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COME ON, MAKE MY MONTH... FOUR WEEKS OF MOVIE-MOVIES FROM THE MAN WHO GAVE US 'DIRTY HARRY'

 

Many moviegoers who can easily rattle off the titles of dozens of films directed by Billy Wilder, John Huston, Howard Hawks, John Ford, William Wyler, George Stevens, Elia Kazan, Joseph Mankiewicz, Frank Capra, George Cukor and other 20th-century icons tend to draw a blank when it comes to the filmography of Don Siegel. Or they think of him as a hack who turned out B-movies and then got lucky when he connected with Clint Eastwood in “Dirty Harry.” But anyone dropping in on this four week series--running from March 17 through April 13--at New York’s Film Forum will discover the truth: Don Siegel was one of the directorial greats.

The text below is courtesy of Film Forum; for complete information on the Siegel retrospective, click here.


CHARLEY VARRICK
(1973) Two-bit Southwest town. Tiny bank. Piece of cake that even an old fogey in a leg cast could knock off. Especially when that fogey is Walter Matthau’s crop duster and smalltime crook Charley Varrick, “last of the independents,” in disguise. But then a startling post-heist discovery: there’s too much money. . . way too much. Siegel’s immediate follow-up to his blockbuster Dirty Harry is a fast-moving caper picture, with Varrick trying to get away with the loot before Joe Don Baker’s sadistic — but faultlessly polite — Mafia hit man catches up with him. It’s also got consciously arty sequences; can-you-top-this? stunt work; impish humor; some brutal violence (with Varrick’s snivelling sidekick, Andy Robinson — Dirty Harry’s psycho killer — on the receiving end); a little sex appeal (courtesy Felicia Farr and Sheree North); and a complicated puzzle that’ll keep you guessing. Dumped by its studio, the picture never lived up to its rave reviews and commercial promise, though it won Matthau a British Oscar for Best Actor and gave him a new, short-lived career in action pictures, closely followed by The Laughing Policeman and The Taking of Pelham 123. “Marvellous, toughly eccentric thriller which confirmed that Siegel had more responses to 70s paranoia than a mere Magnum blast...sunlit noir territory, populated exclusively with cherishably individuated oddballs.” – Time Out (London). “The narrative line is clean and direct, the characterizations economical and functional and the triumph of intelligence gloriously satisfying.” – Andrew Sarris.

THE BIG STEAL
(1949) Robert Mitchum (recently sprung from his real-life marijuana bust) pursues Patric Knowles and stolen money across Mexico, gets involved with Jane Greer, and is himself chased by William Bendix — who’s chased by Mexican cop Ramon Navarro! And then the plot twists begin.

THE VERDICT
(1946) “I can do corpses exquisitely” casually remarks illustrator Peter Lorre in this classic locked-room mystery, with ex-Scotland Yard inspector Sydney Greenstreet battling his snotty successor and the omnipresent fog to clear a friend. Siegel’s first feature. Plus Siegel’s Christ allegory Star in the Night (1945), first of his two Oscar-winning shorts.

CRIME IN THE STREETS
(1956) A teenage slum gang — Sal Mineo and future directors Mark Rydell and John Cassavetes — plan a murder after a casual dissing, in urban drama based on Reginald Rose’s teleplay and filmed on a single $35,000 set. “Delivers the artistic shock treatment of a brass-knuckled uppercut.” – Newsweek.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



HELL IS FOR HEROES

(1962) On a God-forsaken bit of WWII trench, busted ex-sergeant Steve McQueen boasts that thousand-yard stare; but when company sarge Fess Parker (TV’s Davey Crockett) has to evacuate most of the squad, McQueen gets his chance, and the mayhem begins. With a cast jampacked with 60s icons, including James Coburn, Bob Newhart, Nick Adams, and Bobby Darin.

THE BEGUILED
(1971) On the run from the Rebs, Clint Eastwood’s wounded Union soldier finds shelter in Geraldine Page and Elizabeth Hartman’s Louisiana women’s school — then finds himself with an embarrassment of bedroom options. Spicy sex comedy? Eastwood action flick? More like Lord of the Flies! This Eastwood initiated Gothic that baffled fans here but garnered European critical hosannas. “A triumph of style...so stunningly adapted and directed that it allows for all kinds of serious implications.” – Kevin Thomas, L.A. Times. “The best film I have ever done, and possibly the best I will ever do.” – Siegel.

TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARAH
(1970) “Those fellas couldn’t fight worth a damn, but one of ’em wasn’t a bad cook” remarks drifter Clint Eastwood after rescuing nun Shirley MacLaine from three outlaws. But is there really a “special dispensation” allowing nuns to smoke, swear and drink with the best of them? With a classic removing-the-arrow scene and French/Juarista showdown climax.

INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS
(1956) “Love, desire, ambition, faith — without them, life is so simple.” Good news and bad news for small town doctor Kevin McCarthy. The good news: his waiting room is packed. The bad news: everybody’s there because their relatives and friends “are no longer their relatives and friends.” Local shrink Larry Gates laughs it all off as “mass hysteria” — but what’s that giant pod doing on the billiard table? Are the pods symbols of soulless Communism? Or of witch-hunting McCarthyism (Joe, not Kevin)? Or are they really just the same old feeling-less aliens bent on world domination? Classic adaptation of a story by cult author Jack Finney (Time and Again); the prologue, epilogue and pulp title were studio-imposed, despite protests from Siegel and producer Walter Wanger. Siegel’s version ended with McCarthy’s frenzied run through freeway traffic — imagine it. “The most haunting, strangely poetic science fiction picture ever.” – Peter Bogdanovich.

FLAMING STAR
(1960) Half-breed Elvis Presley, son of Indian Dolores del Rio and a white settler, is torn between tribesmen on the warpath wanting him back and townsmen wanting his hide. Rough, tough, tragic CinemaScope Western, with Presley’s near-song- less performance his absolute best.

 

 

 

 

 

EDGE OF ETERNITY
(1959) Vertigo sufferers, beware! A man going over the edge of the Grand Canyon is only for starters, then hero Cornel Wilde and the surprise killer battle to the death in a metal bucket dangling on cables over the abyss. With Siegel regular (later Leone player) Jack Elam providing comedy relief.

RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11
(1954) Attica precursor, as ringleader Neville Brand (off-screen, the fourth most-decorated soldier of WWII) plays the media and warden Emile Meyer (Sweet Smell of Success’ sadistic cop) while trying to keep the lid on a prison hostage takeover. Shot in 16 days at Folsom Prison, with actual cons as extras. “A classic of the genre, almost documentary in approach, and boiling up an explosive violence kept under perfect control.” – Time Out (London)

 

 

 

 

PRIVATE HELL 36
(1954) Two cops need money bad — Steve Cochran to romance cash-hungry singer Ida Lupino and Howard Duff for a new baby — then they stumble on stolen loot. With a near-continuous jazz score (played by the era’s West Coast all-stars) and an opening robbery sequence that’s pure Siegel.

BABY FACE NELSON
(1957) Andy Hardy gets a gun, as Mickey Rooney proves manic exuberance converts easily to psycho murder mania. Back from the pen, Rooney’s Nelson joins Leo Gordon’s Dillinger, gets plastic surgery from corrupt doc Sir Cedric Hardwicke, then gets too violent even for Dillinger. Plus Hitler Lives? (1945), Siegel’s second Oscarwinning short.

 

 

 

THE GUN RUNNERS
(1958) Fishing boat captain Audie Murphy (most decorated U.S. soldier in WWII) gets blackmailed by Eddie Albert into running arms to Cuban revolutionaries — then Albert double-crosses the rebels. Third adaptation of Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not.

THE KILLERS
(1964) “Lady, I just haven’t got the time.” Very free adaptation of Hemingway’s classic story, with hitmen Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager stalking race car driver John Cassavetes, then stopping at nothing to find out why he didn’t resist. With Ronald Reagan slapping around Angie Dickinson in his last acting role — and first movie villain. Originally intended as a Movie of the Week, but deemed too violent for TV.

 

 

 

THE LINEUP
(1958) When Mr. Big wants his smack back, he sends psycho contract killer Eli Wallach and sidekick Robert Keith to wack the kid who’s “powdered” her dolly. Vintage Siegel action, with hair-raising chase climax on a freeway to nowhere. “Brutal, sadistic and threatening, with its passionless killers stalking San Francisco long before existentialism was à la mode.” – Time Out (London).

ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ
(1979) Condemned to the Rock, Eastwood’s Frank Morris shrugs off strip searches, shower brawls — and racial tensions, to find a special new use for snotty warden Patrick McGoohan’s nailclipper. Based on the only successful escape attempt from Alcatraz — well, bodies were never found — this is arguably the darkest and quietest film ever from a major studio, let alone with an action super-star in the lead. “Could be more profitably studied in film courses than all the works of Bergman and Fellini combined.” – New York Times.

THE SHOOTIST
(1976) Legendary gunman John Wayne gets the bad news from doc James Stewart, then decides to spend his remaining time with landlady Lauren Bacall and her son Ron Howard; but there’s always someone out there who’s gotta make his own reputation. Wayne’s swan song, with the climactic shootout his final scene and his tear-stained last close-up a peak in, and sum up of, a legendary career. “Just when it seemed that the Western was an endangered species, Wayne and Siegel have managed to validate it once more.” – Arthur Knight.

THE DUEL AT SILVER CREEK
(1952) Duel of the outrageous character names, as Audie Murphy’s “Silver Kid” hooks up with Stephen McNally’s Sheriff “Lightning” Tyrone to go toe to toe with “Ratface,” “Johnny Sombrero,” and Lee Marvin’s “Tinhorn” Burgess; while in back to back scenes, Faith Domergue strangles and seduces with equal aplomb. “The action is fast and furious.” – Phil Hardy, The Western. “Handled with great verve and more than a suspicion of tongue in cheek, and building up a special explosive bit for Marvin.” – Time Out (London).

CHINA VENTURE
(1953) WWII, China coast, and Captain Edmond O’Brien leads a patrol, including Japanese-speaking Barry Sullivan and nurse Jocelyn Brando (Marlon’s sister), to bring in an ailing Japanese operative and find out his big secret. Shot on an incredible studio-created jungle, nearly washed away by torrential studio downpours.

MADIGAN
(1968) By-the-book police commissioner Henry Fonda gives sticky-fingered cop Richard Widmark and partner Harry Guardino just 72 hours to retrieve Steve Ihnat, the hyper, bespectacled killer they let escape. “A crossroads in Siegel’s career.” – Time Out (London). “The color photography continually stamps incidents with the authentic familiarity of various facades and corners of New York,” raved the Times, though much of it was shot on the Universal backlot.

COOGAN’S BLUFF
(1968) “Eastwood gives New York 24 hours — to get out of town!” Cowboy-hatted-andbooted Arizona cop Clint Eastwood, in the Big Apple to pick up captured fugitive Don Stroud, finds his Wild West methods making him a fish out of water, amid the disapproving glares of local Lieutenant Lee J. Cobb and social worker Susan Clark. “Even Siegel’s somehow off-center treatment of New York hippiedom is intriguingly wry.” – Time Out (London).

DIRTY HARRY
(1971) “There’s only one question you should ask yourself... ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?” queries Clint Eastwood’s .44 Magnum-wielding Harry Callahan of a recumbent crook, after breaking up a bank robbery attempt in between munches of his hot dog luncheon — and then the nutso “Zodiac Killer” (Andy Robinson, a pacifist in real life) strikes again. Eastwood’s first incarnation (followed by four not-quite-as-good sequels by other directors) of one of the icons of the American cinema gives the Miranda doctrine a workout — in between racing crosstown on foot for a kidnapper’s phone calls and breaking up a harrowing school bus abduction. Siegel’s biggest hit ever features an iconic Eastwood performance (making him #1 at the box office that year and for years to come); a quintessentially 70s Lalo Schifrin score; breathtaking locations, shot in Scope in Siegel’s favorite city (San Francisco — David Shipman lauds the director’s “dual use of the city, as a place of light and space and sea, and of scrap-dumps, seedy bars and liquor stores”); and a new high in movie violence — it didn’t just push the envelope; it tore it up completely — culminating with that opening question asked a second time, even more sadisticly. “As suspense craftsmanship, the picture is trim, brutal and exciting, directed in the sleekest style. It’s also a remarkably single-minded attack on liberal values, with each prejudicial detail in place — a kind of hard-hat The Fountainhead.” – Pauline Kael. “The movie’s moral position is fascist. No doubt about it.” – Roger Ebert. “If I do a film about a murderer, it doesn’t mean I condone murder. If I do a film about a hard-nosed cop, of course it doesn’t mean I condone all his actions. I find it very difficult to explain my reasons for making a film like Dirty Harry, other than that I’m a firm believer in entertainment.” – Siegel.