (the killer from Dirty Harry), John Vernon (Dean Wermer in Animal House)

The Story: When Charlie Varrick was a crop duster, he was “The Last of the Independents”, but corporate consolidation froze him out of the business, so now he’s a bank robber. When his gang accidentally steals an unreported cache of mob money, he realizes that they’re in real trouble.

How it Came to be Underrated: This one is only underrated in the sense of being undiscovered. There were just too many great movies coming out in 1973. Everybody who sees it loves it. It’s the sort of movie that makes you happy to find someone else at a party who’s seen it.

Why It’s Great:

  1. We’ve seen it a million times: The heist gone wrong. The bag full of mob money. On the run from both the cops and the mob… until they make their stand. The only thing that makes this one different is the level of skill involved. It’s a master class in writing, directing, and acting. When but in the ‘70s could a guy who looks like Walter Matthau be able to make his living as a leading man in gritty thrillers? After all, compared to other '70s megastars like Elliot Gould and George Segal, he was downright manly. Matthau tears into the role as a consummate professional thief holding back a surge of regrets and recriminations.

  2. And when but in the ‘70s could a guy who looks like Walter Matthau seduce a lady by suddenly muttering, apropos of nothing: “I like your bed”.

    Cut to:

    Another satisfied customer.
  3. The big mistake that thrillers make today is that the director only enjoys crafting the suspense scenes, but they’re downright embarrassed to have to explain the plot. The dreaded “exposition” scenes are rushed through or “jazzed up” until they’re incomprehensible. Then, when we do get to the actual “thrilling” scenes, they don’t work because we’re no longer invested in the story. Siegel’s film contains more actual thrills than many more “stylish” thrillers precisely because he isn’t embarrassed by exposition. He makes every incidental character interesting by taking the time to live in their world and share with us their point of view. He knows that verisimilitude can make any scene interesting. For instance, when the mob killer is in town, his bosses arrange for him to stay the night at a New Mexico brothel they own in the area. When you see a brothel in a movie, it’s usually either unbelievably glamorous or unbelievably wretched. This one is just plain real. Here’s the sign:

    Here are the girls, neither fantasy figures nor pathetic victims:

    And here’s my favorite thing in the movie, the sign on the inside of the room they put him in:
    The sad, childlike, homemade quality of that sign says more about the poignant world of the girls there than any “mama didn’t love me” dialogue could.
  4. As the story unfolds, I love how Charley is always one step of the viewer, but only one step ahead. When the scene begins, we might not be sure why he’s doing what he's doing, or not know how he’s doing something, or what he’s going to do about some problem, but we catch up by the end of the scene with a little “a-ha!” when we figure it out. The writers toy with us, but they don’t abuse their position. There is no “everything you know is wrong” moment. Those moments are put there to show how clever the screenwriter is. In this movie, you’re thinking about how clever Charley is. And you feel pretty clever yourself every time that you realize what he’s up to.

Underrated Compared To: Siegel’s most popular early 70s thriller, Dirty Harry.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Matthau made two other great thrillers in the early 70s, The Taking of Pelham 123 and The Laughing Policeman. Don Siegel made more than a dozen fantastic little thrillers over the course of his long career. Two of the best are The Lineup and his remake of The Killers (1964).

How Available Is It?: It’s on Netflix to “Watch Instantly” right now, and a DVD is in print. Unfortunately, the instant version has a 4:3 aspect ratio, so I suspect that this is a “pan-and-scan” version. I don’t know about the dvd.

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