United Artists, 73m 8s
By the mid-1950s, film noir was 10 years removed from the stylized compositions that marked the ominous tone of the classic years. Exaggerated shadows and oblique camera angles had given way to a more naturalistic approach to the crime film. The 1950s would become noted for police procedurals in the vein of the popular television series DRAGNET. THE KILLER IS LOOSE fits that category to be sure, though it is far more fascinating as a character study of its hopelessly unbalanced criminal Leon Poole (Wendell Corey). Though not an exercise in noir style, THE KILLER IS LOOSE treads noir water through the anatomization of its escaped killer Leon, with an emphasis on the mental anguish that motivates his behavior. Leon is one of film noir's walking dead, a man with nothing to lose driven mad by a traumatic past.
Though Leon plays the role of meek bank teller, it is quickly ascertained he is a heist team member also. As local law enforcement officials converge on Leon's modest dwelling, his wife Doris (Martha Crawford, uncredited) is shot dead mistakenly by Detective Sam Wagner (Joseph Cotten). For his crucial part in an inside job, Leon receives multiple ten-year sentences to brood in prison, where he will think only of vengeance. If he lost his wife, why should the man behind her death get to keep his? By any means necessary, Leon is determined to do away with Sam's pregnant wife Lila (Rhonda Fleming, some 18 years the junior of Joseph Cotten, and it is painfully evident).
After three years of good behavior brings Leon to low-security farm labor, his revenge mission reveals a callous attitude toward his fellow man. First prisoner number 791181 violently commandeers a cargo truck by way of a detached hoe blade, next he opportunistically employs a sickle to eliminate (off-screen, thankfully) the world’s most unfortunate farmer. As Leon prepares to deal with the unseen farmer, an approaching thunderstorm accompanies his dark thoughts. It is a tense scene that strongly suggests meal-oriented police officers like Denny (Alan Hale Jr.) will struggle to contain the wrath of Leon.
Like THE BLUE DAHLIA (1946), HIGH WALL (1947), THE CROOKED WAY (1949) and ACT OF VIOLENCE (1949), THE KILLER IS LOOSE is another noir narrative that features a veteran with some type of deficiency. Vision is Leon's major physical limitation. Dependent on bifocals, his nearsightedness is put on display at regular intervals. When we first meet Leon, he is stuck waiting on Otto Flanders (John Larch), who served as Leon's sergeant in the military. "Otto used to make my life miserable," Leon bitterly admits. Otto condescendingly tagged the clumsy, vision-impaired Leon with the nickname "Foggy" and still refers to him by that name (not knowing when to stop ensures Otto’s demise). Leon discloses he was treated similarly by insensitive schoolmates, so in truth the origin of his malaise lies not in war, but childhood trauma. Leon's wife was the lone person in his life who never laughed at him, who never made him feel unimportant. None of this should let Leon off the hook entirely though, since he is indeed a murderer of innocents. He even kills a man whose wife stands nearby! Nonetheless, THE KILLER IS LOOSE forces one to consider the psychology of its killer in a Freudian sense. The obvious message is a timeless one: the most thoughtless among us ostracize people who are harmlessly different and thus help manufacture mentally challenged cases like Leon.
Director Budd Boetticher builds suspense admirably in this fast-moving revenge story, adapted for the screen by Harold Medford from a story by John Hawkins and Ward Hawkins (THE SATURDAY EVENING POST, June 13th, 1953). Best remembered for his Westerns that starred Randolph Scott, Boetticher is not known for his contributions to the film noir genre, though he did direct BEHIND LOCKED DOORS (1948), a notable entry. THE KILLER IS LOOSE is precisely the type of B production noir fans crave. Though it lacks the classic look of '40s noir, it is not without prevailing noir themes and motifs, as when heavy rainfall accents the final act. But more than anything else, this movie's noir credentials are established by its quirky villain.
Wendell Corey, so effective as the lead protagonist in HELL'S HALF ACRE (1954), offers a well-controlled performance as Leon, a dangerously disturbed man who is not entirely unsympathetic. Corey is chilling when he stares at Fleming after his character’s sentence is declared. The Leon character has a definite antecedent in Eddie Miller (Arthur Franz), the unhinged veteran and killer of Edward Dmytryk's outstanding film noir THE SNIPER (1952). The strong suggested violence of THE KILLER IS LOOSE may have its origin in WITHOUT WARNING! (1952), in which Carl Martin (Adam Williams) disposes of his victims with garden shears. In terms of influence on films that would come later, the basic template of THE KILLER IS LOOSE anticipates CAPE FEAR (1962), the more famous film about a man after the family of the man he believes wronged him. And when a stalking Leon impersonates a woman near the end of THE KILLER IS LOOSE, he may have been the inspiration for one of the more strikingly violent sequences built around Max Cady (Robert De Niro) in the neonoir CAPE FEAR (1991), the Martin Scorsese-helmed remake of the 1962 version. The docile looking, borderline feminine Leon also predates two of the most famous movie killers who would change the face of horror forever: Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) from PSYCHO (1960) and Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Böhm) from PEEPING TOM (1960).
The single-layered Blu-ray disc available from ClassicFlix may be the only credible version of THE KILLER IS LOOSE available for purchase. The feature presentation looks to have been scanned from stellar source material, framed at the intended theatrical scope of 1.85:1. Though void of supplementary material, the inexpensive disc is a worthy add.
The theatrical poster tagline that reads, “The story of a cop who used his wife as bait for a killer!” does not reflect the plot mechanics accurately.