At the beginning of his career, when he couldn't have been as certain about his skills as he later became, he was already showing signs of strong characterizations in action films, a true rarity for the genre. I was most taken with this aspect of his directing because, although I love the better action films, I was impressed with strong writing for the characters. Siegel was one of the best in this regard. He also seemed to be able to step back from sordidness often portrayed in his films and let his characters survive as they will. As a director he didn't take the moral high ground. His critics called him a misogynist and while I don't particularly agree with that, he clearly was a man's director and dealt with male themes.
Not much is known about his early life, although he was born in Chicago in 1912 to Jewish parents. He attended schools in New York and said he wanted to one day become an actor. He graduated from Jesus College, Cambridge Universaity and then London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art but soon realized that perhaps his skills were better suited in some other form in the movie business.
Somehow he wound up in California at Warner Brothers. He first worked in their film library, then as a cutter and then managed their montage department. He handled the opening scenes of Casablanca and did second-unit work on such films as Yankee Doodle Dandy and City for Conquest. He then moved into directing short films and soon his feature film debut.
One of his earliest, 1949s Night Unto Night starred Ronald Reagan as an amnesiac and Viveca Lindfors as a widow who helps him. It made no great waves but we mention it because Lindfors would become Siegel's wife and produce his first child (of five), future actor Kristoffer Tabori.
Siegel received some acclaim (that continues to this day) for Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954) about the appalling conditions in prison with a cast of B actors. The same year's Private Hell 36 was a nifty little noir about a bad cop with Ida Lupino, Steve Cochran, Howard Duff and Dorothy Malone. It likely propelled Siegel into his love of cop movies. In 1956 he made both the superior horror flick, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter, and Crime in the Streets, a moving story of New York gangs, with John Cassavetes and Sal Mineo.
|Dana Wynter & Kevin McCarthy running for their lives|
Another great B-cast headed by Eli Wallach turned up in The Lineup, a 1958 noir about heroin trafficking in San Francisco. Siegel directed Elvis Presley in Flaming Star (1960), a western and arguably the best film the singer ever made.
Hell is for Heroes (1962) was an odd little war film brought to life by Siegel's taut direction and stars Steve McQueen and Bobby Darin.
In 1964 he directed a television film of Ernest Hemingway's The Killers. It was done most successfully in 1946 with Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner. Here the stars were Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, John Cassavetes and Ronald Reagan in his last film role. It was considered way too violent for television so it became a feature movie instead... and it bombed.
In 1968 Siegel made Madigan, considered by many to be the best cop flick of the decade. I found the praise a little bit much but the tale of police corruption had its exciting moments and was the second of five pairings for Richard Widmark and Henry Fonda.
Siegel's first turn with Eastwood came in 1968 with Coogan's Bluff. It certainly started the anti-hero craze these two were so found of. Eastwood played an Arizona deputy sheriff dispatched to New York to collect a prisoner and becomes involved in a manhunt. The Eastwood craze was in full-swing and the film was a success.
Have you ever heard of the director Alan Smithee? Well, he's not real. It is a name used when a director wants his name taken off a film for any number of reasons but usually because he doesn't like the finished product, usually after it's edited. Siegel was the first one to use Alan Smithee and did so on the 1969 film Death of a Gunfighter. He clashed badly with the film's star, Widmark, who assumed control, much to Siegel's dismay.
Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970) teamed Eastwood with Shirley MacLaine playing a hooker masquerading as a nun. While never particularly a big fan of MacLaine's, I admit she more than held her own against Eastwood. That may not seem like anything important until one realizes Eastwood didn't always have big-name actresses (who could steal scenes away from him) starring opposite him.
The Beguiled (1971) is an interesting Siegel film because it's the only time he moseyed into art house fare. A lusty and sometimes salacious Civil War romp about a deserter (Eastwood at his most handsome) who wanders into a rundown mansion filled with horny women. It had a gothic horror tale feeling to it and was not a particular hit in the U.S.
Also in 1971 came one of the director's and Eastwood's big ones, Dirty Harry. He is a friendless San Francisco cop who never plays by the rules and seems to hate everyone. Harry's pursuit of criminals is chilling, to say the least. A big nod goes to Andy Robinson as Scorpio who creeped me out. The film has a super opening and closing and major kudos to everyone involved. It has become a classic and certainly made my day.
Charlie Varrick was one the the director's favorite movies. Released in 1973 and starring Walter Matthau in a dramatic role, it concerned a married couple and their friend who rob a bank, not knowing the loot belongs to the mob. Siegel always like to say that Matthau was a fine actor but didn't understand anything about the story they were filming.
In 1976 Siegel made my favorite movie of his work, The Shootist, with John Wayne in his final movie, Lauren Bacall, Ron Howard and James Stewart. It concerned an old gunfighter dying of cancer who has come to stay in a boardinghouse and hopes to pass on with some dignity. It was an unusual western, quite emotional with some great lessons about growing up and growing old.
Siegel and Eastwood teamed for the last time in 1979 for Escape from Alcatraz. It is a tension-filled, claustrophobic prison yarn that was actually filmed at Alcatraz. I have always been drawn to films about prison breakouts and this is a mighty good one.
The great director's last film was Jinxed in 1982. It starred Bette Midler, Ken Wahl and Rip Torn. The story was about a gambler, a lounge singer and a handsome blackjack dealer but the real story was about how no one got along on this film. Siegel famously said: I'd let my wife, children and animals starve before I'd subject myself to something like that again. And with that he drew the curtain on his movie career.
We have not included all of his films here, of course, and a goodly number were not all that great. Still, film historians tend to regard Don Siegel's film output as being pretty impressive. He made some very popular films.
After his marriage to Viveca Lindfors ended, he married movie starlet Doe Avedon, ex-wife to famed photographer Richard Avedon and a star in The High and the Mighty and Deep in My Heart. They had four children together and it was the director's longest marriage. When they divorced, he married a woman who had been an assistant of Eastwood's. They were still married when Siegel died of cancer in 1991 at age 78 in Nipomo, California.