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
debut, 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
—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