Someday Wagner, I’m gonna settle with you for it.
The Killer is Loose has holes — blast it with a Tommy gun it has such holes. It’s a little movie with a story that churns single-mindedly forward until its title character sprawls dead on a well-kept suburban lawn and all is once again right with the world — you can get back to your TV dinner now. It asks us to swallow a lot: happenstance, strange motivations, coincidences and contrivances, maybe even a miracle or two. The story unfolds so rapidly you’ve gotta wait until the end to pick your nits; stop to raise an eyebrow and it just moves on without you, scoffers be damned. Who cares what happened to the other bank robbers? So what if the bank has a house safe instead of a vault!
Anyone conversant in B crime movies will tell you to look elsewhere if you want perfect films with plot holes a mouse couldn’t shimmy through. Instead there’s something about cheap little programmers that pulls at the gut, something so compelling it keeps prying questions at bay. We accept them for what they are, warts and all, and we grant concessions; more often than not it’s the endings: how many times have you seen a delightfully grim film noir wrecked by a “studio” wrap-up? Movies are diversionary, they aim to please, to sell tickets and popcorn; Hollywood practically invented the focus group in order to ensure audience satisfaction. With that in mind it’s surprising that an such exciting group of original and subversive films were ever produced in the first place; who cares if a few of the endings are trumped up — it’s a price worth paying.
In spite of occasionally artificial endings, low budgets, plot holes, and sometimes less-than-stellar acting, the allure of classic noir is potent. Its world is at once far-off and concocted — a not-quite-true reflection of how things were, yet one that serves as a comforting surrogate for those of us too young to have lived through the war and the decade that followed. It’s a world that tantalizes, a powerfully nostalgic world that romanticizes crime and crooks, imbuing their acts with an intoxicating veneer, a cinematic new-car smell. Although the fifties film noir is thankfully free of dead little boys in Penney’s boxes and killers with living room abattoirs, its milieu is one that ever so gradually began to resemble the world at large. Its subject matter became more in tune with social problems: the influence of organized crime, juvenile delinquency, and criminal psychosis — while its expressionistic vision began to give way to something more pedestrian, and the heart of noir crept inexorably out of the claustrophobic urban spaces, like the denizens of the city itself, into the daylight and eventually … the suburbs.
At this awkward conflux of reality and movie-fantasy that happened at the end of the classic noir cycle we find The Killer is Loose: Leon “Foggy” Poole (Wendell Corey), the inside man on a bank job, is cornered by police in the walk up apartment he shares with his wife. During the standoff she is inadvertently shot and killed. Instead of accepting responsibility, Poole blames the police for her death and swears to pay back Sam Wagner (Joseph Cotten), the dick who pulled the trigger, by killing his wife Lila (Rhonda Fleming). Poole gets transferred to the honor farm for good behavior, but escapes and sets out for revenge. The cops try to snare him, but he evades capture and eventually makes it to the Wagner home for a showdown with the waiting police.
The title itself, almost sounding more like that of a slasher film or a straight thriller, played on the fears and suspicions of a wary public. Earlier noir titles looked inward, referencing their own characters, fetishes, and narrative predicaments: Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon, The Guilty, The Killers, Gun Crazy, and so forth. The locations and populace of The Killer is Loose, however, are meant to feel ordinary and familiar, and subsequently all the more terrifying. The message is that anyone could be a raving lunatic — the football coach, milkman, or the teller at the bank — and we’d never get wise. The movie spectacularly undermines the American Dream; it argues that you can’t feel safe anywhere, that the killing grounds are no longer the back alleys in the wee hours, but the suburban kitchen just after the five o'clock whistle blows. The boogeyman isn’t a slick gunsel in a fedora and trench coat, but a myopic banker with Coke-bottle glasses. Furthermore, The Killer is Loose doesn’t prop up the police as infallible pillar-of-the-community types — it needles them, makes fools of them, even emasculates them. The cops know a madman is on the prowl. They know his name, his face, and his intentions, yet with all their manpower and methodology they might as well go grab a bear claw or some scrambled eggs. In the end, it’s dumb luck more than anything else that brings the killer to his knees in an fevered hail of pent-up gunfire. Audiences must have left the theaters with a gnawing suspicion: that in this brave new world the police couldn’t protect them, and that the man selling tickets or the usher with his flashlight might harbor the darkest kind of fantasies. In an era of rampant suspicion and mistrust, The Killer is Loose was like gasoline on an already burning fire.
With revenge as a central theme, Budd Boetticher made a lot of sense as director, and owing to the great deal of critical attention he’s received in recent years it would be awfully easy (and terribly film blog-ish) to make this essay about him. Like almost every other film noir, The Killer is Loose is much more intriguing as a commentary on the cultural and social upheaval of its day than it is as simply a product of its director, in spite of the presence of thematic elements (revenge, alienation, murdered wives) that characterized Boetticher’s later westerns with Randolph Scott. Though to the director’s credit he saves The Killer is Loose from becoming a cookie cutter affair by making the revenge-seeker the most sympathetic character. Wendell Corey is hardly the performer one would expect as a psychopath; his performance must have been shocking to audiences. Corey was a professional wingman, most famously to James Stewart in Hitchcock’s Rear Window. His career included a mix of prestige pictures, second features, and TV work. He was a first-rate character actor and a hardcore alcoholic who died of cirrhosis at 54. Although not a film for which he is remembered, The Killer is Loose was his best role. He and Boetticher understood that Poole was a new-fangled psycho and they played the schmuck angle to the hilt. Those who would dismiss this as a routine programmer with a shaky story fail to recognize how important it is to the closing door of the noir cycle: Foggy Poole has a lot more in common with traditional noir heroes than most viewers give him credit for. In one of the most popular movies ever made, Paul Freeman says to Harrison Ford, “It would take just a nudge, to make you like me, to push you out of the light.” Foggy Poole is what you get if you nudge one of those famous noir protagonists — Lancaster, Ladd, Widmark — into Freeman’s abyss.
Corey’s performance is heavy on pathos and light on motivation. He’s unglamorous, frightening, and pathetic — such killers have become all too familiar to contemporary audiences, and an American TV news cliché: cut to a million next-door neighbors staring into some camera plaintively reassuring a reporter how the maniac was “such a nice, quiet guy.” But it’s important to recognize that Poole, unlike Eddie Miller in 1952’s The Sniper, is an outwardly well-adjusted member of society, appearing quite normal to those around him. In fact, we never learn why he decides to knock over his place of employment — he’s happily married, gainfully employed, and judging by the passage of time and his interaction with his coworkers and customers, perfectly reasonable. There are a few clues early on, but they fail to provide anything more than circumstantial evidence: When Poole bumps into his old sergeant at the bank, the man gets a few cheap laughs from the other bank customers at his expense: Poole wasn’t a good soldier, and the nickname Foggy was meant to ridicule. Later, in what is undeniably the film’s most gut-wrenching (and best) scene, the two men meet again under different circumstances. The point is that Poole is a psychopath — his animus can’t be justified; his desire to get even is out of proportion and entirely unwarranted, and despite a calm exterior his behavior is consistently irrational. This is best exemplified by the fact that after being assured of an early parole, Poole decides to bolt the honor farm — committing multiple murders in the act — when if he had just waited he would have earned a legal release and could have sought revenge with better odds of success.
Corey’s pathos and Poole’s relentlessness, his alienation from society and his denial of its rules is what makes him, not Joseph Cotten’s Sam Wagner, the central noir persona here — even though the movie allows the less observant viewer to dismiss him as merely the “bad guy.” And while Cotten’s police detective isn’t in any way offensive, viewers will almost be rooting for Poole to get Lila Wagner in the sights of his .357 magnum. She’s a ball and chain of the first order, and one wonders if Poole wouldn’t be doing Wagner a favor by punching her ticket. In a movie that strives to shine a light on the impotence of authority, Wagner’s relationship with his wife demonstrates that unlike the police of 1940s film noir, postwar cops no longer wear the pants in the family. This ‘crisis of masculinity’ is a significant, yet seldom discussed ingredient in the noirs of the 1950s. The suggestion is extraordinarily provocative: that if Wagner were somehow free of Lila and the burdens of consumerism, conformity, and domesticity, he might then recapture the edge that once made him a good cop. Film noir often subverts the family, giving us married cops who exchanged their brutality for a new Frigidaire and some lace doilies, becoming soft and powerless in an increasing complex and criminal world. Bud White, that most violent of policemen, would have made mincemeat out of Poole — and look at what love nearly cost him.
In the end, the extermination of Leon Poole does little to assuage our fears. Instead, audiences would have left the theater troubled, because although this killer had been stopped, others were most assuredly still out there, every bit as invisible. Four years later, an even more vividly painted and equally unexpected psychopath would follow neatly in the footsteps of Foggy Poole, like a cinematic little brother, and his impact was so staggering that it snuffed out the dying embers of film noir, and knocked the crime thriller squarely on its ass for an entire decade — until a new group of seventies filmmakers, hell-bent on a realism, would reinvent the genre, and gloriously return it to the gritty streets of the American metropolis.
And they had enough sense to give us divorced cops.
The Killer is Loose (1956)
Directed by Budd Boetticher
Produced by Robert Jacks
Cinematography by Lucien Ballard
Written by John and ward Hawkins, and Harold Medford
Art Direction by Leslie Thomas
Starring Joseph Cotten, Wendell Corey, and Rhonda Fleming
Released by United Artists
Running time: 73 minutes