Nov 212008

Don Siegel (October 26, 1912-April 20, 1991) made five films with Clint Eastwood, including Dirty Harry (1971). Two of Siegel’s better but less-known films are Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954) and the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).


Early Life-Warner Brothers

Little is known of Don Siegel’s early life other than he was born in 1912 and he graduated from Cambridge University. He used an introduction from a relative to get an interview with producer Hal Wallis, which won him a job at the Warner Brothers film library in 1934. The work consisted mainly of carrying around heavy stacks of cans of film, but the salary enabled him to help support his family. The head of the library was a generous man, who gave him an education in film, including the basic mechanics of cutting. More important, he arranged for Siegel to be promoted to assistant cutter (assistant editor). Although he was essentially a gofer, he managed to gradually learn enough to become an acceptable editor. Once again, the head editor took an interest in Siegel’s career, and recommended him for a transfer to the special effects department, where there were more opportunities. Siegel was given a small crew and assigned to film insert scenes, such as close-ups of newspaper articles or tools being used. A quick learner, he quickly mastered the process, but got fed up of having to beg directors to let him film snippets of scenes, so he used his crew to practice the principles of montage until he had mastered them.

The fact that he lacked the budget to pay for the shots did not stop Siegel from seizing every opportunity to experiment until he jeopardized his career by secretly filming a montage for The Roaring Twenties (1939). Fortunately, the risky gamble paid off and Wallis, the movie’s producer, was so impressed by the shots that he used the montage in the film, which sparked requests for montages from other directors. The montage work soon led to assignments as a second unit director, where he filmed stunts and background shots. Dealing with dangerous stunts taught him the need to plan shots carefully in order to avoid unnecessary risk, so he did not develop the habit of endless takes. He pressed for the right to direct feature films and was finally asked to shoot a crucial scene when the original director was too sick to work. However, Jack Warner, the head of the studio, felt he was more valuable as a montage/second unit director and repeatedly refused to give him a feature.

When Siegel was finally offered the chance to direct a film he turned it down because he would have had to sign a seven-year contract at a ridiculously low salary. This refusal earned him a three-month-long suspension, although he viewed it as a vacation. The second suspension was not welcomed as eagerly, and when he finally returned to work it was as a very lowly assistant director, which was meant to remind him who was boss. Fortunately, Warner knew talent and soon allowed him to film a short. Only two shorts were made before his contract was finished, and he signed a new seven-year contract that guaranteed him a much better salary as a director. This proved to be a wise decision on Warner’s part since both of the shorts won Academy Awards.

As the most junior director in the studio, Siegel did not have his choice of projects, but his first film had a decent cast and story, even though it was not very successful. His second film was considerably more interesting because he fell in love with Viveca Lindfors, his leading lady, and they married soon after. Before he could make a third film, he was fired by Warner Brothers, although his lawyer had to interfere to ensure that he received a generous severance payment to make up for not honoring his contract.


Having few contacts outside of Warner Brothers, Siegel had to accept a position as a second-unit director at Columbia, but he insisted on not receiving credit to prevent damage to his career. After working on All the King’s Men (1949), he was hired by RKO to direct The Big Steal (1949). However, he disliked the haphazard way in which Howard Hughes was running the studio and asked that his contract be broken. In all fairness, Hughes’ habit of endlessly tinkering with films and demanding reshoots drove many of his actors and directors insane, as well as gradually ran the studio into the ground. Siegel did agree to do another RKO film, largely because it starred Lindfors. Unable to build a good relationship with any of the major studios, he bounced around from studio to studio, making films that were basically B-movies. However, like many directors who came out of B-movies, Siegel learned how to shoot fast, so he was ready for bigger budgets when he finally got them. He also developed a reputation as a reliable director, who could bring in a film on schedule. Despite a relatively successful career, the limited budgets meant that his films were not making much of an impression on the public.

Career Boost

Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954) changed all of that. Producer Walter Wanger had served time for trying to shoot the genitals of the agent who was having an affair with his wife, and was determined to make the most realistic prison movie ever. Avoiding the usual romance and happy ending, the film was shot in Folsom Prison with a cast mainly made up of unknowns who seemed born for their roles. It was a financial and critical success, and offers started to appear. Unfortunately, weak scripts ensured that the next two films were less successful, but he struck gold when he reunited with Wanger to make Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), which was a frightening take on the conformity that symbolized the Eisenhower years. The film was so gripping partially because Siegel and Wanger felt that most people had already become pods.

Despite having made two critically acclaimed films, he continued to receive mediocre projects, although he was undoubtedly consoled by the considerable increase in his salary. Siegel was often closely involved in the writing of the scripts and did his best to persuade the assorted producers to make the necessary changes to the scripts but usually to no avail. The fact that he steadily received work proved that he had built up a solid reputation and he was gradually given better material, such as Flaming Star (1960), Elvis Presley’s first non-musical. Despite Presley’s surprisingly good performance, the film was not a box office hit. Still, Siegel began regularly working with A-list actors, like Steve McQueen in Hell is for Heroes (1962), and he also produced films that he directed, like The Killers (1964), which gave him the authority to rewrite the script to suit his vision. While he did not initiate projects, he still insisted on having input because he was the director. The Killers was Siegel’s first movie for Universal and he would remain there until 1974. Although The Killers did quite well in the theaters, his next few movies were not huge successes, even though two of them starred Henry Fonda.

Collaboration with Clint Eastwood

However, Coogan’s Bluff (1968) with Clint Eastwood proved to be a fruitful collaboration and they soon reunited for Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970). Eastwood had only done one film, Hang’em High (1968), after the Dollars’ trilogy, so the two films with Siegel cemented his appeal in the United States. They both fell in love with the book The Beguiled, a story about a wounded Union soldier who ends up hiding in a small private school for girls, where he underestimates the danger caused by the sexual frustration and repression of the women and the girls. It took three scriptwriters before they found someone who appreciated the gothic nature of the book and accepted the impossibility of a happy ending. It was a daring role for Eastwood, since it went against his he-man image, but studio mismanagement of the film’s release ensured that it did not do well, although it gradually received critical recognition.

Eastwood was so angered by the studio’s ineptness that he made his next movie at Warner Brothers, through his own production company, Malpaso. However, he had developed a close relationship with Siegel, and Eastwood was able to persuade the studio to let Siegel direct Dirty Harry (1971), even though he was under contract to Universal. Eastwood also ensured that Warner Bros did not interfere with the movie even though it stirred up quite a lot of controversy. Many people believed that Siegel and Eastwood were condoning police brutality, although Siegel has claimed that he simply wanted to make an entertaining film. He did not direct any of the four sequels, and it spawned a genre of cop movies about police officers who wanted to keep the streets safe but were frustrated by bureaucracy.

When the studio asked Siegel to take over directing duties on Death of a Gunfighter (1969), he felt that it would be unfair for him to receive director’s credit, and since the original director refused to accept credit, the Director’s Guild came up with a pseudonym, Allen Smithee, which is still used today, although as Alan Smithee.

Although Siegel and Eastwood had worked well together, Eastwood had begun to consider stepping behind the camera. Siegel had encouraged Eastwood to start directing and even signed his card making him a member of the director’s guild. When Eastwood made his first film, Play Misty for Me (1971), Siegel had a small cameo as a bartender.

Later Career

The Beguiled (1971) had been badly promoted by Universal, and when the two following films, Charley Varrick (1973) and The Black Windmill (1974), also received little or no marketing, Siegel became fed up and demanded that the studio tear up his contract. This turned out to be excellent timing since his first film as an independent, The Shootist (1976), was one of his best, and John Wayne’s last film.

After reuniting with Eastwood to make Escape from Alcatraz (1979), Siegel’s next film, Rough Cut (1980) proved to be an exhausting experience. Aside from huge problems with producer David Merrick, he developed lymphoma, and although the cancer was destroyed by chemotherapy, he had to let Merrick finish the film. He had just recovered from chemotherapy and he was sixty-nine years old when he made Jinxed (1982) with Bette Midler, so he did not have the energy to keep up with her strong-willed personality. The flawed movie that resulted probably explains why he stopped directing and retired.

He died of cancer on April 20, 1991.

Historical Movies:

The Duel at Silver Creek (1952)

Starring Audie Murphy and Stephen McNally
A marshal and a gunfighter are forced to work together to fight a gang of claim jumpers.

China Venture (1953)

Starring Edmund O’Brien and Barry Sullivan
During WWII, an American unit is sent to South China to capture a Japanese officer with vital information but must persuade Chinese guerrillas to cooperate.

An Annapolis Story (1955)

Starring John Derek and Kevin McCarthy
Two brothers, both cadets at Annapolis Naval Academy on the verge of the Korean War, compete for the same woman.

Baby Face Nelson (1957)

Starring Mickey Rooney and Carolyn Jones
Nelson is a successful bank robber but allies with John Dillinger to better compete with Al Capone.

The Gun Runners (1958)

Starring Audie Murphy and Everett Sloane
A remake of To Have and Have Not where the story is transported to the Cuban Revolution.

Flaming Star (1960)

Starring Elvis Presley and Steve Forrest
The son of a white father and Kiowa mother finds himself on the other side from his white half-brother when warfare breaks out between the white settlers and the Kiowas.

Hell is for Heroes (1962)

Starring Steve McQueen and Bobby Darin
A small squad is left facing a much larger German force following a failed attack against the Siegfried Line in WWII.

Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)

Starring Clint Eastwood and Shirley MacLaine
A nun and an American gunfighter team up to help the Juaristas resist the Archduke Maximilian, the puppet ruler of Mexico installed by Emperor Napoleon III. (full review)

The Beguiled (1971)

Starring Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page
A wounded Union soldier is taken in by a girls’ boarding school in Confederate territory and charms his way into each woman’s heart but finds that they are not as innocent as they seem.

The Shootist (1976)

Starring John Wayne and Lauren Bacall
A gunfighter has terminal cancer and seeing that the world of gunfighters is disappearing, tries to find an opponent for one last shootout, so he can die with a gun in his hand.

Further Reading:

A Siegel Film: An Autobiography-Don Siegel, London: Faber and Faber, 1993.

Aside from two lengthy chapters that examine his career before he became a director, each chapter is devoted to a movie. I enjoyed his description of standing up to Wayne and actually directing the movie. Wayne was such a dominating individual, which is why so many of his later movies are mediocre. Siegel’s films are generally entertaining, so it is not a surprise that the book is a pleasure to read. It is as if he had selected the best anecdotes of his career and arranged them with varying degrees of background to present the various lessons he had learned over the years. He is quite honest about the behind-the-scenes negotiation and backstabbing that went on in the studios that he worked for, which makes for an enjoyable and informative read. Siegel even provides a shot by shot description of a key scene in the movie Madigan (1962).