Singularly ugly, even amateurish DVD cover art and a weak video transfer can't deny the strengths of The Killer Is Loose (1956), a taut thriller with an excellent cast and solid direction from cult filmmaker Budd Boetticher. Joseph Cotten stars as a police detective in denial that a psychopathic killer, in a revelatory performance by Wendell Corey, may be targeting his wife (Rhonda Fleming). Multifaceted and genuinely exciting at the end, the movie if not the DVD is one of the year's best MOD (manufactured-on-demand) DVD-Rs.
As with other MGM-owned, non-scope titles from the 1950s and early '60s, The Killer Is Loose was shot for 1.85:1 framing but presented in 4:3 full-frame format. What's more the transfer is quite soft and looks like it might be quite old as well, judging from its humdrum quality and the '80s-era UA logo at the beginning. I zoomed it in to 1.78:1 on my monitor and the image was, well, okay, but MGM really needs to improve if they want to compete with Warner Archives and Sony's "Columbia Classics," labels whose DVD-Rs are consistently good to excellent.
At a Los Angeles bank (at the corner of Pico Boulevard and Roxbury Drive), bespectacled, mild-mannered loan officer and teller Leon Poole (Wendell Corey) is recognized by one of his customers, former army sergeant Otto Flanders (John Larch). He knew Poole as "Foggy," when he was the target of endless merciless ribbing. At that moment, a group of bandits (led by an uncredited Lawrence Dobkin) make a daring daylight robbery, expertly stealing a fortune in cash. To Flanders's surprise, Poole tries unsuccessfully to stop the robbers as they leave.
Detectives Sam Wagner (Joseph Cotten) and Chris Gillespie (Michael Pate) correctly guess the bandits had inside help, and soon close in on Poole just as he's about to leave town. A gunfight erupts and Poole's wife is accidentally shot dead by Wagner. Poole is inconsolable.
Though sentenced to three consecutive 10-year prison terms, Poole is a model prisoner and after just three years transferred to a low-security work farm. There he seizes the opportunity to escape, the sole purpose being to murder Wagner's new wife, Lila (Rhonda Fleming), in retribution. Poole has planned his escape carefully, easily eluding a police dragnet and stealing a gun ("A .357 Magnum?" Wagner asks, "He's not after me - he's after elephants!"), inexorably drawing closer and closer to his intended victim.
The Killer Is Loose is a terrific little film on many levels. Cotten, as usual, is excellent, and much better cast in this than as Ward Bond's son in The Halliday Brand, a concurrent MGM MOD release. But it's Wendell Corey's creepy yet sympathetic milquetoast murderer that really stands out. Best remembered as the obnoxious detective friend of Jimmy Stewart in Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954), Corey wasn't particularly distinctive most of the time, but his performance in The Killer Is Loose suggests maybe casting agents never understood his strengths.
With his broad forehead and huge hyperopic, horn-rimmed glasses, Corey's Poole is a dead ringer for "Brains," the scientific genius from TV's Thunderbirds, but with all the insecurities of Norman Bates. Corey underplays him, often barely speaking above a whisper, and generates a lot of sympathy. As he explains in one particularly smart, even touching monologue, he adored his late wife because she was the only one who never laughed at him.
One of the picture's many highlights is a scene where Poole holds Otto Flanders and his wife, Grace (Dee J. Thompson*), hostage. Each tries various means to talk Poole out of killing them, but he's mentally and physically exhausted, long past any moral considerations. How the scene ends may have influenced a similar bit of business in John Frankenheimer's great The Manchurian Candidate (1962).
Lila is a familiar character in such films - the wife of a police detective who, fearful of her husband's safety, wants him to quit so bad she threatens to leave him if he doesn't - yet the film adds some interesting new wrinkles to this. Both Wagner and Lila are selfish with their lives, and Wagner makes a lot of mistakes during the course of the picture, including underestimating the threat against Lila. Particularly good is how Gillespie's dutiful wife (Virginia Christine), chastises Lila's selfishness.
The climax is unusually hair-raising, with Poole closing in on both Sam and Lila with police strategically placed all along the Wagner's quiet residential street. It's as tense as anything from the fifties.
The film began at Fox but the property was eventually sold to Crown Productions, which was releasing through UA. The story is credited to John and Ward Hawkins, who also wrote the basis for the similarly good Crime Wave (1954). They later produced Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie but few other pictures like this. Screenwriter Harold Medford is credited with a dizzying range of films, from the Cinerama travelogue South Seas Adventure (1958) and the horror film The Phantom of Rue Morgue (1954) to the airline disaster drama Fate Is the Hunter (1964). That and this are probably his best films.
The strong cast includes a pre-Gilligan's Island Alan Hale, Jr. as a gluttonous, not-too-bright police officer; Arthur Space as a police chief; and Stanley Adams as an unlucky honor farm guard.
Video & Audio
The Killer Is Loose is too good to look so bland on DVD. The full-frame, open-matte transfer ruins compositions better served zoomed in to 1.78:1 on widescreen monitors. The region 1 DVD-R is also quite soft with weak contrast, and there's a lot of speckling and other minor damage, though overall the presentation is okay. The English-only audio is average. There are the usual chapter stops every ten minutes but no Extra Features.
A terrific thriller even if the DVD is well below par, The Killer Is Loose is still as fresh and exciting today as it was 55 years ago and thus Highly Recommended - if more for the movie than the DVD.
* No relation to director J. Lee Thompson.
Stuart Galbraith IV's audio commentary for AnimEigo's Tora-san, a DVD boxed set, is on sale now.