Don Siegel Centennial

26 Oct

Don Siegel would have turned 100 today, October 26, 2012. He’s a film director who has 49 directing credits on IMDB, 36 of them feature-length films, and is probably best known for INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956) and DIRTY HARRY (1971), his two most talked-about films and, arguably, his two best. He happens to be one of the very first directors I began following as a budding film buff in high school, when I saw COOGAN’S BLUFF as a sophomore and, a year-and-a-half later in my senior year, TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA. Then I saw THE BEGUILED and DIRTY HARRY in my freshman year of college and recognized how well Siegel and the star of all four of these films, Clint Eastwood, worked together. This was even before my grounding in the auteur theory, which happened a little later and led me to seek out Siegel’s earlier films on TV and in revival theaters. These included THE BIG STEAL, THE DUEL AT SILVER CREEK, RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11, THE LINEUP, FLAMING STAR, HELL IS FOR HEROES, THE KILLERS, and MADIGAN, which I had missed in theaters in 1968. At some point during all of this, I learned that Siegel had directed INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, which I’d seen at a film screening (on 16mm) at a youth program in church when I was about 12 or 13 and had liked very much.

Siegel had started out in 1934 at the film library at Warner Bros. and worked his way up to become, by 1941, a second unit director and creator of montages—those short, packed sequences used to convey passages of time and a rapid turn of events. He had to stage lots of action for these moments and wound up developing great skill at it, which served him well when he became a director of films that involved movement, speed, chases and fights. He began directing shorts in 1945 and was soon directing low-budget melodramas and action films early in his career (the best of which were THE BIG STEAL, 1949, and THE DUEL AT SILVER CREEK, 1952), before earning critical acclaim with two films produced by Walter Wanger for Allied Artists: RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 (1954) and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. He did a western that is often cited as Elvis Presley’s best film, FLAMING STAR (1960) and a gritty war movie that featured Steve McQueen in an early starring role, HELL IS FOR HEROES (1962). At Universal, he directed two of the earliest made-for-TV movies, THE KILLERS (1964) and THE HANGED MAN (1964), both remakes of 1940s film noir done at Universal (THE KILLERS, 1946, and RIDE THE PINK HORSE, 1947, respectively). It was his films with Clint Eastwood, listed above, that earned Siegel the most critical acclaim and boxoffice success. After DIRTY HARRY (1971), his most distinguished films were CHARLEY VARRICK (1973), a caper movie with Walter Matthau; THE SHOOTIST (1976), a western and John Wayne’s final film; TELEFON (1977), a spy thriller with Charles Bronson; and ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ (1979), his fifth and final film with Clint Eastwood.

I watched five Siegel films this past week for this piece, including one I’d never seen before. I’ll start off with the best of the five.

INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956)

I’ve seen this multiple times over the years, but until I watched a DVD I picked up recently, I hadn’t seen it in about two decades. I’d forgotten how good it is. The basic plot is about an invasion of a California town by mysterious pods, origin unknown but probably extraterrestrial, that can grow bodies to duplicate humans but without their souls. Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) and his high school sweetheart, Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), both recently divorced and reunited after several years, only gradually figure out what’s going on, after hearing several seemingly irrational complaints by people in the town that family members have been replaced by imposters. Eventually, only Miles and Becky are unaffected and battle against odds to try and flee the town and get help. It’s incredibly suspenseful and the tensions all emerge from the way humans and their non-human replacements interact with each other. There are some special effects involving prop pods that gradually take on human form (foreshadowing John Carpenter’s THE THING, 1982), but the action and suspense are mostly generated by threats from seemingly benign friends, neighbors and family members. It all culminates in a chase as the townspeople amass on foot and try to catch up with the fleeing Miles and Becky before they leave town.

The whole thing is shot on location, partly in a town called Sierra Madre, with the chase scenes shot in Los Angeles around Griffith Park and Bronson Canyon.  There’s an incredibly chilling scene where we see the town square occupied by people, now all replaced by pods, greeting trucks filled with pods, all to be distributed to people with family and friends in neighboring towns to start the whole process there. It’s shot from the angle of Miles’ office as he and Becky watch the whole thing unfold from their hiding place.

Future director Sam Peckinpah (THE WILD BUNCH) was Dialogue Director on the film and has a small part as Charlie, the gas meter reader. He has three scenes and dialogue in each. He’s the center figure in the picture below:

COOGAN’S BLUFF (1968)

COOGAN’S BLUFF was the first Siegel film I saw in a theater as well as the first Clint Eastwood starring role I saw in a theater. (I saw it on June 20, 1969 when it played a local theater on a double bill with 100 RIFLES. I’d seen FRANCIS IN THE NAVY, 1955, in which Eastwood has a supporting role, on a triple feature with THE MAGIC SWORD and BEND OF THE RIVER, six years earlier.) This was the first of Siegel’s five-film collaboration with Eastwood. It’s a fish-out-of-water story and a contemporary police thriller with a generous dose of western flavor to capitalize on Eastwood’s recent success in Italian westerns and his first post-Italian Hollywood starring role in HANG ’EM HIGH. Eastwood plays an Arizona deputy sheriff named Coogan, an expert at tracking fugitives, who is sent to New York to bring back a criminal named Ringerman (Don Stroud) who’d jumped bail after being arrested in Arizona. When Ringerman escapes from his custody, Coogan defies orders and pursues his prey through the mean streets of Manhattan, a bustling, chaotic metropolis hostile to Coogan’s brand of rough justice. Coogan prowls through cheap hotels, shabby apartments, rundown pool halls and a psychedelic hippie dance club, as well as the well-appointed dwelling of a pretty, single social worker who advocates a gentle, psychological approach to the troubled young people she serves, including the girlfriend of Coogan’s quarry. It all culminates in a thrilling motorcycle chase through the paths of Fort Tryon Park in upper Manhattan.

It’s a film that’s very much of its time, for better or worse. There are some excellent sequences filmed on location in New York, including the finale in Fort Tryon Park (in which Eastwood rides the cycle himself in some shots taken in zero-degree temperatures), yet much of it was shot on soundstages and the Universal backlot. Coogan checks into a crummy hotel ($5 a night if you have luggage, $7 if you don’t) on the backlot street and looks out the studio-lit window followed by a cut to Eighth Avenue in the 40s, which looks nothing like the backlot. There are long stretches devoted to Coogan’s attempts to bed down the prim social worker, Julie (Susan Clark). Coogan had first met her at the police station when he’d decked out the delinquent (Seymour Cassel) who’d groped her as she tried to counsel him. He then spends much of the rest of the film harassing her himself and using her affections in order to acquire the info he needs on Ringerman’s girlfriend, Linny Raven (Tisha Sterling). As Julie prepares a spaghetti dinner, Coogan rifles her files (conveniently located in her living room) and finds the one on Raven and then splits with the address, leaving poor Julie alone in the kitchen with her sauce.  The scenes with the two of them really slow down the movie and give it the languid pace and look of a TV movie.

But we do get Eastwood in an early form of the persona he would perfect in DIRTY HARRY and many later films—the self-righteous, vengeful man of action, confident in his mission and disdainful of the rules, but capable of humor and pouring on the charm he needs to display in order to get his way. He’s a little more vulnerable here, getting beaten up twice in the course of the movie and chewed out in a humiliating way by police superiors in both Arizona and New York. But we see the closeups where Eastwood expresses outrage, disbelief and violent anger before slugging someone. And he shows as little regard for legal niceties as he shows three years later in DIRTY HARRY.

I remember at the time I saw it (when I was all of 15) being impressed by the stronger language it used (“You Texas faggot!” a prostitute cries out after being caught by Coogan lifting his wallet and kicked out of the door) and the dose of female nudity in the hippie club (“Pigeon-Toed Orange Peel”) when a nude, but painted black dancer suspended on a cable swings down into Coogan’s arms and offers herself to him. (He spurns her, too, in his search for Linny Raven.) The film was rated “Suggested for Mature Audiences,” since it came out a month before the ratings system was installed. I’d always assumed this was the equivalent of the rating “M” for Mature, which was later renamed “PG.” However, the DVD copy I watched this week announced a rating of “R,” which baffles me since there’s little in it that would require such a harsh rating.

The action is not as frequent as we’d like, but is extremely well-staged throughout, particularly a brutal poolroom brawl where Coogan takes on five attackers and leaves bloody but unbowed. And the motorcycle chase scene through Fort Tryon Park, outside the Cloisters, a museum devoted to the art of medieval Europe, uses the whole sweep of the park and is quite exciting, especially when we see shots of Eastwood himself speeding on the cycle (although the more difficult stunts are shot from further away to obscure the stunt riders doubling for Eastwood and Stroud). I went to the Cloisters for the first time after seeing this movie.

The music score by Lalo Schifrin includes a catchy, melodic theme that was rather typical of the time but gives a jauntiness to the proceedings that doesn’t quite fit. Schifrin would develop a whole new, more effective scoring strategy for DIRTY HARRY.

DIRTY HARRY (1971)

This was clearly the most controversial film of Siegel’s long career. Labeled “fascist” by many critics at the time of its release, it followed the efforts of homicide detective Harry Callahan to track down and apprehend a serial killer who’s identified himself as Scorpio in missives sent to the office of the Mayor of San Francisco. Callahan, assigned to deliver a bag of money demanded by Scorpio as payment for revealing where a kidnapped young girl is being held, defies orders and breaks with standard police procedure by torturing the squealing killer in order to elicit the whereabouts of the girl, who is soon found dead, as Harry had predicted. Because the evidence Harry has gathered is declared by the D.A. and a consulting judge (and Berkeley law professor) to be “inadmissible,” the killer is let go and Harry proceeds to tail him until he makes his next move. When he does, by taking hostage a school bus full of children, Harry defies orders once again and goes into action.

Yes, the film is a fantasy. I’ve never heard of any serial killer being stopped and apprehended in this manner. In fact, Scorpio is based on an actual case, the Zodiac killer, who was at large when this film was made and was never caught. David Fincher made a film about the case, ZODIAC (2007), which includes a scene where the police detective protagonist (played by Mark Ruffalo) attends a premiere screening of DIRTY HARRY and mutters, “Whatever happened to due process?” in the course of it. In real life, if we are to believe ZODIAC, the investigating detective even has an encounter with a suspect who, we are led to believe, was most likely the killer, but is only questioned and never held by the police. Which makes us wonder if perhaps a no-nonsense cop like Callahan might actually have been needed in the real case. (And it does stretch credibility when the D.A. in DIRTY HARRY lets the killer go, unable to find something on which to keep the maniac who’s terrorized San Francisco jailed until more evidence can be found.)

Yes, Harry’s behavior definitely bordered on fascist. But he gets results. And at a time like 1971, when crime was on the rise, revolutionary fervor was in the air, and social breakdown was evident all around us, the audience, even those who were young and anti-authority, were hungry for a fantasy figure who wasn’t afraid to beat, torture and kill criminals and sneer at the excesses of the 1960s and the notion that these miscreants had any rights (“Well, I’m all broken up about that man’s rights”). A number of films about tough cops, all dubbed “fascist” by prominent film critics like Pauline Kael, achieved great success during this period.

Except for an early scene shot on the Universal backlot (even though the film was produced by Warner Bros.) where Harry stops a trio of bank robbers from escaping, the entire film was shot on location in San Francisco, often in out-of-the-way, off-the-beaten-path locales. Siegel’s camera is mobile and takes us into alleyways, clubs, side streets, tunnels, parks, train stations, rooftops and industrial sites, in both daylight hours and the night. There’s an economy of movement and precision in showing action that are as effective as in any thriller I’ve ever seen. What helps a great deal is Lalo Schifrin’s music score, which is more a collection of sounds than melodies or themes. It provides an atmosphere that suits what’s onscreen. Even woodwinds and brass are employed like percussion. It’s unsettling and designed to be so.

THE DUEL AT SILVER CREEK (1952)

In 1949, Siegel directed a chase thriller for RKO starring Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer ( the starring team from OUT OF THE PAST). It was somewhat lighthearted, with the action relying more on the movements of various characters in Mexico with one party pursuing another which is pursuing another, etc. than on actual bursts of violence. THE DUEL AT SILVER CREEK, a western Siegel made for Universal starring war hero-turned-western star Audie Murphy, was his first real action film and one chock full of bursts of violence. It opens with a gang of claim jumpers attacking a succession of miners and forcing them to sign over their claims and then killing them. The local sheriff (Stephen McNally) finds a wounded miner who can recognize the claim jumpers and takes him to a nearby fort where Opal Lacy (Faith Domergue), an elegant lady visitor, declares she’s had training as a nurse and offers to help, managing to clear the room to execute a quick strangle of the witness, thereby insuring that her lover, the leader of the claim jumpers, stays in the clear.

It’s a shocking bit of unexpected evil and it adds a layer of suspense to the film that would not have existed had the audience been kept in the dark about Miss Lacy’s twisted loyalties until a “surprise” at the climax. Audie Murphy plays the son of a murdered miner and becomes Sheriff Tyrone’s deputy, all the while remaining wary of Miss Lacy and her ostentatious show of  affection toward the sheriff, all to keep him off the trail of the killers.

Stephen McNally, Audie Murphy in DUEL AT SILVER CREEK

The action is fast and furious throughout, with lots of fights, shootouts and chases to fill up the film’s 77 minutes. There’s a bit of contrivance at the end to provoke the final shootout between the posse and the claim jumpers, but the script moves tidily up to that point, putting this one in the top rank of Murphy westerns, enabling Siegel to show off his command of onscreen action. I once read somewhere, although I can’t find the quote now, that Siegel claimed that Murphy had no confidence as an actor until Siegel’s coaching on this film. I’m a huge fan of Murphy and have seen most of his films (although I still haven’t seen his later collaboration with Siegel, THE GUN RUNNERS, a 1958 remake of TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT), and I can say that Murphy certainly seems more relaxed in this film than in his earlier westerns. (Although I must say that the tension he may have felt as an inexperienced actor in KANSAS RAIDERS, THE KID FROM TEXAS, and THE CIMARRON KID definitely added to the characters he played in those films.)

CRIME IN THE STREETS (1956)

This was the only Siegel film I hadn’t previously seen when I sat down to prepare for this entry. It’s a juvenile delinquent drama written by Reginald Rose and adapted from his own TV play, which ran a year earlier and also starred John Cassavetes, who recreates his role here. It came out after films like BLACKBOARD JUNGLE and REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE had established juvenile delinquency as an acceptable—and quite commercial—topic for a mainstream studio film. Unlike those films, however, this one was shot entirely on a cramped studio set meant to duplicate the New York tenement street where the characters live.

L-R: Mark Rydell, John Cassavetes, Sal Mineo in CRIME IN THE STREETS

It follows the antics of a teenage gang, the Hornets, led by the charismatic Frankie Dane (26-year-old Cassavetes playing an 18-year-old) until Dane decides to target a neighbor (Malcolm Atterbury) who’d fingered one of the gang for the police and declares his plan to kill him. The other gang members, all clearly more sensible than Frankie, bow out, with the exception of Frankie’s two chief sidekicks, Lou (Mark Rydell) and Angelo, aka “Baby” (Sal Mineo). Lou is something of a cretin and a psychopath and it’s a wonder he hasn’t been tagged and dispatched to the state pen (or asylum) already. Baby is a good kid from a stable nuclear Italian immigrant family—his father runs the local soda shop and candy counter—so it’s never clear why he puts up with Frankie’s lunacy. James Whitmore plays a social worker at a community center on the block who seems to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week and is constantly trying to get through to Frankie, eventually isolating the source of Frankie’s despair.

As someone who grew up in a tough neighborhood and knew plenty of gang members and social workers, I never once found anything in the film even remotely believable. It’s all a heavy-handed attempt to create something self-evidently socially conscious while also exploiting the subject matter to a certain degree. Rose went on, of course, to adapt another television play of his for a successful feature film the following year, TWELVE ANGRY MEN, which focused entirely on men of a certain age and class, confined to a jury room, and was considerably less self-conscious.

I meant to re-watch FLAMING STAR for this but didn’t get to it. I last saw it earlier this decade and consider it the one movie that proved to me that Elvis Presley could not only act, but that he could have been a great movie star if he’d focused on serious films instead of the musical fluff he was saddled with by Colonel Tom Parker throughout the 1960s.

Another Siegel film with a teen idol is HOUND-DOG MAN, starring Fabian. In Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide, the film is characterized this way: “Pleasant tale of southern country boys Fabian (in his film debut) and [Stuart] Whitman courting [Dodie] Stevens and [Carol] Lynley. Fabian is surprisingly good; of course, he also sings.” I’ve never seen it. It was never on TV when I was growing up, at least as far as I remember, and I’ve never noticed it in the TV listings since. It’s probably run on the Fox Movie Channel, but not when I was looking.

I saw BABY FACE NELSON (1957), with Mickey Rooney in the title role, when it was on TV as a child although I don’t remember if I saw the whole thing or not. I saw it at the Museum of Modern Art decades later, after I’d done some reading about Depression-era banditry and thought the script was awful and that Rooney was terribly miscast. I don’t remember my specific complaints about the movie, so I suppose I’ll have to watch it again sometime to elaborate them.

THE LINEUP (1958) is a police thriller with a car chase in San Francisco ten years before BULLITT (which was released two weeks after COOGAN’S BLUFF). The police heroes (drawn from a TV show of the same name) are overshadowed in the film by a trio of colorful criminal characters played by Eli Wallach, Robert Keith and Richard Jaeckel. I haven’t seen the film in a long time but I remember liking it.

I also need to re-watch THE KILLERS, derived from the 1946 movie of the same name, which was based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway, and was meant to be the very first made-for-TV movie but was shipped off to theaters instead since it was considered to be too violent for television. The focus is on the story’s two hired killers, played by Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager, and their quest to find out the story behind their latest target (John Cassavetes) and why he died without resistance, passively accepting his fate. Ronald Reagan plays a criminal mastermind in it, the only time he played a villain, and he liked the experience so much he sought out other villain parts. When he was turned down by director Philip Dunne for such a part in BLINDFOLD, Reagan opted to run for governor of California instead. Thus did a casting decision turn the tide of history. (I read this story in a newspaper column years ago and don’t recall the source.)

Siegel was one of a group of directors I began to follow in high school, as I began to associate the films I liked with the directorial talents responsible for them. The others included Robert Altman (M*A*S*H), Sam Peckinpah (THE WILD BUNCH) and Robert Aldrich (THE DIRTY DOZEN).  I’ll try to watch FLAMING STAR or THE GUN RUNNERS later tonight.

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3 Responses to “Don Siegel Centennial”

  1. Chuck April 11, 2013 at 5:56 PM #

    One of the things I always liked about Don Siegel and his movies was how straightforward they were. I recently read a biography on Clint Eastwood, and it stressed that was the main reason the two liked working together. They told relatively simple stories, didn’t get caught up in making “artistic statements” and were more first and foremost interested in entertaining audiences.

    Thanks for your entertaining recap!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Richard Widmark Centennial | Brian Camp's Film and Anime Blog - December 24, 2014

    […] wrote about both COOGAN’S BLUFF and DIRTY HARRY in my piece on Don Siegel’s centennial two years […]

  2. Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon: PORTRAIT OF JENNIE (1948) | Brian Camp's Film and Anime Blog - May 16, 2015

    […] Also, the scenes of the Cloisters recall for me the first film I saw that used the Cloisters as a location, Don Siegel’s COOGAN’S BLUFF (1968), starring Clint Eastwood as a tough Arizona cop pursuing a fugitive criminal (Don Stroud) in New York, culminating in a chase scene in Fort Tryon Park. I wrote about this film on October 26, 2012 in my piece on Don Siegel’s centennial. […]

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