As San Francisco antiquities dealer Philip Dressler (Raymond Bailey) disembarks from a cruise ship, a porter snatches one of his valises and tosses it into a waiting cab. The driver speeds off…directly into an eighteen-wheeler. After pulling away from that smash-up, he hits and kills a uniformed policeman. The cop does manage to fire a shot before his death, hitting the driver…who plows into a barricade, thus saving the Frisco D.A. a little paperwork.
Detectives Ben Guthrie (Warner Anderson) and Al Quine (Emile Meyer) investigate the death of the officer. Although Dressler is unable to provide a description of the porter who made off with his suitcase, Guthrie and Quine discover a package of heroin hidden in a statue that Dressler purchased during his trip to Hong Kong. Quine is convinced that Dressler knows more than he’s letting on. The veil of suspicion is eventually lifted, however, when further digging reveals the existence of a drug ring that relies on unwitting tourists to bring in their merchandise, concealing the narcotics in cheap tchotchkes and other benign souvenirs.
That, in a nutshell, is the plot of The Lineup: a 1958 feature film spun-off from a popular TV procedural (even though its director, Don Siegel, originally wanted to give the movie a different title). The origins of the show are firmly rooted in radio. In the summer of 1950, The Lineup replaced The FBI in Peace and War when FBI went on hiatus. It proved so popular that it was brought back in the fall on CBS’ regular schedule. Elliott Lewis, the wunderkind behind another radio crime drama, Broadway’s My Beat, served as the director-producer during Lineup’s initial summer run, and Jaime del Valle took over afterward. (Del Valle was also the producer on the 1958 feature film.)
There were many similarities between The Lineup and NBC’s Dragnet—but the major deviation from Jack Webb’s creation was that The Lineup’s stories were not based on actual police files. The crimes were fictional creations from such writers as Morton Fine & David Friedkin, E. Jack Neuman, and future film director Blake Edwards. The setting for Lineup was also fictional, with the show’s opening announcement identifying it only as “a great American city.” One-time Shadow star Bill Johnstone headed up the series, playing the part of Lt. Ben Guthrie, with Wally Maher (formerly radio’s Michael Shayne) as his partner, Sergeant Matt Greb. (Greb was played by Joseph Kearns in Lineup’s audition episode, and on one other occasion by Howard McNear.) With Maher’s passing in 1951, the Guthrie character got a new partner in Sergeant Pete Karger…played by one-time Rocky Jordan star Jack Moyles.
The Lineup closed up its radio squad room on February 18, 1953…but later got its second wind when a CBS television version of the show premiered on October 1, 1954. Warner Anderson played Guthrie, and character veteran Tom Tully was assigned the role of Inspector Matt Greb. No, Greb didn’t get a promotion; the TV version was set in San Francisco where there are no sergeants on the police force…so “Inspector” was the closest corresponding rank. (A third detective in Inspector Fred Asher was added, played by Marshall Reed.) Produced by Desilu, The Lineup enjoyed great success as a 10pm Friday night staple for five seasons when CBS decided to expand it to an hour in the 1959-60 season. Anderson’s Lt. Guthrie was the only cast member retained for that incarnation—the veteran cop was paired with four young newcomers. This would prove unsuccessful, and the show did its final telecast on April 18, 1960.
Although the series would later enjoy a healthy retirement in syndication (under the title San Francisco Beat), The Lineup isn’t rerun much today…so the 1958 movie spin-off is really the only accessible remnant of the once-popular program, outside of the radio broadcasts. Scripted by Oscar-winning screenwriter Stirling Silliphant (In the Heat of the Night), it’s an overlooked later entry in the film noir style and most deserving of rediscovery. It was directed by Don Siegel, who would make his name with a number of movies featuring Clint Eastwood, including Coogan’s Bluff and Dirty Harry. (Siegel directed the original television pilot for the show.) Don is additionally remembered as the individual at the helm of the cult horror classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Lineup is just one of several outstanding noirs in the director’s holster (including Private Hell 36 and Baby Face Nelson). Siegel showcases some memorable set pieces in Lineup, notably a murder committed in a steam room and a famous chase climax in which the bad guys get trapped on the upper section of an as yet-unfinished Embarcadero Freeway.
The movie version of The Lineup also spotlights unforgettable performances by actors Eli Wallach and Robert Keith…who received top billing over series stars Anderson and Reed. Tom Tully was unavailable to make the film, so Emile Meyer replaced him as the Greb-like Al Quine. (Siegel had actually lobbied to concentrate the movie solely on the bad guys…but was told he had to include the show’s regulars for Lineup fans.) Wallach is Dancer, a hit man described as “a wonderful, pure pathological study…a psychopath with no inhibitions.” Dancer is motivated only by money and hatred. He struggles to maintain a veneer of respectability, but eventually his cold and calculating nature is revealed to everyone with whom he comes into contact. He’s working for a wheelchair-bound individual (Vaughn Taylor) identified only as “The Man.” In one sequence, Dancer tries to explain to his employer that the heroin shipment is light because one of the pouches was discovered by a little girl (Cheryl Callaway)…who used it as “dusting powder” for her doll. When The Man proclaims that Dancer is “dead,” the enraged Dancer pushes his wheelchair off a high balcony onto a skating rink below. (This scene was filmed at Sutro’s Museum, one of several San Francisco landmarks seen in the film.)
Keith is Dancer’s “handler,” Julian, an amoral career criminal who possesses an unusual quirk: he likes to write down in a notebook the last words of the individuals killed by Dancer (for “research”). Sadly, Julian loses control of his killing machine in the final reel of the movie, and is gunned down by the very monster he’s created. The supporting cast of The Lineup also includes Richard Jaeckel (as a wheelman with a fondness for booze), Mary LaRoche, and William Leslie. In one scene, Dancer meets with a man named Staples, who is played by Robert Bailey — best known to old-time radio fans as fabulous freelance investigator Johnny Dollar. (Former radio Lineup actor Jack Moyles also has an uncredited bit in the movie, as the attendant of the club in which the steam room murder takes place.)
A cult oddity that for many years was not readily available to classic film fans, The Lineup was released to DVD in 2009 as part of the five film collection that comprises Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics I. We encourage Radio Spirits fans to track down this little sleeper…and while we’re at it, the radio version of the show is represented in a CD set, Witness. While you’re at it—check out Bob Bailey in our extensive Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar collections, too: Confidential, Murder Matters, Phantom Chases, Wayward Matters…and The Many Voices of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.