Thursday, March 19, 2015

From Radio to TV to the Movies

Nowadays, it's not that unusual for a TV show to be reincarnated on the movie screen, though the level of aesthetic and/or commercial success varies wildly with each effort. Also, nowadays, bringing a former TV show to the big screen involves tens of millions of dollars--it's quite an investment.

But in the 1950s, when low-budget B-movies were still an important part of the movie industry, you could adapt a TV show into a movie with relatively small budget. In 1954, while Dragnet was still in the middle of its original run on TV, Jack Webb and Ben Alexander starred in a movie adaptation, with Webb directing and bringing a lot of his favorite actors (such as Vic Perrin and Virginia Gregg) along for the ride. 

But that's not the only TV cop show that got a big screen treatment while it was still on the air. Another TV show that began on radio, jumped to TV and then to the movie screen was The Lineup


The Lineup ran on CBS radio from 1950 to 1953, with former Shadow Bill Johnston playing San Francisco police lieutenant Ben Guthrie. It was a solid police procedural--a show that followed in the footsteps of Dragnet but had its own personality. 

The show came to television in 1954 for a six-year run, with Warner Anderson playing Guthrie. Like Dragnet, it was popular enough to warrant a big-screen version, with Anderson still in the role of Guthrie.

Don Siegel, who had directed the pilot and several episodes of the TV series, directed the film. It was a story that centered around two villains, with a script that made the villains interesting and gave them some really sharp dialogue. In fact, the bad guys are so interesting that Siegel wanted to center the film on them. It was only at the studio's insistence that he made the characters from the TV show an important part of the story. Heck, Warner Anderson still ended up with third billing.

The villains are Dancer (Eli Wallach), a psychopath who is one step away from losing it completely, and Julian (Robert Keith), a sociopath who can keep Dancer under control--or at least thinks he can keep Dancer under control. Julian believes Dancer can be the Best Crook Ever under his tutelage, constantly correcting Dancer's grammar and demeanor to give him more style. Julian also enjoys making a note of the last words spoken by anyone Dancer kills. 

They've been hired to do what should be a simple job. Some tourists returning from Asia are being unwittingly used to smuggle drugs back into the country, with the drugs being hidden inside souvenirs they've bought. But Dancer is forced to kill a couple of people as he picks up the first two shipments. This puts the cops on their tails.

Things really go wrong when it turns out the last shipment is lost. The mother and daughter who were unknowingly carrying it can't be killed--they are needed to alibi Dancer and Julian; to provide proof
that the two criminals aren't pocketing the drugs on their own. But events still head downhill and they are soon in a desperate flight to escape the cops. 

Wallach and Keith are superb in the movie's key roles. They are never even remotely charismatic or likable, but they are fascinating to watch even while we are rooting against them. The rest of the cast is excellent as well--most notably Vaughn Taylor as the head of the drug ring. Taylor's only in the film for a minute or two, spends most of that time silent and emotionless and only has a few lines of dialogue. But he manages to be great in the role anyways.


Richard Jaeckel also leaves a mark as an alcoholic thug hired to drive Dancer and Julian around San Francisco. 

There's a few weak points in the overall plot--the efforts to recover the knick-knacks that contain the drugs seem far more complicated than they need to be and it seems unlikely that the head of a big drug ring would be picking up deliveries himself rather than sending a mook to do so. But these are minor points, as the story otherwise unfolds in a logical manner, with the cops following up clues intelligently. It works the way a police procedural should.

It also works the way a Film Noir should. Seigel's direction is sharp and briskly paced. The movie was filmed on location in San Francisco and Seigel uses this to give it a real visual flair. We don't have the shades of grey that many Noirs give us--Dancer and Julian are pretty clear-cut bad guys. But the script and the actors infuse them with real personality. 

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