Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Essays, Horror, Science Fiction

A Note on Style

[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]

Although he has gone on to make such films as Charley Varrick, Dirty Harry, Madigan, Coogan’s Bluff, Two Mules for Sister Sara, Baby Face Nelson, The Lineup, Hell Is for Heroes, The Killers, and The Beguiled, there are many who still regard The Invasion of the Body Snatchers as Don Siegel’s best movie. If I continue to prefer several of the others, it’s because Siegel himself seems to come through more directly. Many of the virtues of Invasion inhere in the writing of Daniel Mainwaring, an author of no mean importance whose scripts for Out of the Past (based on his own novel) and The Phenix City Story likewise postulate and effectively sustain film-worlds wherein the characters seem to breathe doom out of the very air; in Out of the Past the mutual corruptibility and mortality of Mitchum, Greer, and Douglas proceeds inevitably from the bemused sadomasochism that constitutes their behavioral style; Phenix City Story, filmed the year before Invasion, recounts the terror of a syndicate-controlled Southern town in which not only the back rooms, alleys, and dark streets but also the homes and the very minds of the citizenry prove insidiously, almost ineffably, pregnable. Then too, there’s the question of the belated and perhaps invalidating framing episodes of Dr. Bennell trying to convince Drs. Hill and Bassett about what’s happening in Santa Mira. Bob Cumbow has sorted out the interpretive problems which that gives rise to. But, in addition, I wonder how the main body of the film has been affected by the revision. In the original, did the events of the film simply unreel without benefit of voiceover commentary? Maybe, maybe not—in Out of the Past Robert Mitchum describes that past to Virginia Huston, which accounts for about half the movie, and the fact as well as the tone of the narration contributes to that film’s sense of eerie masochistic reverie. There are moments in Invasion of the Body Snatchers when Siegel’s camera just gives us Miles Bennell’s car moving through the streets of the town, fast and slow, by night and by day. Now we vvusually hear Kevin McCarthy’s voice describing the intensification of his concern, the specific doubts that specific details of the changed life of Santa Mira are stirring in his mind. But what if we didn’t hear that commentary? What would be the effect of those calculatedly mundane images and movements? I ask it with some regret because one of the grabbiest moments in the movie is the sight of the town square about 7:45 one Saturday morning; Miles peers down at it from the window of his office, and even before the pod-laden trucks arrive, that natural-sunlight scene has something unshakably awful about it.

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Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Film Reviews

Review: The Black Windmill

[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]

Drabble would, after all, have been a better title than The Black Windmill. The structure thus designated is not even mentioned till the film is two-thirds finished, whereas the fictional master criminal “Drabble” hovers over the picture almost as decisively as “Juggernaut” in the new Lester movie. Drabble catches the muzzy Englishness that is the film’s most strategic appeal, which comes through via such in-passing pleasantries as Scotland Yard man Clive Revill’s weary exasperation with his partner as they search and bug Michael Caine’s room, MI.5 stick-in-the-mud Donald Pleasence’s loss of sour face as he inadvertently says “Sean Connery” instead of “Sean Kelly” during a top-level security conference, or Pleasence’s desperate endeavor to maintain a blank look as his senescent superior fondles and is fondled by his murderously loving wife (Felicia Farr—of Charley Varrick fame—in an unbilled cameo, if I’m not mistaken). One may safely suppose that the opportunity for such moments had its fond appeal for Siegel, who spent his youth in England. Such suppositions are the only way to find, or posit, traces of the director in the film; for after a decade’s worth of consistently personal cinema, Siegel has simply taken on an average thriller property and given it, overall, little more than slightly above-average treatment.

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Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Noir, Film Reviews

Blu-ray: Two takes on Ernest Hemingway’s ‘The Killers’

killersBDThe Killers (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) is an ingenious double feature: Two crime classics inspired by the Ernest Hemingway short story. Criterion originally released a DVD double feature over a decade ago. Both films have been remastered in HD for the set’s Blu-ray debut and a new DVD edition.

The first 15 minutes of Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946) remains the most the most faithful Hemingway adaptation ever put on screen. Two gunmen from the city (Charles McGraw and William Conrad) take over a small town diner to wait for their target. When he doesn’t show, they take the hit to him, and he just waits, broken and hopeless, for them to come and finish him off. Burt Lancaster made his film debut in the role of Swede Anderson and his entrance—a close-up of a haunted face doused in shadow with slashes of light catching his wounded expression as he lay back down on his bed, awaiting his execution with doomed resignation—is one of the greatest screen debuts any performer has received.

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Posted in: by Peter Hogue, Contributors, Directors, Essays, Film Reviews, Raoul Walsh

Big Shots: ‘The Roaring Twenties,’ ‘High Sierra,’ ‘White Heat’

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

While The Roaring Twenties is hardly a definitive history of an era, its chronicle of the intersecting careers of Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney) and two buddies from the Great War has a sharp bite socially and more than a touch of tragic vision. Here as elsewhere, the Cagney character is the focal point of a deadly disparity between society and the man who lives by his instincts, and the elegiac tone which the film builds around him is a way of paying respects not to a bygone era, but to a naïvely vigorous man on whom time and change have tromped. Here the “Roaring Twenties” are more or less what happens in between an era that sets a man up (World War I) and an era that tears him down (the Depression), and the ultimate effect is one of waste, of quintessential vitality (Bartlett’s) squandered in a age too confused to find a place for it. In one sense the film spells out the limitations of Cagney’s film persona; but the downward spiral of Eddie Bartlett’s career and the upward spiral of his lawyer pal’s (from bootleg bookkeeper to assistant D.A.) also suggest that society’s values move in brutally indiscriminate character’s inability to find a suitable companion in life ultimately constitutes an important, though tacit, social problem as well.

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Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Reviews

Videophiled Criterion: It’s a Don Siegel ‘Riot’

RiotCell11It may not have been obvious at the time but Riot in Cell Block 11 (Criterion, Blu-ray+DVD Combo, DVD) was a perfect match of film and filmmaker. Don Siegel later made a name for himself with his gritty Clint Eastwood collaborations (not to mention is brilliant Invasion of the Body Snatchers) but was just a promising journeyman director when he embarked on this low-budget 1954 film, a project initiated by producer Walter Wanger after he served a short sentence for assault with a deadly weapon (he shot a man that he thought was sleeping with his wife, Joan Bennett). Riot gave Siegel a situation where violence was a defining element of the world and the people in it, a power always threatening to blow up and burn out control, and he used it to create a powder-keg of thriller with a message underneath the drama.

It begins with a newsreel-like prologue to establish its ripped-from-the-headlines bonafides—”Where will the next riot occur?” teases the narrator after showing us a succession of protests in prisons across the country—and then jumps into the fictional story of a carefully-planned riot in the punishment block of an overcrowded prison. (Phil Karlson used the same structure a year later for an even more explosive The Phenix City Story.) Neville Brand, a real-life war hero who made a career playing Hollywood villains thanks to his tough manner and scuffed-up face, is the ringleader of this protest, a convicted killer who has no agenda but to call attention to prison conditions. His fellow inmates are not so committed to his restraint, however, and the prison guard hostages are in constant danger of retribution from vindictive prisoners, especially Leo Gordon as a sociopath who has no interest in curbing his impulses. The warden (Emile Meyer) is not only sympathetic to their demands, he’s already complained to the state about the prison overcrowding and understaffing, lack of education and training programs for the inmates, and insufficient training for the guards, but the state politics demand a policy of no negotiations with rioters, which just raises the stakes and the temperature of the stand-off.

Siegel helms this film with both a hard-edged portrait of the violence and desperation of the situation and an intelligent engagement with the issues. Most of these guys have nothing to lose. Others are so angry that they riot in sympathy, whether it helps or not (in this film, it’s both). Brand holds the center as a both, a guy ready to follow through on his threats if necessary but restrained and far-sighted enough to hope it doesn’t come to that. He’s fighting the power on both sides: holding back what is close to a paramilitary response from the outside while trying to keep the volatile chemistry inside from combusting. He’s sympathetic to the prisoners without whitewashing their crimes or their violent nature. Much of the film was shot on location at Folsom Prison with guards and prisoners serving as extras and advisers, which gives the film added authenticity, but it’s Siegel’s direction that really lights the fuse. And Siegel is aware of the tension between social message and violent spectacle; he, like Brand’s character, realizes that it takes a big story to get people to pay attention to the issues. Siegel, however, is more interested in the personalities and the conflicts and the lengths to which both sides will go in this war.

It’s mastered from a new 2K digital restoration in Academy Ratio (1.37:1), which has raised some debate; in some shots the headroom is distracting and the film looks like it should be masked to 1.66:1 widescreen, in others it looks well balanced and composed. Clearly the film was protected for both aspect ratios, but it’s not clear which the director’s preferred or intended format was. Features commentary by film scholar Matthew H. Berstein, audio excerpts from the director’s autobiography “A Siegel Film” and Stuart Kaminsky’s 1974 book “Don Siegel: Director,” both read by Siegel’s son Kristoffer Tabori, and excerpts from the 1953 NBC radio documentary series “The Challenge of Our Prisons,” plus a fold-out booklet with an essay by Chris Fujiwara.

More Criterion releases at Cinephiled

Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Reviews

MOD Movies: Don Siegel’s ‘The Gun Runners’

Don Siegel’s low-budget 1958 adventure The Gun Runners is not exactly a remake of To Have and Have Not but it is the third screen adaptation of Ernest Hemingway novel. Audie Murphy takes the lead here as independent skipper Sam Martin, who rents his cabin cruiser to tourists looking to fish the waters of Key West. When his latest customer skips on the bill and he gambles himself into the hole attempting to win enough to make his payments, he ends up in debt to a gun runner (Eddie Albert), making illegal trips to Cuba under cover of night so Albert can make his deal with the Cuban revolutionaries. The politics of the situation aren’t even hinted at, but then Albert’s character is a businessman, not a patriot or an idealist.

It’s a stock thriller premise brought to life with clever screenwriting (by Daniel Mainwaring and Paul Monash, and reportedly an uncredited contribution from Ben Hecht), deftly turned characters, a terrific supporting cast and delightfully sexy rapport and physical intimacy between Murphy and Patricia Owens, who plays his wife. The bloom hasn’t worn off this romance and her playful flirtations in the dive of a waterfront bar, pretending to be a floozy seducing the married Sam from his “wife,” is one of the sexiest scenes I’ve between a married couple in a fifties feature.

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Posted in: by Rick Hermann, Contributors, Film Festivals, Westerns

Blood and Ashes

[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]

Don Siegel, a man with an impressive history of making competent, toughminded, fast-moving films, admits that he’s trying to alter his “image” as an action director. In his most recent film, The Shootist, we can feel the tug between action and reflection, violence and elegy, present and past—opposing qualities that find a meeting ground in Siegel’s view of what itself is a contradictory environment of change and anachronism. This is turn-of-the-century Carson City, Nevada, outfitted with harbingers of the future such as trolleys on tracks and horseless carriages, but also retaining iconographic refuges of the Old West like the spacious Metropole Saloon. Scanning the borders of heroism, time, and fate within this world, Siegel’s style ranges from the intimate and discreet to the epic, the legendary and mythic mode of end-of-an-era Westerns—divergent strains of perspective (and The Shootist is very much a movie about various perspectives, mixing the larger context of legend with the intimacy of self-knowledge) that can unexpectedly coalesce within a single shot. Towards the end of the movie, when J.B. Books (John Wayne)—an aging gunman dying of cancer—prepares to go out to the Metropole to meet with three adversaries he’s treating to a showdown, there is something about John Wayne’s gestures and Siegel’s eye-level and respectfully unobtrusive camera that is both epically cumulative and heartwrenchingly personal. Very slowly and selfconsciously, Books places his guns just so in his belt, takes his hat from the peg on the wall and arranges it on his head, and checks his watch so as not to be late to this last appointment. (Books has opted to go down in a blaze of gunfire rather than succumb to the cancer attacking him relentlessly from the rear.) It is a painfully intimate moment, one which we feel almost indiscreet in witnessing. Nothing very important is happening—nothing more important than all the accoutrements of a man’s life getting arranged, put in order for his passing.

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Posted in: by Robert C. Cumbow, Contributors, Film Reviews

Review: Telefon

[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]

Charles Bronson—who plays a Soviet KGB agent in Telefon—is introduced to us in the act of coaching a Russian boys’ hockey team. “How do you make sure you are the first one to hit the puck?” he asks them rhetorically. The answer is, Don’t watch your opponent, and certainly don’t watch the referee (“If you see him drop the puck, you don’t see the puck”), but “Keep your eyes on the ice.” These words to live by are one statement of the code of the Don Siegel independent (and they might do for the maverick director himself), the man at odds with society who has been the central figure of virtually all his films. Whether it be the independent-as-cop (Dirty Harry, Madigan), the independent-as-crook (Charley Varrick, Dirty Harry‘s Scorpio), the independent-as-cop-and-crook (The Verdict), or the independent as social maverick trying simply to assert his identity against the encroachment of enervating social and political forces (The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Hell Is for Heroes, The Beguiled, The Shootist), Siegel’s anti-hero has always commanded our respect as one who walks the middle ground between equally attractive, equally destructive extremes.

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Posted in: Film Reviews

Review: Rough Cut

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

A gas burner fills a huge balloon with hot air, sending it adrift above a palatial estate, whose lawn mills with partying rich folk: a suitable image to begin Rough Cut, a lightweight entertainment that insists on consorting with only the richest tastes. Don Siegel is poaching on Blake Edwards territory here, and we don’t need Burt Reynolds imitating Cary Grant, or David Niven imitating himself, to remind us that the line that links To Catch a Thief with Rough Cut cuts straight through The Pink Panther. Counterpointing the Big Caper—which really doesn’t get underway until past midfilm—is the burgeoning love of Reynolds’s Jack Rhodes (even the name implies a kinship with Hitchcock—Grant’s John Robie) for rich kleptomaniac Gillian Bromley (Lesley-Anne Down). The film is at pains to make her as icy and unpredictable as her Grace Kelly/Claudia Cardinale counterparts, but the effort is strained by a script bankrupt for new ideas. Gillian says, “I steal things … because it’s exciting and dangerous,” and Jack proceeds to assure her that it’s “to fill a void in your life.” They don’t imply that she’s sexually unfulfilled, they just say so; and the sex motif is carried through with a string of double entendres that are hopelessly lame, not because they aren’t appropriate to the characters and the situation, but simply because they are so old and unfunny. A line like “I have to go now, something just came up” no longer draws snickers or even hohums, but dumbfound amazement that someone would still think it clever. The plot itself so slavishly follows genre formula that the “surprise” ending is tipped off well in advance, even though its justification is confined to a single comment on the part of … well, the operative character.

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