Don Siegel was the outstanding American action director of his generation, a worthy successor to Raoul Walsh and Howard Hawks. His finest work is to be found in a series of male-oriented pictures—tough and tight thrills, Westerns, war movies, noirs. It’s an oeuvre that would be unthinkable in today’s Hollywood, consisting as it does of stylish but unpretentious mainstream films made with intelligence and vitality.
It includes the best postwar prison flick, Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954); the definitive Cold War paranoia film, the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956); and—among the highlights of the series—the gritty gangster sagas Baby Face Nelson (1957) and The Lineup (1958). In the rarely shown Nelson, a ferocious Mickey Rooney gives the finest dramatic performance of his career as the bantam psychotic hood—this was the picture that broke the Production Code’s interdiction against showing historical gangsters on screen. In Lineup, not a frame is wasted—the remarkable pre-credit scene at San Francisco’s Embarcadero flashes through 17 setups in 50 seconds. Even more impressive is the final car chase that ends in the surreal setting of an unfinished freeway whose lanes hover over a void—the most whiz-bang chase sequence in American cinema. Siegel also established Clint Eastwood as a superstar in Dirty Harry (1971), getting a one-week run April 7 through 13, and served as Eastwood’s directorial mentor. With Flaming Star (1960) he revealed to a stunned world that in the right hands Elvis Presley could act convincingly. And he was the only director in Hollywood with the sense to cast Ronald Reagan as an irredeemable, slimy villain, in The Killers (1964).
In Body Snatchers, a man returns from a trip to find that friends and neighbors are no longer themselves—his town has been taken over by alien seed pods capable of replacing humans with soulless clones. This alarmingly real and influential film has been administered a number of interpretations, but today it seems ultimately ambiguous, a statement about the depersonalization of modern life as much as anything else. Siegel told an interviewer: “Even in the studio we were working in, we realized that our superiors were pods.”) The schema turns up time and again—the typical Siegel protagonist is an outsider, struggling to survive in a hostile society. It’s loner versus the pods, and the loner rarely wins.
Born in Chicago in 1912 to vaudeville artist parents, Siegel entered films in 1934 in the stock-shot library at Warner Bros., then became an editor, shot dozens of second unit scenes, and founded and headed the studio’s montage department. Rapidly edited montages were a widely used device then (to show the passage of time, the rise and fall of a character’s career, etc.). Siegel shot dozens of them and did wonders with these one- or two-minute stories within stories. By the time he made his first movie, The Verdict (1946), he had already done more directing than any first-time helmer in history. Film Forum’s generous retro includes 23 of Siegel’s 34 features. It’s a wise selection—no major works have been left out—but too bad there are no montages. An evening of them would have been icing on the cake.