Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Tonight's Movie: The Killer is Loose (1956)

THE KILLER IS LOOSE is a very creepy crime noir directed by Budd Boetticher. I loved the deep cast and '50s L.A. area location shooting but wasn't crazy about the plot. All in all, I found it a flawed yet worthwhile film.

Joseph Cotten plays Sam Wagner, an L.A. police detective who accidentally shoots and kills the wife of a bank robber, Leon Poole (Wendell Corey), when arresting Poole. Poole pledges to pay back Wagner and a couple years later escapes from a prison honor farm in order to do just that. Poole goes on a murder spree, traveling ever closer to Wagner's home, where he plans to exact an eye for an eye and kill Wagner's wife Lila (Rhonda Fleming).

Wendell Corey gives a convincingly disturbed -- and disturbing -- performance as the psycho killer. I had trouble watching the scenes where he commits murders, particularly an extended sequence where he torments a housewife prior to gunning down her husband. The realism of these scenes crossed a line for me and slipped from being entertainment to viewing which must simply be endured -- or not, as I resorted to using the fast-forward button on my remote a couple of times.

Cotten and Fleming are usually more interesting and had somewhat underwritten parts; the brisk 73-minute runtime didn't give much time to establish their characters and relationship. I love Cotten, but he just didn't have a lot to do in this other than argue with his wife about his job and then wait around for the killer. Fleming unfortunately spends most of the movie being rather unlikeable, complaining about the danger of her husband's job. She makes an irresponsible decision toward the end of the film which reflects poorly on her judgment but does make for a good nail-biting ending on a rainy night.

These comments aside, I really enjoyed the film's look. The L.A. city streets, the suburban houses, and the cars of the era are all very eye-catching. One of the things Boetticher does effectively, as others have also noted, is set Poole's crimes in very ordinary settings, which has the effect of making them even creepier, because it underscores that heinous crimes can happen anywhere. (Update: My dad makes the great point that in this regard THE KILLER IS LOOSE parallels Cotten's 1943 Hitchcock classic, SHADOW OF A DOUBT.)

The interiors are also wonderful, particularly Cotten and Fleming's kitchen, with its beautiful stove and refrigerator and cozy breakfast nook, and a little boy's bedroom (love the dog wallpaper!).

There are some wonderful faces in the supporting cast; several went on to TV stardom. Alan Hale Jr., one of the cops, of course became famous on GILLIGAN'S ISLAND. Virginia Christine, who plays a detective's wife, was known to millions as Mrs. Olson of Folger's Coffee commercials ("the richest kind!"). Christine has a strong scene where she tells off Lila regarding her attitude.

John Beradino, who plays another of the cops, appeared briefly in Boetticher's SEVEN MEN FROM NOW the same year. Beradino was a former professional baseball player who would go on to star for decades on GENERAL HOSPITAL beginning in 1963.

The movie also stars Michael Pate (HONDO) as a detective and Arthur Space as the police chief. Space, along with Hale, appeared in A MAN ALONE (1955) which I watched just a few days ago. Space had over 250 film and TV credits in a career which spanned four decades.

THE KILLER IS LOOSE was shot in black and white by Lucien Ballard, an Oscar winner in 1935 and again decades later in 1969.

This movie has not been released on DVD or video but can be seen on Turner Classic Movies.

Update: THE KILLER IS LOOSE is now available on DVD-R from MGM.

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