The single best reason to attend the Walter Reade Theater’s screening this evening of the late film noir The Lineup (1958) is for the movie’s final-act car chase over the then-uncompleted Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco. Or that’s what everyone from Vanity Fair‘s James Wolcott to Walter Reade’s press scribes would have you believe. And it is true that director Don Siegel was the rare filmmaker who could put together a car chase that is actually exciting to watch–though personally I prefer the high-speed pursuit scenes he shot in Mexico with Robert Mitchum for The Big Steal (1949) or even the racetrack sequences in his 1964 remake of The Killers. Fortunately, The Lineup, a big screen adaptation of a popular cops-and-robbers TV show, has a lot more to recommend it than its four-wheeled finale.
Filmed on location throughout San Francisco, The Lineup follows two out-of-town hitmen, Robert Keith and protégé Eli Wallach, who are sent to retrieve a heroin shipment that has gone missing. The movie’s free-floating air of jaded hipster nihilism is shocking even by today’s standards (Quentin Tarantino has been ripping off this and other Siegel films for years) and it is nearly impossible to imagine how a mid-century audience must have reacted to the Brooklyn-bred Wallach (at the time, an unknown actor) torturing a young mother and her daughter in a hotel room for pleasure, and not just business.
The Lineup is playing as part of a series celebrating the idiosyncratic tastes of the legendary critic Manny Farber, who died earlier this year. Siegel–one of the great workman auteurs in Hollywood history–would go on to direct darker and better pictures than this one, but The Lineup is where he first realized his signature style–a style about which no one wrote more perceptively than Farber: “What is a Don Siegel movie? Mainly it’s a raunchy, dirty-minded film with a definite feeling of middle-aged, middle-class sordidness.”–Benjamin Strong