Friday, April 3, 2015

Noir Watch: The Killer is Loose (1956)

This was an interesting one, starting off pretty dark and then just careening toward a nice, abysmal, jet black.

I'd read about The Killer is Loose (1956) a few years ago - I think in the Eddie Mueller book Dark City - and was quite thrilled it made it to TCM this month.

A bank is ripped off in broad daylight and the bad-guys get away.  The detective on the case, played by Joseph Cotten, figures it had to have been something of an inside job.  Following a lead, the cops go after one of the tellers and, upon finding out he's caught, their inside man locks himself in his apartment.

A tragic mistake later, and Cotten has put a bullet in the wife of the teller, Poole.  But the cops have their man.  At the trial, Cotten's new bride, played by Rhonda Fleming, is spied by Poole who swears revenge.  A daring and grisly prison escape later, and the unassuming Poole, played by Wendell Corey, is on the trail for Fleming, and mounts a substantial body count along the way.

There's a lot at work in this movie.  It features a cold-blooded killer set up neither as a charismatic gangster type (see: non-singing Jimmy Cagney films) nor a colorful lunatic (see: Richard Widmark).  Poole reads as an accountant going about his business, stating that he sees no other choices.  It's an oddly frozen kind of psychotic for even this era, and gives our villain a methodical vibe that feels fresh in 1956.  He's not quite Anton Chigurh of No Country for Old Men, but he's an early prototype.

Meanwhile, the movie also has some fairly dramatic stuff going on between Cotten and Fleming.  She may have thought she knew what she was getting marrying a cop, but 4 years on and a baby coming, she wants the born-natural cop she married to give up dangerous police work.  Cotten wants to protect Fleming any way he can, including hiding Poole's true aims from her, but it causes greater confusion between the pair.

It's not so much the body count that's notable for the movie so much as the manner in which characters are dispatched and why.  The dead-eyed, mechanical Poole goes about his business, no matter how bizarre or murderous, with certainty and no particular malice or joy.   Even The Sniper at least suggested our killer was mentally ill and needed help.  Not so much here.

The movie feels a little slight, but it also feels like the spine of so many movies that have come since where the cop's good-natured wife or child becomes the target - heck, didn't that happen in Lethal Weapon? - an idea you really don't see pop up in too many movies until this and The Big Heat.

I always like Cotten, but I admit I wasn't too familiar with Rhonda Fleming prior to this movie.  Throw in a young Gilligan's Island actor, Alan Hale, as a junior cop, and it's a pretty good cast.

The movie certainly lived up to the hype as something different and maybe a bit challenging.  Film school critics who are still mad their parents used to make them take out the garbage will surely go on and on about the serenity of the suburbs and the evil force invading suburban sprawl, and they're not wrong.  But the movie also delves into the contracts between men and women as Fleming and Cotten's marriage gets pushed to the limits and Poole, who clearly only ever cared about his wife, can see nothing to do with his existence but show the man who stole his only joy the same misery - even as that same cop is so focused on duty, it's never clear he's really aware his wife is ready to bail.

Fascinating little movie, and one I'd recommend.  If for no other reason than to see The Skipper as a young man, pretty much playing The Skipper.

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