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The Essentials: The Films Of Don Siegel

Features
by Oliver Lyttelton
April 20, 2012 12:04 PM
6 Comments
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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 It centers on a doctor (Kevin McCarthy) whose patients insist their loved ones have been replaced by impostors: perfect duplicates grown in pods, who are identical to their human counterparts but lack all emotion.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.  

"Madigan" (1968)
Cop movies became something of a staple for Siegel, from "Coogan's Bluff" to his most famous film, "Dirty Harry." But arguably his best is "Madigan," which at the time rescued the helmer from a string of flops, but has been overshadowed since. Following two cops, Madigan (Richard Widmark) and Whitmore (Harry Guardino) as they try to track down the killer who's stolen their guns, as their commissioner (Henry Fonda) wrestles with police corruption, brutality and his own personal life, it's a taut, realistic thriller that anticipates both the buddy cop movie and the procedurals of Sidney Lumet. It is somewhat disjointed: Fonda's storylines always feel like they're from a different movie than Widmark & Guardino's investigations. But they're each individually compelling, with strong performances, and Siegel's grounded style works perfectly; this is the template of every cop show that followed since, essentially. Indeed, Madigan returned (**SPOILER**having been killed off at the end of the film**END SPOILER**) in a 1972 TV series of the same name, with Richard Widmark reprising his role. Unfortunately, it lasted a mere six episodes.

"Dirty Harry" (1971)
Coming three years after both "Madigan" and "Coogan's Bluff" Siegel's first collaboration with Clint Eastwood, "Dirty Harry" is almost the antithesis of "Madigan." Where that film is a nuanced, realistic watch, this is essentially a superhero movie (something that only became more true in the sequels). The project had been in development at Warner Bros for years, with writers including John Milius and Terence Malick (of all people) penning scripts, and Frank Sinatra originally cast in the lead, of the tough, near-fascistic cop trying to bring down remorseless killer Scorpio -- based on the real-life Zodiac killer -- with Irvin Kershner ("The Empire Strikes Back") directing. When Sinatra bowed out due to a wrist injury, Clint Eastwood stepped in, with the condition that his new BFF Siegel was hired to direct. Thanks to those sequels of diminishing return, the film earned a bad rep as a right-wing tract over the years, but in the first installment, Siegel's ambivalence over his hero wins out over anything else. The film is a mirror, with right-wingers cheering him on, and left-wingers able to condemn him. But politics aside, Siegel handles the film with firm skill. It's taut and atmospheric, with one of the all-time great screen depictions of San Francisco, and one of Eastwood's most iconic performances. Oh, and Lalo Schifrin (who worked with the filmmaker five times) contributes one of his best scores here.

"Charley Varrick" (1973)
Siegel's late-period masterpiece, "Charley Varrick" is one of the most enjoyable and underrated crime pictures of the 1970s, and one that took a few years to get true critical respect. The title character (Walter Matthau in one of his most atypical and best roles) is a stunt pilot-turned-crop-duster who decides to rob a New Mexico bank. His wife and two cops are killed in the process, but things get even worse when Varrick and his partner Sullivan (Andrew Robinson, Scorpio from "Dirty Harry") realize that they've accidentally ripped off a mob money laundering operation, and they've got a number of terrifying underworld figures, including Molly (Joe Don Baker) and Boyle (John Vernon) after them. It's a lurid, seedy, bleak little world that Siegel creates (that acts like a precursor to another sprawling New Mexico crime tale "Breaking Bad") but Matthau instills enough humanity in Varrick that makes you root for him throughout, and the colorful supporting characters -- Baker in particular proving a formidable foe -- are indelible. It might get a little silly towards the climax, but not enough to derail what remains one of the director's finest films. It's been badly treated it on DVD, but it can be found on Netflix: you're unlikely to have a better time with a movie this weekend.

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6 Comments

  • Bob G | April 26, 2012 7:55 PMReply

    As much as I love all of the films listed, it seems that Siegel's noir classics of the 50s are under-represented. Personally I would have selected "Baby Face Nelson", "Riot in Cell Block 11" and "The Line-Up" over films like "Madigan" and "The Killers".

  • Fred | April 25, 2012 11:47 AMReply

    Superb picks here, every one.

  • RetroHound.com | April 24, 2012 4:36 PMReply

    I haven't seen Madigan and Charlie Varrick is in my queue, but I loved the Killers. Overall though, I'd have to say that his work with Eastwood is his most consistent.

  • G.T.O. | April 24, 2012 4:31 PMReply

    Thanks, Nice article!

  • Thomas Clement | April 24, 2012 1:15 PMReply

    Invasion of the Body Snatchers "an indictment of McCarthyism"? Hardly:

    http://freedomfightermedia.com/ffm_wir_9may11.htm

  • Lou | April 21, 2012 3:12 PMReply

    Charley Varrick: One of my favourite movies. Unpredictable in its development. This, Le cercle rouge (Melville) and Police Python 357 (Corneau) are my top three thrillers. Dirty Harry is not bad, either.

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