The Films of Don Siegel

Don Siegel, who died 20 years ago today, was among the best action and drama film directors of his generation. Today we remember him by looking back at five of his best films.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Don Siegel already had ten movies under his belt before he took on a project based on the Jack Finney novel The Bodysnatchers, a departure as until then he’d chiefly been known for dramas like Riot in Cell Block 11 and film noirs like The Big Steal. Invasion of the Body Snatchers would mark his entry into sci-fi. Shot in just 23 days, the film remains a classic of the genre, successful in its day and hailed by generations of critics. To avoid confusion with the 1945 Val Lewton horror film The Body Snatchers, a number of alternate titles were considered, including They Come From Another World, Evil in the Night and Sleep No More. Many now see it as a veiled attack on McCarthyism, but those involved with the project have long maintained they weren’t trying to make any political statement, only great entertainment. In 2009, Time magazine included it in their list of the 100 best movies of all time.


 

 

 

The Killers (1964)
Not to be confused with the movie made from the same Ernest Hemingway story in 1945, this production featured an eclectic mix of future notables – acting greats Angie Dickinson and Lee Marvin, future indie film god John Cassavetes, and two-term President of the United States Ronald Reagan. A heist-gone-bad picture that saw the future leader of the free world playing cuckolded mob boss Jack Browning, the film was originally intended to be the first ever made-for-TV movie before NBC rejected it as too violent. It was the only time Reagan played a villain (his political career excepted, some might argue) and was the last movie he made before entering politics.
 

 

 

 

 

Dirty Harry (1971)
Odd to think what a different film Dirty Harry might have been. Initially slated to be directed by Irvin Kershner (The Empire Strikes Back), the role of Detective Harry Callahan was offered to both Frank Sinatra and John Wayne. At different times, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen were also approached – and in fact Newman was the one who suggested Eastwood to the producers. Eastwood, in turn, only agreed to do the movie if Don Siegel directed. Though it’s tough to argue Dirty Harry was his best film, it was probably his most influential. Not only was it responsible for transforming Clint Eastwood in the public imagination from a cigarillo chomping, unshaven wandering Western gunslinger to a cynical lone wolf cop armed with a .44 magnum and a host of memorable one liners, it was the blueprint for over a decade of gritty, morally compromised urban law enforcement characters in film and TV. Dismissed in some critical circles as “a right-wing fantasy,” the movie would make possible the Lethal Weapon and Die Hard franchises, pretty much every Charles Bronson movie ever made, and others too numerous to mention.

 


The Shootist (1976)
Don Siegel directed his share of Westerns, including The Duel at Silver Creek, Coogan’s Bluff and Two Mules For Sister Sarah, but The Shootist is in a sense best considered an anti-Western. Set during the last days of the Old West, it focuses on aging gunslinger J.B. Books, who has been diagnosed with cancer and is looking for a dignified way to die after a lifetime of violence. Adding poignancy was the fact that it would be John Wayne’s final movie, as he would die of cancer three years after its completion, and the film can be seen as an elegiac reflection on his career. The film’s influence can be seen in frequent Siegel collaborator Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven as well as his more recent Gran Torino. Though the movie was a critical success, it was one of Wayne’s least popular movies at the box office.
 

 

 

 

 

Escape From Alcatraz (1979)
Based on real-life events, Escape From Alcatraz follows convict Frank Morris as he attempts to escape from the notorious federal prison in 1962. Siegel brilliantly chronicles how Morris and two other convicts may have successfully made it off the island, sticking close to the true life events as he lets the drama unfold. It was a challenging shoot – 15 miles of electrical cable had to be laid between Alcatraz Island and San Francisco in order to supply enough power, and the crew had to shoot mostly at night to avoid the boat loads of tourists visiting the island during the day. Siegel and Eastwood also wrangled over production credits for the film and it would be their last picture together. The movie did well critically and was among the Top 10 at the box office in 1979. Siegel would direct only two more films before his death on April 20, 1991.