(Open Thread) Noir Side Street — “The Killer Is Loose”

Incoming Day. Photo by Emanuele Toscano.

Today’s film is 1956 crime drama “The Killer Is Loose,” starring Joseph Cotton (Lt. Sam Wagner), Wendell Corey (Leon “Foggy” Poole), Rhonda Fleming (Lila Wagner), Alan Hale Jr. (Detective Denny), Michael Pate (Detective Chris Gillespie), John Larch (Otto Flanders), Dee J. Thompson (Grace Flanders), John Beradino (Mac, a plainclothes officer), Virginia Christine (Mary Gillespie), Stanley Adams — uncredited (honor farm guard), and Paul Bryar (Greg Boyd). Directed by Budd Boetticher, screenplay by Harold Medford (based on a short story by John and Ward Hawkins), and cinematography by Lionel Newman. Film produced by Crown Productions and distributed by United Artists.

A savings-and-loan is robbed by a gang of thieves who appear to have had some help from a co-conspirator on the inside. Leon Poole, one of the bank’s employees, quickly falls under suspicion as the inside man. Police get confirmation of their theory after overhearing (via phone tap) a conversation between Poole and one of the robbers. The detectives, led by Detective Sam Wagner, head to Poole’s apartment to apprehend him, but end up in a shoot-out with him, which leaves Poole’s young wife dead. Poole vows vengeance on Wagner as he’s being led away, and once again, after he’s sentenced at the end of his trial. Wagner’s wife, Lila, worries about the threat; but her husband and his friends the Gillespies play down her concern, saying it comes with the job.

Poole is a model prisoner and after three years is allowed to work at the honor farm, as a trustee. He soon sees an opportunity to escape and does so, killing a guard in the process. Authorities quickly realize he’s escaped and determine he’s probably heading back to the city, to act on the threats he made against Wagner. Meanwhile, Poole kills a farmer, donning his clothes and stealing his truck laden with farm-fresh vegetables and manages to get through the roadblocks authorities have set up to stop him from getting away from the honor farm.

In questioning his cellmates, the detectives soon realize that Poole was fixated on getting revenge, but not by killing Wagner; instead, he talked about killing Wagner’s wife. Wagner and his fellow officers realize they need to get Lila out of harm’s way, but (for whatever reason), Sam doesn’t want to come right out and tell her she’s the one in danger. He takes her to the Gillespies’ home while he and the other officers stake out his neighborhood, waiting for Poole’s arrival.

But Poole doesn’t immediately head to Wagner’s house. He goes, instead, to his old Army sergeant’s home. (We met Otto Flanders at the opening of the film; he was one of the customers in the savings-and-loan who was regaling one and all with stories about his incompetent Corporal Poole, whom he’d nicknamed “Foggy.”) Flanders tries to badger Poole into giving himself up, which leads him to be shot in cold blood and left dead on his own kitchen floor. Officers who had been dispatched there arrive too late.

Meanwhile at the Gillespies’ home, Lila is bitterly complaining about her husband going off and playing cops and robbers, putting his life at risk rather than sitting at his desk and letting the men under his command see all the action. (In the intervening years he’s been promoted to Lieutenant.) This allows Virginia Christine (who plays Mary Gillespie) to give an impassioned speech about what a spoiled little bitch Lila’s being, all because her husband didn’t want her to worry that she’s the one the killer is really after. So, in gratitude for her husband’s efforts to shield her, she stupidly heads for home to try to reconcile with him.

(Yeah, we’ll discuss this more once the synopsis is finished. Thankfully, we’re nearly there.)

Which leads to the final showdown between the cops, Poole, and Lila. As the cops wait for Poole to show up, they watch as neighbors come and go, trying to determine which one might be Poole. They notice a “tall woman in a plaid raincoat” and have eyes on her, but “she” loses them by hiding in the shadows of a tall bush. They quickly forget about the supposed chick in the plaid raincoat. (Because, yeah, that’s what you’d do.) A woman in a trench coat arrives; and Wagner, who’s overseeing this operation from the command center he’s set up in his home, is asking his men if the woman in the trench coat is Lila. They finally confirm, yes, it is. Suddenly, the “tall woman in the plaid raincoat” leaves the safety of the shadows and is following behind Lila. This is the point where they finally figure out this might be Poole. (Duh! Well, this and the fact that one of his trouser legs unrolls and is now visible. Double duh!) They have him in sight; they can take the shot. But they leave the call to Wagner, who hesitates, worrying Lila might be killed by Poole if the sharpshooters miss. Lila realizes the person behind her is Poole and quickens her pace toward the house. But for whatever reason (maybe because the writer needed this to play out differently), the killer doesn’t take out his gun and shoot her once he has the chance and knows this is, in fact, his quarry. Instead, there’s a brief shootout with the cops as Lila dives to the ground. Poole is killed and everyone lives happily ever after.

My big problem with this film is that at a length of 73 minutes, there’s little time for delving into Poole’s motivation, beyond the fact that he’s a resentful loser some people don’t respect. (Though he seems well-thought of at the savings-and-loan.) Why and how did he join in with the robbers? We have no idea. If he loved his wife so much, why was he planning on running off without her after the bank holdup? We have no idea. Why did Lila think putting herself in harm’s way after her husband had so carefully gotten her out of the thick of things was a great idea? Outside the fact that the writer needed her to be there for the climax and that was the only way to do it (even though it doesn’t make a damned bit of sense), we have no idea. (I mean, she couldn’t have waited to apologize to him until after the danger had passed and the killer was apprehended?)

Oh, and my favorite: Poole wears a distinctive pair of glasses throughout the film; he apparently can’t see much at all without them. And once the authorities learn of his escape, they’re being shown photos of him without the glasses, as well as with them. And yet, when he reaches the checkpoint set up by the highway patrol, he’s not wearing the glasses and shows them the dead farmer’s driver’s license, so he’s let through. (Because, apparently, none of them had sat down with their kids and watched an episode of “Adventures of Superman.”)

Corey, Fleming, and Christine are superb (though Christine isn’t given much to do, save for that one major scene when she bawls out Lila). Cotton is fine enough, though this is nothing like his best work. Others have described Alan Hale Jr. as playing his “Gilligan’s Island” Skipper character here, but, really, he’s more like Gilligan, since he’s the reason Poole was clued into the fact they were tapping his phone. There’s nothing in the storytelling nor the directing or cinematography which really marks this as noir, save for looking at the events more through the eyes of the killer and the rain in the last half of the movie. It lacks the ambience or even much in the way of suspense to make it great noir. And, to be honest, I didn’t find the Poole character all that relatable; I just didn’t care for him or feel sorry for him. Corey plays him believably, he just isn’t given much to work with in the script.

Overall, I give this 3 out of 5 unfiltered cigarette puffs. It’s not terrible, it’s certainly not great. It’s a decent way to kill about 90 minutes of your life.

Next week’s film is “My Name is Julia Ross,” based on the Anthony Gilbert novel, “The Woman in Red.”

As always, this is an open thread, so talk about anything you like. And if the cops put you in protective custody, for goodness sake, STAY THERE!

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