Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

The Westerns of Donald Siegel

 

Don

 

The next in our The Westerns of… series is Don Siegel. He didn’t direct a great number of feature oaters, with full credit on only four – five if you count The Beguiled, six if you count Coogan’s Bluff – and they weren’t all very good either, but as David Thomson says in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, “Never quite a leading director, he vindicated modesty of scale.” Thomson added, “He made few films that are not personal, inventive and interesting.”

 

 

From a Chicago Jewish family (though Donald himself always reportedly held atheistic views), Siegel received a rather exotic education, at Jesus College, Cambridge in England and then for a time at the Beaux Arts in Paris.

 

He got a start in the movie business from Hal Wallis, cutting in stock footage at Warners, whence he progressed to be head of the montage department (working on They Died with Their Boots On and Saratoga Trunk), an editor and second unit director. He won Academy Awards for two shorts he directed, then made a name as feature director helming Warners’ 1946 London-in-the-fog thriller The Verdict with Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, and the excellent 1949 RKO picture The Big Steal with Mitchum and Greer, before directing his first Western, at Universal in 1952, the Audie Murphy vehicle The Duel at Silver Creek, written by Gerald Drayson Adams.

 

Young director Don

 

The Duel at Silver Creek wasn’t the greatest of starts in the genre, to be honest (click the link for our review). Thomson calls it “a weirdly naïve narrated Western” and it was flawed, flashy and essentially rather trashy, in a Samuel Fuller kind of way.

 

Stephen McNally (never the most glittering of Western stars) plays a lawman trying to track down a gang of claim jumpers. He hires slick gunman the Silver Kid (Murphy) as deputy. Unfortunately McNally’s character is rather a dolt, falling hook, line and sinker for the wicked dame (Faith Domergue), not listening to reason and generally almost ruining everything. He has a voiceover commentary role, which adds to the slight gangster-noir vibe.

 

Audie was still incredibly baby-faced and was doing ‘kid’ roles a lot – The Kid from Texas, The Cimarron Kid and so on – but he hadn’t really found his acting feet yet. It is hardly a magisterial performance, though he does come across as earnest and doing his best. He looks a bit silly in his 50s flappy pants and two-gun rig.

 

 

Lee Marvin in his Western debut is the saloon thug Tinhorn – his poker game with Audie is superb.

 

In fact you do wonder if the whole thing was done a bit tongue-in-cheek. Was Siegel making a deliberately sensational Western, as if it were a B? Much of the action, and also the script, would indicate that he was almost sending the genre up. Even the title is rather B-Westernish. It’s one of those pictures where everyone gallops at full speed all over the place. No posse can simply gather and ride out of town; they have to gallop out. Ditto the gang. Also Audie. In fact everyone. Usually they do this while shooting, much of it in the air, as they so often did in bad Westerns. It serves no purpose whatsoever but may have been fun for the extras. When dismounted, in the (frequent) gun battles, they ‘throw’ their shots, as if that might make the bullets go faster. Honestly, it’s all a bit cheesy. But maybe that was the point.

 

It’s routine and conventional as plot, but it’s vigorous, fast-paced and done with gusto. Siegel was good at moving-camera shots and unusual angles, and this gives interest. Brian Garfield called the picture “implausible, predictable and dull”. I probably agree with the first two adjectives, but it isn’t dull. The DVD Talk review said it was a “film too silly to be any good and too unpretentious to dislike“, which is quite astute. In the last resort, if Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers was schlock horror, this is a schlock Western.

 

There wouldn’t be another feature Western until 1960 but in 1955 Siegel directed an episode of Frontier, titled Paper Gunman, with John Smith, and in 1959 his story was used for Logan’s Policy, an episode of The Man from Blackhawk.

 

 

In 1960 at Fox Siegel made the best of all Elvis films, Flaming Star (again, click for our review). This was entirely different, a ‘small’ but high-quality Western with excellent acting, not least from Presley himself but also from John McIntire and Dolores Del Rio. It was originally planned for Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra. I like it better this way. In fact, given how bad their Westerns generally were, we were infinitely better off. Flaming Star also has taut direction and a thoughtful Clair Huffaker and Nunnally Johnson script with a lot to say about racism, bigotry and loyalty. OK, the picture isn’t as powerful as John Huston’s The Unforgiven the same year, with similar themes, but it’s a fast-moving actioner with real merit, and I’d say it was Siegel’s best Western till The Shootist.

 

That’s Don on the right

 

In 1964 Siegel helmed The Solid Gold Girl, an episode of Destry with John Gavin, and the following year he started producing ABC’s The Legend of Jesse James (not, to be honest, the greatest of Western TV shows, and it only ran one season).

 

 

In 1967 Siegel directed one of the early TV movies (in 1964 he’d already made one of the very first, the non-Western Mardi Gras noir The Hanged Man), Universal Television’s Stranger on the Run (click for review) with Henry Fonda and Anne Baxter, aired on NBC. It was definitely superior as far as TV movies go but in fact stands up in its own right as a decent Western.

 

 

Back on the big screen, Death of a Gunfighter (click for review) in 1969 was a Universal picture to star Richard Widmark and be directed by Robert Totten, but Widmark and Totten fell out and after 25 days Siegel took over and completed it in another nine days. When the picture wrapped, Siegel said that Totten had directed more than he did and refused to take screen credit for it, but Widmark didn’t want Totten’s name on it. A compromise was reached whereby the film was credited to the fictitious ‘Alan Smithee’.

 

Not Dick’s finest hour

 

Whoever was responsible, it wasn’t a top-notch oater. It’s hard for any star to play a tired, washed-up marshal without coming across as a tired and washed-up star. That’s how Widmark appears. Roger Ebert wrote that “This is one of Richard Widmark’s best, most fully realized performances” but I must say I can’t see that myself. He seems to be going through the motions (though with the occasional spark). He and writer Joseph Calvelli (from a Lewis B Patten novel) seemed to be aiming at a High Noon vibe, with the loner marshal the only one with guts enough to stand up and fight. But it’s about as far away from High Noon as you could get. The picture is very much the Richard Widmark Show but either he wasn’t in the mood or the writing or the directing weren’t up to scratch. Whatever, it’s definitely not one of Widmark’s best (he was capable of great things). Of course it’s a million times better than many of the spaghettis coming out at that time but as an American Western it’s distinctly ho-hum. And we can only barely call it a Don Siegel Western.

 

In 1968 Seigel and Clint Eastwood worked together on Coogan’s Bluff, a semi-Western about a present-day Arizona deputy in a Stetson (Eastwood, of course) sent to New York City to escort an escaped fugitive back for trial and applying Clintish cowboy methods in the big city. It has its moments.

The following year, Siegel directed Eastwood in a proper Western, Two Mules for Sister Sara (you’ve got it by now, click for review). Written by Albert Maltz from a Budd Boetticher story, and in fact Boetticher was at first slated to direct, this Clint Eastwood movie (the second Siegel/Eastwood collaboration after Coogan’s Bluff) ought to have been better. Not that Two Mules is a turkey but it’s rather standard post-spaghetti Eastwood. It was 1970. Clint still had some way to go yet before he would be making good Westerns and he was still in a semi-Neanderthal phase.

 

In the opening scenes, second-billed Clint saves a naked woman (top of the cast Shirley MacLaine) from being raped, only to find, when she dresses, that she is a nun. Although she does nunnish things, such as wanting to give the rapists a Christian burial, Clint ought to have spotted right off that something was amiss by Shirley’s heavy false eyelashes. Little by little, as she swigs whisky and swears like a trooper, he does find it odd, although it takes rather a long time for the penny to drop. Einstein he ain’t. He doesn’t even wonder why a nun should help him (spectacularly) blow up a train with dynamite. Perhaps he thinks that’s what nuns do.

 

 

So it’s not exactly The African Queen or Rooster Cogburn here. More of a kind of Western buddy movie.

 

It’s a Juaristas-against-the-French tale set in Mexico, and indeed it was made in Mexico by a Mexican company (jointly with Malpaso) and crew, with many Mexican actors. In reality, although the Washington government in the 1860s was actively helping the Juaristas, most Texans in Mexico during and after the Civil War were pro-Maximilian (think of Ben Thompson and Phil Coe, for example). The Confederacy offered to recognize Maximilian. But never mind. I’m sure there were some on the Liberals’ side.

 

The movie has rather ugly jangly guitar plus folk instrument music in the spaghetti style by Ennio Morricone. Clint, who is only pro-Juarista for the money, is unshaven, squints and chews on a cheroot, so no surprises there. This movie is actually more spaghettiesque than the first Western he made after the Dollars trilogy, Hang ’em High. He has gone backwards. There is a battle at the end in which much dynamite is thrown and Juaristas and French soldiers die in great numbers, sometimes bloodily, but it’s alright because they are foreign.

 

This is light fare and a long way from some of Sigel’s best work (or Eastwood’s for that matter).

 

In 1971 came another Siegel/Eastwood picture, more a Southern Gothic than a true Western really, but strangely beguiling, The Beguiled. Siegel, who also produced The Beguiled, said it was the favorite of all his movies. According to Siegel later, Universal Studios did not properly manage the release of the picture, presenting it as one more action movie starring Clint Eastwood, which of course disappointed the audiences faithful to his usual movies. That might be right, because it didn’t do too well at the box-office. The Beguiled, based on the 1966 novel The Painted Devil by Thomas P Cullinan, is not a straight Western, or even a straight action flick. It’s a slightly bizarre, vaguely creepy and highly atmospheric story of cruelty and lust. John Landis called it “a really kinky and odd film.”

 

Religious iconography

 

Eastwood is a wounded Union corporal pursued by Confederates, who is found by a little girl, Amy, from a nearby boarding school. Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin, 11) says she is twelve, going on thirteen, and in the first of many creepy moments, the corporal kisses her, purportedly to stop her from screaming when the Rebs come near. The all-female staff and students of the school take the wounded man in, though they are ardent supporters of the Confederacy – they say until he is better and they can turn him over, but already you sense there are ulterior motives.

 

There now begins a sexual interplay in which all the women and girls wish to sleep with the soldier, and for a while none is aware of any other doing the same; but when they find out…

 

This hothouse feminine picture aside, Siegel didn’t really ‘do’ women

 

The non-Western, horror vibe is enhanced by the used of sepia or washed-out color (the picture was in Technicolor but that wasn’t really exploited) and the photography, very fine, in fact, was by the great Bruce Surtees – his first picture as DP. The intense, claustrophobic and dark setting of the girls’ school, whose isolation is enhanced by the constant – and justified – fear that troops (of either side) might arrive at any moment and pose a sexual danger to the females, is heightened by the Lalo Schifrin music (Schifrin and Siegel worked seven times together), often discordant in a modern-classical way. As the film’s story descends into psychological darkness, the soundtrack adds organ music, which enhances the Gothic feeling of the piece. An imprisoned raven, tied by its leg to a balustrade and kept as a pet (nominally till its broken wing is healed, an obvious comparison to the corporal) gives an even more gothic-horror atmosphere to the piece, though more Roger Corman/Vincent Price than Edgar Allan Poe, it must be said. The Hollywood Reporter suggested that Siegel and Eastwood “establish a sort of magic fever [by making] extensive use of dissolves and superimposition of scenes, using the lighting as correlative of the character’s internal feelings.”

 

Don Siegel’s last Western, in 1976, was a much more traditional affair, and a respectful adieu to perhaps the genre’s most famous star, though in fact it had first been penciled in for Paul Newman, then George C Scott before John Wayne took it, and at the time there was no certainty at all that it would be Wayne’s last picture. Nevertheless, Paramount’s The Shootist serves as a fine epitaph.

 

It was arguably Wayne’s finest performance since The Searchers. He is moving, dignified and powerful, and there is a great poignancy about a man soon to die cancer playing a Western character dying of cancer.

 

 

Lauren Bacall (whose husband Humphrey Bogart had of course also died of cancer) and James Stewart as the doctor (like Duke, in his last Western) provide outstanding support, to the point where you wonder if it was not Bacall’s finest role. Poor Stewart suffered from deafness and couldn’t always hear the directions from director Don Siegel but he and Wayne just laughed, shrugged and did their own thing anyway. Wayne gave Siegel a variation on an old John Ford line, telling the director, “If you’d like the scene done better, you’d better get a couple of better actors.” As a little in-joke, Wayne and Stewart agree in the script that it has been fifteen years since they met: it was fifteen years since they had worked on a Western together, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. 

 

 

The Glendon Swarthout novel (read our review here) is a fine one, one of the great Western stories, and Swarthout’s son Miles worked on the screenplay of this film, receiving a Writers Guild nomination for Best Adaptation. Bruce Surtees photographed it again. Carson City, Nevada appears in melancholic winter sun. Elmer Bernstein wrote a moving score.

 

Here endeth the Western CV of Donald Siegel. He went on making pictures all thru the 70s, such as Escape from Alcatraz with Eastwood again in 1979, and even directed a couple in the early 80s but these weren’t oaters. Personally, I wouldn’t put him in the very top category of Westernistas, but Flaming Star, The Beguiled and The Shootist were enough to elevate him high in the ranks. And of course there were more non-Westerns of very high quality to earn him a considerable reputation.

 

 

He died in 1991 aged 78, from cancer. In 1992, Eastwood dedicated his fine film Unforgiven “To Don and Sergio”, and there was no doubt as to who Don and Sergio were.

 

 

15 Responses

  1. The noir Charley Varrick (1973) starring Walter Matthau has a lot of western vibes.
    Shot mostly in picturesque Nevada, it was written after a John Henry Reese book for Clint Eastwood who turned it down. Reese has written many westerns and noirs.
    Co stars Joe Don Baker, Felicia Farr and an always impressive John Vernon.

  2. No doubt that The Shootist must be in any of us 100 best westerns list !
    Its special story with its stellar cas, its end of the West theme within the end of John Wayne in film and life, probably the number one actor of the genre, the western hero par excellence (leading the pack beside of Cooper) are giving the film an aura which was not planned, a myth within the myth.
    The film is excellent with its own unique qualities too. But with any other actors it would have been “just” a western, maybe a very good one but never reaching such a level and such a dimension and legendary status.
    For Wayne, bowing out that way has something to do with miracle, a dream for any actor. Maybe a unique example not only for the genre but in the cinema history where the film matches life and vice versa.

  3. Agreed, The Shootist with other actors would probably have been so-so. With Wayne in his last performance + Bacall, Stewart and Boone, it’s sublime.

    Honestly can’t remember if I’ve seen Duel at Silver Creek- blends in with all those other Audie Murphy Bs. Flaming Star is absolutely great, one of the best of the ‘liberal’ Westerns of that era. Two Mules for Sister Sara seemed like a completely pointless movie to me, mind you it’s a long time since I saw it. I’d like to see Stranger on the Run if it ever turns up on TV, doesn’t sound like it’s worth a DVD purchase? The Beguiled is intriguing as a one-of-a-kind blend of Western, war movie, art movie and Gothic horror – but I didn’t find it very likeable or satisfying…

    Of course, Siegel had some great achievements outside the Western. Dirty Harry still stands up as a superb urban thriller, worth citing on this site because it parachutes Eastwood’s Western persona into modern city streets, I suppose Coogan’s Bluff is a way-station in that transition…

    All in all I’m not sure I agree with David Thomson’s claim that most of Siegel’s films were often ‘personal’, and I wonder if Siegel would have agreed with that himself, I have the instinct he was the kind of guy to have seen himself more as ‘professional’ than ‘personal’. But ‘inventive and interesting’, often – yes.

    1. I think ‘Escape from Alcatraz’ is one of the best prison movies ever made. You ARE on that island with them desperate to get out of there. Siegel, Eastwood, McGoohan etc. Strong stuff indeed.

    2. The Shootist french title is Le dernier des géants (the last of the giants) which is very explicit if you know the film history…

      1. The French so often got the title utterly wrong (e.g Wayne in TRUE GRIT laughably badly rendered as 100 DOLLARS FOR THE SHERIFF) but yes, that time they got it right.

    3. Another of his great achievements outside of the Westerns must be mentioned the original ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’. Sci Fi classic.

    4. I bought the DVD of STRANGER ON THE RUN and didn’t regret it.
      I think you are probably right about Thomson’s comment. Siegel was one of those directors who did what what was handed to him in a businesslike way, like, say Gordon Douglas, but every now and then did manage to put his personal stamp on a picture.

  4. Thanks for this superb overview. ‘The Beguiled’ is a film that really got under my skin first time I ever saw it. I return to it bemused, creaky, and creepy amazed it got made. As a Civil War buff it is the most interesting weird movie with that setting. Also, ‘The Shootist’ has just been reissued in fantastic new Blu edition. Everyone should check it out as it was superbly put together. Wayne strides through looking as it was just filmed.

    1. Me too. The picture is in some ways pretty horrid, certainly creepy, yet it gets under your skin.

    2. Last December we have had some interesting chat about Sofia Coppola remake after The Beguiled post.
      I have not seen that Jeff has finally watched it. Am I wrong ?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recent Comments
Labels