Don Siegel, who served as a mentor to both Sam Peckinpah and Clint Eastwood, started his Hollywood career in the Warner Bros. film library, sussing out possible stock shots from millions of feet of film. He steadily conned and cajoled himself into jobs as an assistant cutter, head of the insert department, and eventually into creating montages for such Warners classics as The Roaring Twenties, Knute Rockne – All American, Meet John Doe, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Now, Voyager and Casablanca. He moved from this to directing second unit sequences, or action that takes place away from the main actors or at a distance. His work on Saratoga Trunk, The Conspirators and To Have and Have Not got him a chance to direct shorts at Warners. Star in the Night was a modern re-telling of the Nativity, and Hitler Lives explored the lasting impact of the Nazi Party.
Despite his work behind the camera and in editing rooms getting him noticed around the Warners lot, his brazen attitude rubbed Jack Warner the wrong way, and once he started getting feature assignments, the material was often challenging. His first film, The Verdict, re-teamed Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet for the last time in a convoluted story of innocent men sentenced to death and the lawyers who represent them. He directed another film at Warners, Night Unto Night, before he was laid off. He struggled to find work from there, picking up a second unit gig on All the King’s Men, and eventually landing at the Howard Hughes-controlled RKO for The Big Steal and No Time for Flowers. As a relatively inexperienced director in the early ‘50s, it was difficult for Siegel to get a long-term contract and picked up additional work at Universal and Columbia.
His first big break came from Walter Wanger at Allied Artists, who hired him to direct the prison drama Riot in Cell Block 11. The film was well-received and assured Siegel of work in film and TV for years to come. He distinguished himself throughout the ‘50s with the film noir Private Hell 36, the sci-fi classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers, gangster film Baby Face Nelson, as well as the pilot episode and feature adaptation of The Lineup. Siegel’s style grew and refined in the early ‘60s as he directed Elvis Presley in Flaming Star and Steve McQueen in Hell Is for Heroes. He turned exclusively to television for a time, producing and directing several episodes as well as the film The Killers with Lee Marvin and Ronald Reagan, originally destined for TV, but ultimately deemed too violent. When he returned to features in the late ‘60s, he was a seasoned veteran with a definitive style.
1968’s Madigan, with Henry Fonda and Richard Widmark, was a glimpse into the films to come. It was at this point that he met Clint Eastwood, and the two collaborated on his next four films: Coogan’s Bluff, Two Mules for Sister Sara, The Beguiled and the seminal Dirty Harry. He continued to work with big stars throughout the ‘70s: Walter Matthau in Charly Varrick, Michael Caine in The Black Windmill, Charles Bronson in Telefon, John Wayne in his last film role as The Shootist, and re-teaming with Eastwood on Escape from Alcatraz. His last film was 1982’s noir-inspired farce Jinxed!, with Bette Midler, Ken Wahl and Rip Torn.
Siegel’s legacy is as a director of violence, but a closer look reveals a career-long interest in the outsider, whether he be criminal, prisoner or cop working outside the law. The existential question of the outsider, and how he comes to transgress criminal, moral or ethical boundaries is a central tenet of the construct that we now call noir.