. . . Killer Is Loose

. . .

The Weeds of Crime: The Killer Is Loose   
The Poole Shuffle

As we've seen, when lover and livelihood are simultaneously threatened, a member of my tribe (wimp, weirdo, faggot, loser, milquetoast, hennetaster -- meaning no disrespect to our sisters, the bluestocking skags) typically vanishes beneath the sulfuric waters of passibly organized crime, and typically surfaces reeking, rosy, and restored to romance and respectability.

And the love of a peculiar woman being their only earthly attachment, should that attachment be snipped by Atropos, what would happen to our drifting, bobbing, squeaking gasbags?

Erwin Trowbridge, fortunate beloved of Carol Hughes and Joan Blondell and the Muse, might, as poet, guzzle deep and rev up on his (or more precisely her) tragedy, bansheeing a new Hallmark line: "So you've finally gone to Hell!", "Congratulations, you're in Purgatory!", and so on.

Willie Harrington might very well never notice any change at all, hauling Una Merkel from room to shabby room, asking if she'd like more tea, ducking his head in shame, perhaps absent-mindedly stuffing her with sawdust some Sunday afternoon....

How you gonna keep 'em down on the farm?   But if our hero was a little less buoyant, a little emptier, a little limper by nature or breeding?

Having had his dripping round snout so forced down and wriggled into the material and social essence of the world, mightn't he enter into a more direct engagement with it, to the benefit of all parties?

"You don't know how important that is.
It's the difference between being dead and being alive."

. . .

Two bank tellers Foggy California
From its opening shot, the film captures America's new strip-mall look: flat, carpeted, stuccoed and plate-glassed; dull and glaring; perfumed by air-conditioning and tainted from birth. But down these bright sidewalks a man must go who is not himself bright, who is neither varnished nor unfrayed....

This is my TV, this is my gun   Take any setting, no matter how tidy, and any guy, no matter how timid, and let the guy get disheveled enough, and you get a creepy scene. Eyes cling, story shudders.

And once creeped by the crumbled surface, unbroken surfaces turn creepy too: the sullen bus, the locked liquor store, the oblivious taxi, the television betraying or blackened, even a bottle of cold refreshing milk -- as if we can only expiate the sin of having acknowledged the pariah by becoming equally invisible and powerless.

But who's creeping who in this scenario? Cinematographer Lucien Ballard, master of sweat and stubble; director Budd Boetticher, big bullfighter on campus -- these are tough guys, right?

Even while we're intimately learning (and re-learning, each time we're pissed on) its arbitrary and gang-erected nature, we're also taught to believe that manliness is a matter of balls: supposedly innate (although externalized) and readily apparent (although hidden). And wimp-made-good stories like Harold Lloyd's or Jim Carrey's reassure us: the other ball drops; the worm turns and stands up straight and tall....

What's more-or-less-comically threatening about these three stories is that their protagonists don't grow -- no, not even by two inches. And no matter what the fella says, they aren't "split personalities" either. They remain hermetically themselves. It's merely a change of setting that makes the world reassess their jewels.

That's a message which macho scions of the bourgeoisie like Raoul Walsh and Boetticher might find perturbing.

And so it's not surprising that Boetticher fans don't talk much about The Killer Is Loose, and it's not surprising that it's his best film.

  Remodelling the kitchen

. . .

Wendell Corey abraded 1950s Hollywood like an imperious acne-scarred iguana: outstandingly inexplicable as The Furies' love interest -- Barbara Stanwyck should've spent more time studying that copy of Are Snakes Necessary? -- and delivering his Rear Window banter with such open contempt that I half-expected him to try to pin the murder on Jeffries's little trollop.

But Corey also landed at least two parts perfectly suited to his Republican alienation from the species: "Smiley" Coy and Leon Poole.

You shouldn't have done that
"I don't know why you'd do such a thing."

I'd say Corey's Poole was as indelible a performance as Perkins's Norman Bates or Hopkins's Hannibal Lecter, except that no one seems to remember it. It certainly seems more realistic (although I've only met, that I know of, one mad killer myself), much more someone about whom you'd say, "He always seemed like such a nice man" and still never want to befriend or even stand very close to.

My shame to admit it, I probably wouldn't have gotten palsy with John Payne or Tom Neal, either. As Juliet Clark pointed out to me, Poole is a film noir hero in a film noir villain's role. The Killer Is Loose crossbreeds three strains of thriller (with a suggestion of the big heist film in the background):

And Poole comes spinning out the top chute. When his old sergeant takes advantage of Poole's service industry position to nostalgically revive an old course of public humiliation, he maintains professional cool:
"Even the island boys, they'd say Corporal Foggy, he get lost again, he forget his rifle."
"Yes, I remember."

Kitchen with gun
"Yes, I remember."

Thus for the military. That other masculine bureaucracy, the police department, is equally dismissive:

"Worked himself into quite a stew, hasn't he?"
"Scared amateur -- bolted inside."
We want Poole to prove his worth and show up the bullies, ideally without undue show of ego, just as part of the dirty job what a man's gotta do....
"Don't you see how wrong it was to do that?
I'm certainly going to settle with you for it."
Which he does, kind of. Like later comic hero Travis Bickle would thwart the villains and get the girl, kind of.
"You said he wasn't crazy!"

Model prisoner
"What's more, you've demonstrated an earnest and sincere intention to pay your debt."
"I've tried to follow the rules, sir."

Although Poole remains self-possessed and hard-working, the clear-headed dignity of his first scenes proves anomalous. Unbenownst to us, he was being sustained by the love of a good woman. Love meaning:

"She never laughed at me once."
We never get to know this good woman, and, given the general run of pariah relationships, that might be just as well. But even if she had turned out to be Marie Windsor, the Pooles would've been sure to present a more appealing spectacle than the passive-aggressive whine festival offered by the movie's purported hero and heroine.

In Touch of Evil, Orson Welles mocked the narrative convention of the noble cop's good marriage with parody. The Killer Is Loose undercuts it more directly by collapsing that convention into the convention of the middle-class family who's never been tested by fire. By 1956, Joseph Cotten's schoolmarmishness had ripened into querulous old-maidhood, and his shallow bride (best known to noirists as Out of the Past's second-string femme fatale) makes his dithering dotage even more glaring.

The couple's domestic ineffectiveness seems catching, eventually spreading through the entire LAPD and squandering technology, time, and personnel in cross-purposed confusion.

"I think so, but I can't be sure."
"Is it a man or is it a woman?"
"I'm not sure."
"If it is Poole, what's he waiting for?"
"He's not sure it's Lila."
"That could be...."
  Ugliest broad in L.A.

While Poole advances unprofessionally, clumsily, obliquely, bumping into a police car, driving over the center line, limping through the rain, slumping, slopping....

Does he make it?

Silly question. Naturally the natural order prevails, depositing a foggy pool of drag on a neatly trimmed lawn, to be mopped up off-screen later by some equally discardable service industry peon.

That's the story we've been told we were being told, but it's not the only story we've heard.

There's the triumph of being the one who walks out of the last frames of the movie, and there's another type of triumph in defining them. There's the triumph of victory, and a triumph in having set the game. And even a triumph in refusing to acknowledge the existence of a game at all.

What would such uncompetitive types want with winning anyway?


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.