Tuesday, November 2, 2010


Leon Poole looks like your typical hapless film-noir antihero. A war veteran, he was apparently sort of a foul-up as a soldier, known as "Foggy" to his sergeant, who happens to show up at the bank where Leon works as a teller to embarrass him with wartime tales. What worse can happen? How about a bank robbery? Possibly goaded by Sarge's ribbing, Leon decides to play hero and tries to stop the robbers from leaving the bank. He gets knocked on the head for his trouble, but he wins the old sarge's respect.

One problem: Leon's play at heroism is exactly that: a put-on. As a wiretap reveals, he was the inside man on the job. On that evidence, Det. Sam Wagner (Joseph Cotten) leads his team to the Poole apartment. Tipped off by his accomplice to the tap, Poole is armed and ready, firing through the door to wing Wagner's partner Gillespie (Michael Pate). Sam and uniformed flatfoot Denny (Alan Hale Jr.) burst through the door, Sam hitting the floor and firing at a shape in the dark. The shape was Poole's unarmed wife. Leon himself is stunned, strangely submissive yet calmly indignant as he lays Mrs. Poole out on their bed before his arrest. He maintains the same attitude through his trial, and upon his conviction promises Wagner that he'll settle accounts with him someday.

To this point, Poole (Wendell Corey) hasn't killed jack, except maybe in the war. That changes after he's rewarded for good behavior with a transfer to an honor farm. Riding with a single guard en route to unload a truck, he kills his keeper with a hoe blade and drives off on a road of vengeance that will lead to the Wagner house, where he intends to settle accounts with literal equity by murdering Sam's wife, Lila (Rhonda Fleming)....

Directing Westerns for Randolph Scott, Budd Boetticher frequently spotlighted inadequate husbands whose wives became potential romantic interests by default for Scott. In this black-and-white thriller, his last film before his alliance with Scott, Boetticher makes the loser archetype, who often ends up a victim, the villain of the piece. Given how his wife died, we ought to feel at least a little sympathy for Poole, and under Scott's tutelage Boetticher might have made us do so. Here, however, he's stuck with a three-handed screenplay and a performance by Corey that reduces Poole to a benumbed zombie. Revenge is a matter of passion, no matter what the Klingons say about the ideal serving, but Corey is hopelessly dispassionate. Some may find him chilling, and that was my own initial impression of him, but he gets too much to do and say after his escape -- including a belabored visit to his old sarge's house -- to retain any mystique for long. Boetticher made a classic of thwarted revenge later, directing Scott as the avenger in Decision at Sundown, but once he's loose Corey's killer is little more than a bogeyman, though he does go off on an interesting tangent to stalk Mrs. Wagner in a woman's raincoat and rolled-up pants legs toward the end.

Cotten is solid as the businesslike hero, and there's a feeling of authenticity to the understated procedural dialogue of the cops, but The Killer is Loose is further sabotaged by a by-the-numbers soap-opera subplot driven by the pregnant Lila Wagner's insistence that Sam quit taking risks. She's ready to leave him over his supposedly foolhardy bravery until it finally sinks in that Sam is offering himself as a target to divert Poole from her. That inspires her to some stand-by-her-man foolhardiness of her own as she treks back to the danger zone with the cross-dressing Poole in pursuit. Fleming does her best with the material, and shares a great little scene with Cotten as she whips up an early breakfast while he freshens up after hearing of Poole's escape, but this storyline wouldn't pass muster with Scott, I suspect, and it doesn't pass muster here.

The Killer is Loose looks sharp despite its shortcomings. Boetticher already knows how to set a stage simply for suspenseful action and exploits urban locations as adeptly as western landscapes. Lucien Ballard's cinematography is outstanding throughout. The opening robbery is sharply done, and the raid on Poole's apartment starts strong, only to grind to a halt as the cops let Poole rattle on about the injustice done him. Boetticher overreaches in a scene when the Sarge dares Poole, who's holding his wife hostage, to fight him like a man, but the climax, with the cops struggling to I.D. Lila or Poole and debating whether to open fire on the stalker with the target so close, gives the film a needed closing jolt of intensity. It's minor Boetticher compared to his westerns, but it's still a solid, if flawed B-movie thriller in late noir style.

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