I was watching Charley Varrick recently, the 1973 heist film directed by Siegel, starring Walter Matthau as an ex-crop duster and stunt pilot turned bank who, along with his long suffering girlfriend, Nadine, and unreliable partner, robs a small bank in New Mexico. Unbeknownst to Varrick, the bank in question is actually a front for the mob. In response, the mob sends a hit man (played by Joe Don Baker) after him.
It’s a terrific little heist film. Tough in all the right places, just enough action and suspense to keep you interested, without the kind of over the top action gimmicks similar films exhibit these days. Matthau is terrific as the hangdog loner, Varrick.
Anyway, it got me thinking. There may be bad Siegel films out there, but I haven’t seen them.
Siegel was the king of the intelligent B movie (a title he shares with directors such as Walter Hill). His films have enormous energy and pace, but they also have an economy. Watching Siegel’s films, time and again he’s been able to get above obvious budget and script limitations to tell a gripping story.
The journeyman director cut his teeth making Westerns and noirs in the late forties and early fifties, and then pretty much excelled at whatever genre he tried.
His Invasion of the Body Snatches in 1956 is a masterpiece of brooding Cold War paranoia, which the latter version didn’t lay a glove on.
Hell is For Heroes, the war movie he did with Steve McQueen in 1964, is great.
While I like Robert Siodmak’s 1946 version of the The Killers, I prefer Siegel’s 1964 remake. That’s partly that’s because of the stellar cast: Lee Marvin, Angie Dickenson, Ronald Reagan and John Cassevetes (minus Reagan, my fantasy dinner party invite list).
But Siegel’s film is a wonderful turbo charged piece of pulp, its visual harshness in stark contrast to the luxuriant, almost tactile feel of the black and white version. Originally made for TV but deemed to violent to be shown, it has all the ingredients of the new medium, garish, bright colours, etc.
As the calculating, driven old school criminal in search of his money, Marvin pre-figured his role in John Boorman’s 1967 classic, Point Blank. And listen to the banter between Lee and Clu Gulager, and it’s impossible not to believe it was not an influence in films like Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.
Dirty Harry (1971) set the pace for an entire sub-genre of films in the seventies and eighties about vigilante rule bending cops fighting urban crime, but manages to avoid some of the more clownish, bombastic aspects of its successors. It’s also helped by brooding atmospheric score from Lalo Schifrin, who he collaborated with Siegel a number of films.
Even Telefon, made in 1977, is not bad. It starred Charles Bronson as a KGB Major sent to the US to stop a rogue Soviet agent (Donald Pleasence) who is activating Soviet sleeper agents in storage since the Cuban Missile crisis. Siegel manages to overcome a lacklustre script and wooden performances by Bronson and Lee Remick to turn in a half decent action film with a couple of nice twist.
Hence, what I have coined as the Don Siegel Rule.
Simply stated, if Siegel directed it, there’s a pretty strong chance it is going to be a good film.
To test my own theory, I picked a Siegel film I hadn’t seen and didn’t know anything about, The Black Windmill, a 1974 British spy thriller, produced and directed by Siegel, and starring Michael Caine, Pleasence, Janet Suzman and John Vernon.
Caine plays Major John Tarrant, a British intelligence operative whose son is kidnapped. We don’t know why or by whom. All we know is that the kidnappers are headed up by Vernon and want British intelligence to pay a ransom of half a million dollars in diamonds.
Tarrant’s boss, Harper (Pleasence) is paranoid to the point of being deranged. He assumes the kidnappers must be the Soviets, but he also has his suspicions Tarrant might have staged it himself to extort money from the British Government. Whatever the case, he refuses to pay the ransom, setting Tarrant off on a one-man rampage to find out who has taken the boy and rescue him.
On one level, The Black Windmill is a fairly unspectacular, cut price James Bond rip-off. It even has its own Q who provides Tarrant briefcase that doubles as a gun.
But in Siegel’s hands, the movie is a remarkably tense tale of paranoia and betrayal.
The tension works on a number of levels. First there is the relationship between Tarrant and his estranged wife (Suzman).
“I hate what this job has done to you,” she yells at one stage.
“If there are things you hate about me Alex, be grateful for them now,’ Caine replies calmly. “They could be our last chance of seeing David alive.”
There’s also conflict and intrigue between the various sections of British intelligence, who are all vying to find out why the boy was taken, is there a security leak, is Tarrant a double agent, etc.
There are also some great action sequences, culminating in the final confrontation between Tarrant and the kidnappers in an abandoned windmill.
Of course, Siegel is helped by Caine, whose menacing, tough guy persona had not yet been destroyed by all the countless bad film choices he was to make in the eighties.
So, I’m sticking by the Don Siegel Rule.
What do you think? What’s your favourite or least favourite Siegel film and why?