Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Killer Is Loose (1956)

Budd Boetticher is today revered for his westerns. The Killer Is Loose, made in 1956, isn’t a western but a taut crime thriller with perhaps just a dash of film noir.

The movie opens with a bank robbery. It’s fairly obvious that it was an inside job, or at least involved someone working for the bank. The robbers knew too many details about the bank’s security. The trail quickly leads the cops to mild-mannered bank teller Leon Poole, holed up in his apartment. In a tragic mix-up Poole’s wife is shot dead by the police. It is clearly not the fault of the police. It is Poole’s fault - if you go around shooting at cops you have to expect that they’ll shoot back, and the police were sure that Poole was alone in the apartment. Poole has caused his wife’s death by getting involved in an armed robbery and then taking pot-shots at the cops but he doesn’t see it that way. He cannot accept his own responsibility. He blames Detective Sam Wagner (Joseph Cotten) and he vows to get revenge. This all happens right at the beginning of the movie so I haven’t revealed any spoilers. The robbery sequences simply set up the movie’s main plot line.

A few years later Sam Wagner is a Lieutenant in a nice safe desk job. That’s not what he wanted, but his selfish and constantly complaining wife Lila (Rhonda Fleming) gave him no choice. Sam is devoted to Lila. The desk job was Lila’s doing but she’s still not satisfied and continually pressures Sam to leave the force.

And now the past catches up to Sam Wagner. Leon Poole has killed a guard and escaped from prison. No-one had taken his threats of revenge too seriously, at least not until one of the cops thought to have a talk with Poole’s former cell-mate. Now it is disturbingly clear that Poole really is serious about taking revenge, and taking it in a particularly nasty way. He doesn’t intend to kill Sam Wagner - he intends to kill Sam’s wife.

Poole eludes a massive manhunt and it is clear that he is now in the city and he’s stalking Lila Wagner. The problem for the police is to find a way to draw Poole out without getting any more people killed. 

It’s a setup with plenty of potential for suspense and Boetticher makes the most of it. There are a couple of superb set-pieces that neatly combine tension, visual interest and psychological dissections of character’s motives. These set-pieces make this more than just a routine low-budget crime thriller.

Joseph Cotten is solid enough as Wagner. Rhonda Fleming has a difficult time playing an unsympathetic character and fails to find the right approach. Her problematic performance and her character’s general unpleasantness are the movie’s main weak spot. Veteran Australian actor Michael Pate (one of my favourite character actors) gets to play a good guy for once as Detective Chris Gillespie. Alan Hale Jr (yes that’s right, the Skipper from Gilligan’s Island) plays it very straight as another cop.

What really makes this movie stand out is Wendell Corey’s riveting performance as Leon Poole. Poole is a guy who has never been been taken seriously by anyone is his life, apart from his wife. He’s already partly unhinged, as evidenced by his involvement in the kind of violent crime for which he is totally inadequate and his wife’s death pushes him right over the edge. Corey gives a subtle but extremely chilling performance, combining inadequacy with burning resentment and sudden moments of totally unexpected extreme violence. It’s a truly great performance by an actor who has never received the attention he deserves.

Poole’s encounter with his wartime sergeant is a key psychological moment with an unexpected and shocking sting in the tail.

MGM’s Limited Edition Collection provides a good print that is, unforgivably, in the wrong aspect ratio.

The Killer Is Loose is a well-constructed exciting thriller. Budd Boetticher fans will find that he was as adept at crime thrillers as he was at westerns. Wendell Corey’s performance makes it a must-see movie. Highly recommended.

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