In the credits to his masterpiece "Unforgiven," Clint Eastwood included a dedication: "for Don Siegel and Sergio Leone." Leone was a no-brainer, one of the great filmmakers who worked with Clint on a trio of films ("The Good The Bad And The Ugly," "A Fistful Of Dollars" and "For A Few Dollars More"). But Siegel was less beloved of cinephiles. A cosmopolitan Chicago native who studied at Jesus College, Cambridge, he started directing montages at Warner Bros. (including the opening scene of "Casablanca"), before breaking into features, with a string of B-movies with everyone from Robert Mitchum to Elvis Presley (the latter on 1960's "Flaming Star"), but became most notable for his work with Eastwood on five pictures from 1968's "Coogan's Bluff" to 1979's "Escape From Alcatraz."
Siegel was an unpretentious, unprecious director, best known for tough, muscular crime movies, but he never became an auteur favorite, despite his obvious skills and the undeniable strong and coherent vision he displayed across his pictures. Siegel passed away 21 years ago today, on April 20, 1991, aged 78, and to mark the occasion, we've rounded up five of the filmmaker's very best pictures to give you a starting point into one of tough-guy cinema's most talented moviemakers. Check them out below, and let us know your own favorite Siegel picture.
"Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (1956)
The “Citizen Kane” of 1950s science fiction films, the original “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” is still the best. Based on the Jack Finney novel “The Body Snatchers,” the story should be familiar to anyone semi-literate in film. It centers on a doctor (Kevin McCarthy) whose patients insist their loved ones have been replaced by impostors: perfect duplicates grown in pods, who are identical to their human counterparts but lack all emotion. Widely seen as an indictment of McCarthyism, the film works as both paranoid thriller and political allegory (the best ones usually do). 'Invasion' is markedly different from Siegel's later works (although he started off in the B-movie world, and would direct a number of episodes of "The Twilight Zone" soon after this film), and it's a shame he didn't go in this direction more often, walking the line between many genres (noir, sci-fi, horror) without ever stepping into silliness. Despite the opening/closing bookends shoehorned onto the film by the studio, the ending (featuring one of the best examples of breaking the 4th wall in cinema history) is still chilling. "They're here already! You're next!" Despite solid remakes from Philip Kaufman and Abel Ferrera, this is the superior version.
"The Killers" (1964)
Two men, Charlie (Lee Marvin) and Lee (Clu Galager) walk into a school for the blind and brutally execute a teacher, Johnny North (John Cassavetes). It's an incredibly arresting opening, arguably the peak of the film, but that doesn't mean that for the rest of the running time -- as Charlie and Lee go to Miami to investigate why Johnny didn't run from them (instead calmly accepting his fate), and discover the story behind a multi-million dollar heist involving criminal Jack Browning (Ronald Reagan) and moll Sheila (Angie Dickinson) -- that Siegel is treading water. Adapted as loosely as imaginable from Ernest Hemingway's short story, and oft-compared to the 1946 version (which Siegel was meant to direct, but was fired from), the film wasn't very well-received at the time, particularly by NBC executives, who'd commissioned it as the first made-for-TV movie, but were forced to shift it to theaters due to the violence. But it now stands as a forward-looking film in its existential, garish, sunny take on the noir movie, seemingly influencing everything from "Point Blank" to "Pulp Fiction" (the relationship between Marvin and Gulager is an acknowledged inspiration for the one between John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson in Tarantino's film). It's rough around the edges and it's certainly less subtle than Robert Siodmak's version, but both are available as part of the same Criterion Collection package, and watching them together makes it clear that they're both minor classics of the genre.