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A smartly directed mid-fifties noir with a sensational central performance from the overlooked Wendell Corey, The Killer is Loose shows director Budd Boetticher at ease with a modest budget, creating good crime-story suspense. Thanks to actor Corey, the show can also go down as a must-see picture in the development of on-screen psycho killers. All that's needed is Talking Heads' Psycho Killer to make this one a perfect retro-hit for 2011.
The focus is on a bitter revenge tale. A detective and his wife's domestic problems take much of the screen time, but Corey's villain runs away with the movie. He's absolutely nuts, and the most charismatic person we see.
At a Savings & Loan (at Pico and Roxbury in Los Angeles) teller Leon "Foggy" Poole (Wendell Corey) gets clubbed over the head trying to prevent a robbery. Only later does Detective Sam Wagner (Joseph Cotten) discover that Poole was the inside man on the job. When the police close in Poole starts shooting. Thinking him alone in his apartment, Sam bursts through a door and fires, killing Poole's clueless wife Doris (Martha Crawford). Poole is sentenced to ten years for his crimes. Two years of good behavior earns him a transfer to an honor farm, where he immediately breaks free and goes on a killing spree. L.A. detectives alert Sam immediately, as Poole swore to murder Sam's wife Lila (Rhonda Fleming) in retaliation. Just as the cops are baiting a trap for Poole at Sam's house, Lila realizes what's going on and rushes home to be with her husband...
Budd Boetticher is known first and foremost as a maker of superior westerns, but his early filmography includes no-budget noirs, adventure stories and movies about his life's love of bullfighting, as seen in the superb The Bullfighter and the Lady. The Killer is Loose is not as cheap as many B&W United Artists programmers from this time, as it has a number of well-filmed locations and an exemplary cast. Cameraman Lucien Ballard shoots with the no-frills 'police story' approach that had supplanted the earlier, more expressionistic noir style. The hazy Los Angeles sunlight is captured very well in the film's many location exteriors, which include a roadblock out in the semi-marshland behind Marina Del Rey. Boetticher uses his short schedule to concentrate on several brilliantly constructed sequences.
Viewers complain about the dated romantic angle, with detective Sam Wagner trying to shield his thoughtless wife Lila from the realities of police work. It's foolish the way he routinely lies to her; a habit that would make any spouse suspicious and doubtful. For her part, the air-headed Lila can't be trusted to stay in one place even after she knows the score -- she has to go running off to lend hubby her emotional support.
Wendell Corey's Foggy Poole makes those flaws easy to forget. A nut job with a perpetual look of confusion on his face, Poole got his nickname in the Army because his poor vision. Cause & effect and prime responsibility mean nothing to Poole. After helping to rob a bank he provokes a gunfight with the police even though his wife is at home too. When she's shot down he insists on blaming the cops, specifically Sam. Poole's one-track logic can't be reasoned with. He's on the list for a possible parole but instead chooses to murder a guard (with a truly brutal weapon) and rush back to carry out his vendetta against Sam and Lila.
The film's best scene shows Foggy invading the home of his ex-sergeant Otto Flanders (John Larch of The Phenix City Story and The Careless Years) and terrorizing Flanders' wife Grace (Dee. J. Thompson). With Poole's .357 Magnum leveled at his navel, Otto attempts a psychological approach with the forlorn-looking Foggy. As a distraction, Otto asks Foggy to remember that he was no match for his sergeant back in the South Pacific, and Poole agrees that it would be easy for Otto to overpower him. Otto's effort is like a poorly played poker hand in one of Boetticher's Ranown westerns -- all he accomplishes is to convince Foggy that he has only one logical course of action. Director John Frankenheimer must have liked Boetticher's inventive climax to this scene, because he duplicated it for a violent moment in his later The Manchurian Candidate.
The stakeout at the Wagners' makes for a tense conclusion that feels like a replay of the previous year's The Desperate Hours, directed by William Wyler. The death-in-suburbia motif had already been seen in Shield for Murder and would later be repeated to memorable effect in Don Siegel's remake of The Killers and Burt Kennedy's The Money Trap, which is perhaps the last of the genuine B&W studio noirs and also features Joseph Cotten.
Cotten seems a bit long in the tooth to be a detective action-man. His relationship with Rhonda Fleming lacks chemistry: if that aspect were in balance The Killer is Loose would probably be a minor classic. The next best performance is from Virginia Christine, as another cop's wife who gives Lila a powerful lecture about her lousy attitude (and acts Ms. Fleming off the screen). Alan Hale Jr. is the rather dumb cop who messes up a phone tap and the dependable Michael Pate is Sam's police partner.
The MGM Limited Edition Collection's DVD-R of The Killer is Loose looks like an older transfer and carries a United Artists logo that dates it from before 1996 or so. The so-so image could be a lot sharper if enhanced for widescreen and presented at its proper Aspect Ratio. If not properly matted (widescreen TV owners can do that) many compositions look too loose and relaxed. Audio is all right but some of the location sound needs all the clarity it can get, and the hiss level is also fairly high. It's an acceptable transfer overall but not as good-looking as newer MGM work.
No extras are included. The disc art's cluttered star photo montage is pretty bad -- it neglects to include an image of the gorgeous Ms. Fleming and substitutes a character shot of the relatively minor player Dee. J. Thompson. Ms. Thompson is reportedly still with us -- somebody should tell her that she's been given a high roost on a DVD cover!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Killer is Loose rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.