Don Siegel - Director

Nationality: American. Born: Chicago, 26 October 1912. Education: Jesus College, Cambridge University, England; Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, London. Family: Married 1) actress Viveca Lindfors, 1948 (divorced 1953), one son; 2) actress Doe Avedon, 1957 (divorced), four children; 3) Carol Rydall. Career: Actor with the Contemporary Theater, Los Angeles, 1930; joined Warner Bros. as film librarian, 1934, later assistant editor, then joined insert department; set up montage department, 1939; 2nd unit director for Michael Curtiz, Raoul Walsh, and others, 1940–45; directed first film, Star in the Night , 1945, and first feature, The Verdict , 1946; worked for Howard Hughes at RKO, 1948–51; producer and director for TV, from 1961; executive producer for Trial and Error , for TV, 1988. Awards: Oscars for Best Short Subject, for Star in the Night , and for Best Documentary, for Hitler Lives? , 1946. Died: Of cancer, after a long illness, 20 April 1991, in Nipoma, California.

Don Siegel
Don Siegel

Films as Director:


Star in the Night ; Hitler Lives?


The Verdict


Night unto Night ; The Big Steal


No Time for Flowers ; Duel at Silver Creek


Count the Hours ( Every Minute Counts ); China Venture


Riot in Cell Block 11 ; Private Hell 36


An Annapolis Story ( The Blue and the Gold )


Invasion of the Body Snatchers ; Crime in the Streets


Spanish Affair ; Baby Face Nelson


The Gun Runners ; The Line-up


Edge of Eternity (+ co-pr, role as man at the pool); Hound Dog Man


Flaming Star


Hell Is for Heroes


The Killers (+ pr, role as short-order cook in diner); The Hanged Man


Stranger on the Run




Coogan's Bluff (+ pr, role as man in elevator); Death of a Gunfighter (uncredited co-d)


Two Mules for Sister Sara


The Beguiled (+ pr); Dirty Harry (+ pr)


Charley Varrick (+ pr, role as Murph)


The Black Windmill (+ pr)


The Shootist




Escape from Alcatraz (+ pr, role as doctor)


Rough Cut



Other Films:


City for Conquest (Litvak) (montage d)


Blues in the Night (Litvak) (montage d)


Casablanca (Curtiz) (art d)


Edge of Darkness (Milestone) (set d); Mission to Moscow (Curtiz) (art d); Northern Pursuit (Walsh) (special effects d)


The Adventures of Mark Twain (Rapper) (ph)


Play Misty for Me (Eastwood) (role as Marty the bartender)


Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Kaufman) (role as cab driver)


Into the Night (Landis) (role as embarrassed man)


By SIEGEL: book—

A Siegel Film: An Autobiography , foreword by Clint Eastwood, London, 1993.

By SIEGEL: articles—

Interview with Peter Bogdanovich, in Movie (London), Spring 1968.

"The Anti-Heroes," in Films and Filming (London), January 1969.

"Conversation with Donald Siegel," with Leonard Maltin, in Action (Los Angeles), July/August 1971.

Interview with Sam Fuller, in Interview (New York), May 1972.

Interview with Stuart Kaminsky, in Take One (Montreal), June 1972.

"Stimulation," interview with Gordon Gow, in Films and Filming (London), November 1973.

"The Man Who Paid His Dues," interview with B. Drew, in American Film (Washington, D.C.), December 1977/January 1978.

On SIEGEL: books—

McArthur, Colin, Underworld, U.S.A. , London, 1972.

Kaminsky, Stuart M., Don Siegel: Director , New York, 1974.

Kaminsky, Stuart M., American Film Genres , Dayton, Ohio, 1974; revised edition, Chicago, 1983.

Lovell, Alan, Don Siegel: American Cinema , London, 1977.

Belton, John, Cinema Stylists , Metuchen, New Jersey, 1983.

Vaccino, Roberto, Donald Siegel , Florence, 1985.

On SIEGEL: articles—

Austen, David, "Out for the Kill," in Films and Filming (London), May 1968.

Mundy, Robert, "Don Siegel: Time and Motion, Attitudes and Genre," in Cinema (London), February 1970.

Kael, Pauline, "Saint Cop," in New Yorker , 15 January 1972.

Gregory, Charles T., "The Pod Society vs. the Rugged Individualist," in Journal of Popular Film (Bowling Green, Ohio), Winter 1972.

Pirie, D., "Siegel's Bluff," in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1973.

Kass, Judith M., "Don Siegel," in The Hollywood Professionals , vol. 4, London, 1975.

Allombert, Guy, "Donald Siegel: cinéaste de la violence et du anti-héros," in Image et Son (Paris), May 1976.

Chase, A., "The Strange Romance of 'Dirty Harry' Callahan and Ann Mary Deacon," in Velvet Light Trap (Madison), Winter 1977.

Combs, R., "Less Is More: Don Siegel from the Block to the Rock," in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1980.

Combs, Richard, "Count the Hours: The Real Don Siegel," in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), February 1984.

Nepoti, R., "Una poetica dell'antieroe," in Segnocinema (Vicenza), vol. 8, no. 34, September 1988.

Obituary, in Variety , 29 April 1991.

Powers, J., "Imperial Measures," in Sight and Sound (London), vol. 1, no. 2, June 1991.

Seeslen, G., and H. R. Blum, "Zu den Filmen von Don Siegel. Gespräche mit Don Siegel," in EPD Film (Frankfurt), vol. 8, no. 6, June 1991.

Sheehan, H., "Dark Worlds," in Sight and Sound (London), vol. 1, no. 2, June 1991.

Ockersen, T., "Don Siegel (1912–1991)," in Skrien (Amsterdam), no. 178, June-July 1991.

Kock, I. de, "Don Siegel. De paradox van de onafhankelijke huurling," in Film en Televisie (Brussels), no. 410–411, July-August 1991.

Krohn, B., and B. Frank, "Feu le roi de l'action," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), no. 446, July-August 1991.

Sarris, A., and Clint Eastwood, "Don Siegel. The Pro. The PadrĂłn," in Film Comment (Denville, New Jersey), vol. 27, no. 5, September-October 1991.

Bernstein, M., "Institutions and Individuals: Riot in Cell Block 11," in Velvet Light Trap (Austin, Texas), no. 28, Fall 1991.

Sarris, Andrew, "Don Siegel: The Pro," in Film Comment , September/October 1991.

Eastwood, Clint, "The Padron," in Film Comment , September/October 1991.

Norman, B., in Radio Times (London), 4 June 1994.

Vaccino, Roberto, "Donald Siegel," in Castoro Cinema (Milan), no. 111, 1995.

* * *

Don Siegel's virtues—tightly constructed narratives and explosive action sequences—have been apparent from the very beginning. Even his B pictures have an enviable ability to pin audiences to their seats through the sheer force and pace of the events they portray. Unlike some action-movie specialists, however, Siegel rarely allows the action to overcome the characterization. The continuing fascination of Riot in Cell Block 11 , for instance, stems as much from its central character's tensions as from the violent and eventful story. Dunn is a paradigmatic Siegel protagonist, caught between a violent inclination and the strategic need for restraint. Such incipient personal instability animates many Siegel films, finding material expression in the hunts and confrontations which structure their narratives. His people react to an unpleasant world with actions rather than words, often destroying themselves in the process. They rarely survive with dignity.

Siegel's singular distinction, however, lies in his refusal to strike conventional moral postures in relation to this depressing and often sordid material. Though one cannot fail to be involved in and excited by his action-packed stories, there is always a clear sense that he remains outside of them as something of a detached observer. In the 1950s that seeming "objectivity" gave him a minor critical reputation as a socially conscious and "liberal" director, though this was a liberalism by implication rather than a direct and paraded commitment. In retrospect the 1950s movies seem best described as individualistic, antagonistic to unthinking social conformity, rather than liberally sentimental after the fashion of "socially concerned" Hollywood movies of the period. These films are generalized warnings, not exercises in breast-beating. Their spirit is that of Kevin McCarthy's cry to his unheeding fellows in Siegel's original ending to Invasion of the Body Snatchers (United Artists added an epilogue): "You're next!"

In the 1960s and 1970s Siegel's reputation and his budgets grew. He struck out in new directions with such films as Two Mules for Sister Sara and The Beguiled , though his major concerns remained with action and with his emotionally crippled "heroes." The three cop movies ( Madigan, Coogan's Bluff , and Dirty Harry ) are representative, the last especially encouraging the critical charge that Siegel had become a law-and-order ideologue. Its "wall-to-wall carpet of violence" (Siegel's description) easily lent itself to a "tough cop against the world" reading. Yet, just as his earlier films cannot be reduced to simple liberal formulae, so the later movies are far more complex than much criticism has suggested. A colleague remarks of Madigan: "For him everything's either right or wrong—there's nothing in between." In exploring his characters' doomed attempts to live by such absolutes Siegel refuses to make their mistake. And though he does not presume to judge them, that does not mean that he approves of their actions. As the less frenetic films like The Shootist and Escape from Alcatraz make clear, his appreciation of character and morality is far more subtle than that.

More than any other action director of his generation Siegel has avoided the genre's potential for reductive simplification. He has combined entertainment with perception, skilled filmmaking economy with nicely delineated characters, and overall moral detachment with sympathy for his hard-pressed protagonists. His movie world may often seem uncongenial, but its creator has never appeared callous or unconcerned. His films have achieved much-deserved commercial success; his skill and subtlety have deserved rather more in the way of critical attention.

—Andrew Tudor

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