Sunday, December 14, 2003

Don Siegel

I'm halfway through re-reading one of my all time favourite books - A Siegel Film by Don Siegel. This is a stuningly effective book and reads much like a lot of Siegel's films - short, sharp, to the point and not a moment wasted. Siegel, for those that don't know (and if you don't then hang your noggin in shame) was an exceedingly talented director of (mainly) action films with a career that extended back into the golden years of Warner Brothers in the mid 1930s. Along the way Siegel made some of the best movies that have ever been made by a director with a low, and in come cases virtually no, budget, including the original Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. Along the way he worked with virtually every important American actor, such as Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, John Wayne, Lee Marvin, Steve McQueen and most famously, Clint Eastwood. Unlike a lot of drectors Siegel had no great desire to act, and only appeared in a smattering of films, and only in two that didn't feature him at the helm. The first one being Eastwood's first film, Play Misty For Me, and also in the remake of Body Snatchers. Siegel was one of film's first true modern masters, but he never seems to get the acclaim he deserves. If you see the book then grab it and read it - you'll learn things you'd not have ever known.

One thing that Siegel did do was to encourage Clint Eastwood to direct his own films. Siegel and Eastood made six films together - starting with 1969s Coogan's Bluff (one of the more violent movies of it's time), the pair then went on to have a great run - Two Mules For Sister Sara, the brilliant The Beguiled (one of Eastwoods best flicks and a must for lovers of gothic cinema) and the movie that cemented Eastwood's place in history as an icon - Dirty Harry. Moving on from there Siegel and Eastwood reversed roles and Siegel appeared in Eastwoods Misty as a bar-tender, and also off the screen as Eastwood's mentor. They teamed up one last time for 1979s Escape From Alcatraz, as fine a fade out as any.

Along the way Eastwood learnt a lot from the movie making of Siegel. If you happen to be able to watcdh virtually anything that Siegel did from about 1962 through to 1976, then you'll see movies that could have easily been directed by Eastwood. They read the same, they feel the same. Siegel is akin to being Eastwood's cinematic father, even more so than Sergio Leonie (director of Eastwood's 'spaghetti westerns'). Watch The Shootist and Coogan's Bluff, for example, and then watch The Unforgiven. Powerful movies with some very, very uncofmrtable violence. Which is how it should be - violence in real life isn't funny, nor is it pleasant. It quite rightly makes you squirm when you see someone getting the vrap beaten out of them, and it should be no different when you see that on the big screen - indeed, if anything, that feeling should be amplified. Often it's not, but in both Siegel and Eastwood's films, it's dirty, nasty, dark business. To use a word that a lot of other film makers throw about, but rarely achieve, the violence in the duo's movies are realistic.

Eastwood is one of the best American directors running around now. From his debut, through to the impressive Mystic River, Eastwood has made some of the best movies of the latter part of the last century. The Outlaw Josey Wales, with it's stunning line "Dyin' ain't much of a livin' boy" (delivered to a bounty hunter just before he (the bounty hunter) gets blown away) and grubby sets and actors. Pale Rider, a return of Eastwood's man With No Name. Heartbreak Ridge, one of the first of Eastwood's movie to deal with an aging hero. The Honkytonk Man, a thinly disguised biopic of Hank Williams. Bird, a straight out biography of Charlie Parker. Eastwood has shown himself to be a master of film, both as a director and an actor, with powerful results with the movies Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil, and The Bridges Of Madison County, and now Mystic River. 2002's Blood Work was an interesting experiment, but sadly it failed to have serious impact.

Like Siegel, Eastwood takes complete control over his films. He casts people he wants to work with, and, much like Siegel, the people he approaches almost always say yes. He's not afraid to experiment - he cast Australian Jack Thompson as a southern governor solely on the strength of an inpromtu audition at a party. For his latest film, Eastwood assembled a cast that includes Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Marcia Gay Harden and Laura Linney - a cast so good that even Laurence Fishburne is relegated to a minor, supporting, role. Such is the power of Eastwood.

Eastwood won an Oscar as a director and also another gong for best picture. Sadly when you consider that Kevin Costner and Mel Gibson have also won Oscars for directing (in Costner's case, the appalling Dances With Wolves - a waste of celluloid only surpassed by Costner's subsiquent efforts Waterworld and The Postman) the Academy Award is a tad diluted. Still, Eastwood would have been happy to be recognised, and as he's now making noises about retiring as an actor to concentrate on directing, things are looking good. Acting's loss will be cinema's gain.

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