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Part of my Women in Peril series.
The Killer is Loose (1956) directed by Budd Boetticher revolves around a bank robbery in downtown L.A. While the police have set up a wiretapping operation it is revealed that the meek bank teller Leon Poole is the inside man. Leon had faked going after the robbers and getting struck by one of them in the process. This impresses his old army Sargent who was in the bank at the time. We learn that the nickname Foggy was given to Leon by his superior officer and the entire company apparently to poke fun at Leon” Foggy” Poole for being a simple-minded coward. Starring Joseph Cotten as Detective Sam Wagner, Rhonda Fleming as his wife Lila, and Wendell Corey as Leon “Foggy” Poole.
During the apprehension of Leon, Detective Sam Wagner accidentally kills Poole’s young wife who wasn’t supposed to be home, and at Leon’s trial, he swears to get back at Detective Wagner while staring at Detective Wagner’s wife who is present in the courtroom.
This is the inception of the woman in peril theme once Leon sets his gaze on Sam’s wife Lila the object of his hatred fixed on her from here on in.
In a very chilling manner, Leon asks why Sam’s wife Lila should still be alive. Leon’s lack of affect shows us a more deranged man than someone who might be prone to violent outbursts, and it is this subtlety of his underlying psychosis that is so frightening.
About three years later, Poole (until then a model prisoner) abruptly takes his chance to kill a guard and escape. It’s clear during the ensuing manhunt that Poole is obsessed in pursuit of a single end; but not quite the end everyone supposes.
After serving 3 years in prison, Leon gets assigned to an “honor” work farm, where because of his mild manner and seemingly model behavior is trusted to go on a ride with one of the prison guards to unload a truck. Leon seizes the opportunity to escape by brutally killing the driver and then proceeds on his odyssey of revenge. Like a shark that never stops moving, Leon is driven only by his desire to exact the same outcome for Detective Wagner, to target Lila as retribution for the killing of his beloved wife. Leon becomes a killing machine. Going from one opportunistic murder to the next until he can reach Sam’s wife. So begins the full-scale manhunt for the killer on the loose.
Budd Boetticher gives us a very bleak yet dramatic landscape of America’s man vs society, cop vs criminal, and good vs evil. Like some of the wild west pictures that Boetticher is known for, except here it’s played out in an urban city setting. Leon is a man set on revenge with no other driving desire and void of a consciousness that we can see.
The Killer is Loose is uncompromisingly realistic and often brutal in its portrayal of the ordinary machinations of a psychotic murderer, especially for its time. I’m not a huge Rhonda Fleming fan, but I do love Joseph Cotten in anything even his later cult and horror period like Baron Blood, Airport ’77, and Soylent Green.
The really memorable star of this gutsy Mise en scene police vs criminal noir is the killer himself Leon “Foggy” Poole played brilliantly by Wendell Corey who defined his sober character with simplicity, and an almost naivete childlike quality. This is what makes the film so compelling. Leon doesn’t understand why he shouldn’t kill the people who are getting in the way of his fixing Detective Sam Wagner for having inadvertently killed Leon’s wife during a raid on his apartment.
Wendell Corey’s Leon never comes across as unhinged in an overt way, it’s the way he holds back his emotions that makes his killer enigmatic and makes your skin crawl.
There are moments of exasperation in The Killer Is Loose for me. The police often miss the mark when trying to effectively do their job, and I find Rhonda Fleming’s character as Sam’s wife Lila annoying most of the time. I was more sympathetic to Mary, the wife of Sam’s partner Michael Pate (Curse Of The Undead)Detective Chris Gillespie played by great character actress Virginia Christine.
Still, The Killer Is Loose is a compelling watch, because of its existential informality in some of the more brutal moments which are powerful. The tone of Killer overrode the failings of this film for me and so I was able to separate myself from the few things that irked me like Lila’s stubborn harping and the police’s ineffectual fumblings.
There are some other great veteran actors in this film like the always jovial Alan Hale Jr and John Larch who plays Otto Flanders, Foggy’s superior officer in the army who gave him the nickname Foggy as an insult.