A Foot in Each World 

Don Siegel’s pockmarked and picaresque career

Thursday, Jul 21 2005
UCLA Arts Library Special Collections
Directors, it is said, “sign” their names to their work. For Don Siegel — the subject of a UCLA Film and Television Archive retrospective running through August 7 — that was literally the case. From 1973 on, the words “a Siegel film” appeared at the start of his pictures, scrawled on the screen in an elegant cursive script. But long before then, Siegel was making his mark on movies in other, less obvious ways — even if 36 features in 35 years, most made on assignment and some on schedules of as little as nine days, makes for a trail even Harry Callahan might have a tough time following. Like those other titans of American B movies who arrived at roughly the same moment — Sam Fuller, Budd Boetticher and Andre de Toth — Siegel’s is a career void of either the luxury or the inclination to take long intervals, waiting for inspiration (or good material) to arrive. “In the motion picture business,” Siegel wrote in a posthumously published memoir that is among the most honest and entertaining of show-biz biographies, “you soon learn to slip the punches, or you’re not around very long feeling sorry for yourself.” Words worthy of a Siegel protagonist — terse, wily men of action who, be they cop or crook, lover or fighter, cowboy or Indian, often find themselves with one foot planted in each of two opposing worlds.

Though he is best known for his collaborations with Clint Eastwood (including Dirty Harry, Coogan’s Bluff and Escape From Alcatraz) and a science-fiction classic (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) about the ease with which we might lose our humanity, Siegel first garnered attention in the late 1930s and early ’40s as an editor and, later, an assistant director under contract to Warner Brothers, where he would direct his first two features: The Verdict (1946) and Night Unto Night (1947). What follows is pocked by inconsistency. Siegel himself had little regard for the Cold War shenanigans of No Time For Flowers (1952) or the exotic romance of Spanish Affair (1957), while late in his career he became involved in two troubled, high-profile productions whose fortunes are aptly summarized by their titles: Rough Cut (1980) and Jinxed! (1982).

But it’s worth remembering that not even every Picasso is a masterpiece, and if we limit ourselves to Siegel’s strongest work, we still have Riot in Cellblock 11 (1954), an entirely unconventional prison picture in which the inmates and warden work together toward a shared understanding, only to be undone by a bureaucracy beyond their control; Baby Face Nelson (1957), with its astonishing Mickey Rooney performance — Siegel was particularly good at casting against type — and a bullet-riddled romanticism that anticipates Bonnie and Clyde; the unsentimental battlefield camaraderie of Hell is For Heroes (1962); and Madigan (1968), a coarse-grained police story whose eponymous detective feels closer to the lowlifes he patrols than to the wife he supposedly loves.

It was the enormous success of the Eastwood pictures that finally bought Siegel a greater degree of artistic autonomy. Eastwood was himself party to The Beguiled (1970), as the wounded Union solider convalescing in a Confederate girls school where more than the students’ chastity is kept under lock and key. It was an astonishing Southern gothic — sexy, terrifying and unexpectedly lyrical — and one saw the hand of the former editor in its elegant montage sequences. Charley Varrick (1972) was greater still, a picaresque heist caper with a smirking antihero whose motto — “Last of the Independents” — might have been Siegel’s own. Which may explain why Charley is one of the few Siegel characters allowed to meet a happy end.

There are not many today who approach Siegel’s narrative speed, choreography of screen action or preference for bandits more brutal than gentlemanly. Not that many even seem to be trying. But this is exactly the sort of filmography that should inspire others to forgery.

DON SIEGEL | At UCLA Film and Television Archive | Through August 7 | www.cinema.ucla.edu

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