Remembering Don Siegel

On the occasion of the UCLA Film and Television Archive’s Don Siegel retrospective, L.A. Weekly asked several of Siegel’s former friends and collaborators to reminisce about the late director, who died of cancer in 1991 at the age of 78.

Don was a real pro. He did what a director should do, which is to make decisions and stand by those decisions for better or worse. When you’re directing a film, you’re making hundreds of decisions all day long, whether it’s what prop to use or what color some fabric should be. You’ve really got to be on your toes, and he was that kind of guy. I think he came up with the same mentality as Wellman or Hawks or Ford, but sometimes guys are so good at what they do, they’re sort of kept in that category — that’s what happened to Don at Warners, and that’s probably what happened at Universal too. He was so well-regarded as a B-movie director — certainly, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one of the greatest B-movies ever made — they figured: Why promote him?

Don always encouraged me, so one day, in 1970, I told about this little tiny script, Play Misty for Me, that I’d optioned and wanted to direct. He said, “Let me sign your Director’s Guild card. I’d be proud to do that.” Then I asked him if he wanted to play a small part in it, and I think he was very flattered. But as we got closer to the shoot, he started telling me I was being irresponsible, that I should hire a good solid supporting actor to do the role. And I said, “Yeah, but you should do it. It’ll make you much more sympathetic to actors, just as this whole experience is going to make me a lot more sympathetic to directors.” I had Don playing a bartender and he was afraid he couldn’t remember anything, so he had his lines placed all around the bar. Finally I went in behind the bar and I picked up all the lines that he had pasted on the walls and threw it in the wastebasket. I said, “Okay, Don. We’re not going to worry about anything that’s in the script. We’re just going to say what we’re going to say and that’s all. Whatever comes to mind. You know what the game is, we all know what our objectives are, and that’s all we need.” And so we just sort of improvised it. It was a great collaboration.

—Clint Eastwood starred in five films
directed by Don Siegel and returned
the favor by casting Siegel as the
bartender in his own directorial
Play Misty For Me.

In looking at Don’s movies, I feel a masterly touch. Every shot is the kind of filmmaking that I respect the most. It’s not just a jumbled shot for the sake of the action. It’s a concise shot that guides the viewer’s eyes specifically to what the filmmaker feels the viewer needs to know. And by that I don’t mean just where the camera is, but the lengths of shots and the angles — the way you feel when you read Hemingway that he was writing with a little stubby pencil and putting strong periods on his taut sentences. I guess taut would be a good word for Don too. As a person and as a filmmaker, he was a guy who didn’t wax flowery or waste a lot of words. He was very direct and specific in what he said, and you could always count on him.

In the 1970s, at Universal, there was a bunch of us, either in the same bungalow or within a few steps of each other: Abraham Polonsky Don and myself. I remember having read the Time magazine article about Dirty Harry — hot of the presses, so to speak — and when Don came driving onto the lot I said, “Hey, you got this great review.” And he just sort of looked to me in this really rough way and said, “Where were they when I needed them?” A few years after that, a producer named Bob Solo had developed this Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake and I wasn’t totally sure that I wanted to do it. So I went over to Don’s office and, just as we were talking, Kevin McCarthy popped in the door and I got the idea that Kevin should be in our film, running as if he’d been running for 20 years. He would be like Paul Revere, trying to warn us about the pods instead of the Brits. And, I also thought: Hey, that guy across the table there — with the ascot and the moustache who I’ve always thought was kind of a great character — why don’t I put him in the movie too? It was an homage to Don — to publicly let people know that I was indebted to him.

—Philip Kaufman directed the 1978
remake of
Invasion of Body Snatchers,
in which Don Siegel is himself
transformed into a pod person.

He was very laid-back. There was no push or shove to him at all. I would even use the word cuddly. He would just smile a little and make a suggestion when he wanted you to do something a little bit different. Very subtle and very tender. You had a feeling that he did a lot of hugging and kissing when he took a girl out on a date. The Killers was made as a television movie — however, when they showed it to NBC, it was deemed too violent and too sexy. We were scheduled to start shooting on November 22, 1963. Then the President was killed, and it suddenly became a very tough set. There weren’t a lot of laughs, so we all tried to cheer each other up, and nobody was better at that than Don.

—Angie Dickinson starred in
Don Siegel’s
The Killers

When I was very young, I saw Riot in Cellblock 11, and I felt it was a remarkable film in terms of directing style. And also the actors were terrific. Then I saw Baby Face Nelson and I noticed that the screenwriter was Daniel Mainwaring, who had written novels and some early scripts under the name of Geoffrey Homes, and who I thought was an excellent screenwriter who wasn’t as well known as he should be. Eventually, I became very friendly with him, which led to my becoming very friendly with Don Siegel.

I was discovering cinema. I was discovering film noir. I was discovering genre films. And what I liked in all of that was the physicality of the direction. I started to develop the conviction that cinema is not supposed to be intellectual — of course, it’s supposed to be intelligent, which is something else — and that it must be physical. If you think of Riot in Cellblock 11, you can imagine exactly what I was feeling — the physicality of the action, the leanness of the action. The mood is very dark, but at the same time it isn’t false. It’s a mood that comes from the subject matter, rather than being forced on top of it. Don was extremely good at studying groups of characters. For example, in Riot in Cellblock 11, there is a group of people in jail, and also the wardens. In Hell is for Heroes, there is a group of soldiers. In The Beguiled, it’s a group of women. And he places himself as an observer, almost a kind of entomologist.

—French film publicist and
producer Pierre Rissient

I met Don to photograph him and do an interview for Cinema magazine. My practice back then, partly because I was so grateful to people for giving me their time, was that after editing the interview into its final format, I then sent it to them to make sure they were happy with it. In the course of Don’s interview, he had referred to this particular producer that he’d worked with by a profanity that was a pun on the person’s name. And not because I couldn’t have printed it in the magazine, but actually because I though it sounded better, I changed it to have him say that this guy was “known by a name so scurrilous that I can’t repeat it here.” And when I sent that to Don, he just cracked up and said that he wished he’d said that himself, because not only was it funny, but it was also more damning, because it allowed people to use their imaginations. We became friends and we were friends for what turned out to be the last several decades of his life.

What attracted me to Don’s work then was the same thing that made me feel it would be great to revisit the movies now. The discipline with which he practiced his craft — that economy and efficiency combined with his strong point of view. Yet most of his movies were made under contract to either Warners or Allied Artists or Universal and a lot of them he wasn’t even that enthusiastic about. I guess what I’m saying is that he was the essence of professionalism. Once he had his assignment, he was so dedicated to doing the best he could possibly do with it, that he managed to make each of those pictures into a personal movie. Don really seemed to me to be part of that system, in the same way characters like Madigan or Dirty Harry were chafing at the system and struggling with the system, but at the same time doing great work within the system. There’s that line in Madigan where Henry Fonda says, “I somehow always have the feeling he’s out there in the streets somewhere doing something I’d rather not know about.” And I think the studios probably had that attitude about Don, too.

—Filmmaker and former Cinema
magazine editor Curtis Hanson
is the honorary chairman of the
UCLA Film and Television Archive


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