There has been an incident outside a San Francisco airport: a man had handed his case to a porter and the porter had rushed away, flung the case into the back of a waiting cab, and the driver zoomed off at high speed, but so fast he could not control his vehicle. The cab smashed into a truck, ran over a policeman and finally crashed, with the driver dead from the bullet the dying cop managed to fire off at him before he expired. Detectives Ben Guthrie (Warner Anderson) and Al Quine (Emile Meyer) are assigned, and their first problem is to work out why the driver and the now missing porter acted so bizarrely...
The police procedural was a genre which emerged out of the film noir movement of the forties and came to replace it in its thriller genre for a few years of popularity. It was equally as successful on television as it was in film, and there was some crossover between the two media, with some films becoming series and vice versa, as in the case of this, which was drawn from the TV show of the same name. However, while the likes of Dragnet had made big screen outings, but had not really broken out of the confines of their origins, The Lineup went on to become a cult movie whose reputation lasted well after its source was long forgotten.
Indeed, there are many who would never know that it had been a TV series, and only one of the stars of that made it into the film, yet there's a definite tension between the dogged determination of the "Just the facts, ma'am" cops and the villains who are a lot more cinematic, that is to say, a lot more violent. The film divides into two plot threads, with the detectives tracking what turns out to be a smuggling operation to hide packs of heroin in various knick-knacks, and the criminals who are also hunting them down, though they have the advantage of knowing what they are looking for. These bad guys were played by Eli Wallach as Dancer and Robert Keith as Julian, and a strange pairing they make.
For the initial half hour you could have been watching one of the epsiodes, yet once the odd couple of Dancer and Julian make their entrance, a jolt of electricity hits the film as if director Don Siegel, here beginning to make his mark as a master of the thriller, was now getting interested. Dancer is what his partner describes as a psychopath, not addicted to heroin but addicted to hate, by turns charming and dangerous, while Julian likes to think of himself as more refined, when he actually makes your skin crawl as his forte is to note down the last words of those who Dancer kills for him. They're eccentric enough to make the rest of the movie memorable, as the brutality they get up to is pretty strong stuff for 1958.
Siegel, as if anticipating his most famous film Dirty Harry, expertly uses the locations available to him in this, with each setpiece taking place at a distinctive site, be it a steam bath, an aquarium or an ice rink. He may resort to using a bit of rear projection, most obviously in the climactic car chase sequence, but that was the style of the time and doesn't harm the overall effect, which is one of mounting tension. Working from a script by Stirling Silliphant, himself well versed in the thriller technique, Siegel implemented various methods to ramp up the excitement, and tied that in with unpredictable performances from Wallach and Keith, here making the most of what could have been second rate thugs. Watch how the little girl they encounter in the last half hour panics around them, a sure way of making the audience anxious, and listen to Julian's philosophy of crime and his need for violence, all as if to say, leave these people to the lawmen, they're far too dangerous for the public to handle. Music by Mischa Bakaleinikoff.