Sunday, 13 June 2021

Don Siegel: The Shootist

Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (Directed by Don Siegel)

Don Siegel, born 1912 in Chicago, excelled in high-octane action films with tightly woven plots. He regularly collaborated with actor Clint Eastwood, including the classics Coogan’s Bluff (1968) and Dirty Harry (1969). 

As a student Don Siegel attended Jesus College, Cambridge, and went to RADA in London to study acting. On returning to America he initially worked as a librarian at Warner Brothers studios in Hollywood. He then worked as an editor before joining the studio’s montage department, where he contributed to a number of films, including Now, Voyager (1942), Casablanca (1942), and Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). 

After working on a couple of uncredited short films he transitioned to feature films. His debut was The Verdict (1946), a police mystery drama that featured the on-screen pairing of Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre for the last time. Night into Night from 1947 starred Ronald Reagan as an epileptic scientist, while Viveca Lindfors portrayed a widow haunted by her late husband; Siegel then directed The Big Steal (1949), a crime caper that featured Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer, and demonstrated Siegel’s aptitude for hard-boiled action, the genre in which he would later establish his reputation.

In 1954, Siegel had his first significant critical and financial success with Riot in Cell Block 11, a classic prison drama. The picture showcased Siegel’s trademark quick pace and crisp editing. Almost as intriguing was Private Hell 36 (1954), a film noir about the complications that ensue when two detectives decide to keep stolen money they retrieve; Ida Lupino starred as a nightclub singer and co-wrote the script.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) was one of the decade’s memorable science fiction films, overcoming a shoestring budget to become a paranoid classic. It is set in a small community that is slowly being overrun by aliens that take over the citizens’ bodies. Widely seen as a rebuke to McCarthyism, the picture functions as both a psychological thriller and a political parable. Despite the studio’s attempt to alter the picture, the finale is nonetheless unsettling. “They’re here already! You’re next!” Despite the fact that Philip Kaufman and Abel Ferrera both produced excellent remakes, this is still the best version. 

Crime in the Streets (1956), an adaptation of Reginald Rose’s 1955 television drama, starred John Cassavetes and Mark Rydell as disgruntled adolescents. Siegel’s next film was 1957'’s Baby Face Nelson, a brutal depiction of the famed mobster played by Mickey Rooney.

Siegel achieved more success with The Lineup (1958), a film adaptation of a famous television series. It featured Eli Wallach as a professional assassin tasked with recovering heroin concealed in the luggage of unsuspecting tourists.

Siegel then directed  Flaming Star (1960), a Western in which Elvis Presley delivered his best acting performance as a man torn between his white father and his Kiowa mother. Hell Is for Heroes (1962) was a tough World War II film starring Steve McQueen as a rebellious American soldier who eventually leads his exhausted fellow soldiers in an attack against a much larger German army. 

Siegel’s attention next shifted to television. He worked on a number of programmes prior to The Killers, a classic crime thriller based on a short novel by Ernest Hemingway about two hit men (Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager) who attempt to learn more about the man they are ordered to kill. Their investigation takes them to a mobster (played by Ronald Reagan in his final feature film) and his lover (Angie Dickinson). Originally intended for television, it was considered too violent for broadcast and instead received a theatrical distribution.

Siegel’s cop films became a standard, from Coogan’s Bluff through to his most renowned feature, Dirty Harry. But probably his most overlooked film is Madigan, a taut, realistic thriller that anticipates both the buddy cop film and Sidney Lumet’s police procedurals. It follows two cops, Madigan (Richard Widmark) and Whitmore (Harry Guardino), as they attempt to track down the killer who stole their guns, while their commissioner (Henry Fonda) struggles with police corruption, brutality, and his own personal life.

Siegel continued his collaboration with Clint Eastwood on Dirty Harry cast in the lead role of the tough, near-fascist cop tasked with apprehending a remorseless killer based on the real-life Zodiac killer. Siegel’s ambivalence with his hero is the film’s most controversial aspect. What is at stake is the extent to which the film is seen to align the viewer unequivocally with Dirty Harry and to present his behaviour as acceptable or even desirable. Eileen McGarry has argued eloquently for the mirroring between hero and villain, even whilst the viewer is encouraged to accept that “the young psychotic killer is portrayed as so exceedingly debased… that he deserves to be slaughtered without consideration” It’s a tense and atmospheric thriller, evocatively using its San Francisco locations and features one of Eastwood's most memorable performances.

Charley Varrick, Siegel's late-period masterwork, is one of the most overlooked crime films of the 1970s. The eponymous character played by Walter Matthau, in one of his most striking and untypical performances, is a crop duster who intends to rob a bank in New Mexico. Varrick's wife and two cops are killed in the process, but things get worse when Varrick and his partner discover that they’ve accidentally ripped off a mob money laundering operation, and they’re being pursued by a group of lurid underworld figures, including Molly (Joe Don Baker) and Boyle (John Vernon). Siegel creates a seedy, desolate world amongst the arid New Mexico landscape, with Baker in particular proving a formidable adversary.

The majority of Siegel’s films exhibit traits that transcend genre standards, such as a pessimistic view of humanity and its social structures. Yet the director’s greatest achievement may have been less in injecting his films with the  ‘personality’ of an auteur, than in deftly creating filmic vacuums into which spectator and critics’ views are drawn. As the writer Alan Lovell argues Siegel has “surpassed ordinary professionalism”. The fact that Siegel's best films continue to be both entertaining and a cause of debate long after their release underscores his standing as one of Hollywood’s most intriguing and successful filmmakers.

The renowned director Sam Peckinpah worked as Don Siegel’s assistant director on a number of films. The following account “Don Siegel and Me” is excerpted from the afterword to the 1974 book Don Siegel: Director, by Stuart Kaminsky. 

Some years ago, I was waiting in Walter Wanger’s office (the third of three shabby bungalows that used to flank Allied Artists) for the eighth hour in three days, until persistence, main strength, awkwardness, and a phone call from the attorney general of California got me an interview. By that time, I had memorized Wanger’s honorary degree from Dartmouth, which was interesting since I was reading Budd Schulberg’s The Disenchanted while I waited. In any case, two days later I met Don Siegel and was employed as the gopher (go for this, go for that) and walked into my first picture, Riot in Cell Block 11, and ended up learning how little I knew about pictures, human nature, and survival.

I did six pictures with Mr. Siegel as a dialogue director, and because of this and because of his patience (he couldn’t hire anyone cheaper), I learned.

Brutally honest, he would haul me to the office of a complaining production manager and then find the truth of the matter in question and proceed to chew ass—usually mine. Don has a great anger, a great sense of irony, and a great, warm sense of humor. (I know about the first—I have heard about the latter qualities.) But I must say that usually he was kind enough not to laugh openly while watching me run about with both of my feet in my mouth and my thumb up my ass. (This is not easy.)

In those days (Riot), he was full of anger at every aspect of the production, his personal life, and his associates. But he kept everyone moving with humor and kept us all together and made a superb motion picture (if you freak out on prisons).

I remember the time I was caught sitting down (Private Hell 36) and was told that dialogue directors were a dime a dozen, “and if I wanted to sit on my ass, I could drag it off the set,” and then some time later, he read the pages of a scene I had rewritten; he dragged me to Wanger’s home and fought until I got my first opportunity to work as a screen­writer (a week’s polish on Invasion of the Body Snatchers).

A dedicated, painstaking craftsman, Don was maniacal in his continuing battle against stupid studio authority. He was and is constantly amazed at the idiocy of our industry, while still being delighted by its competence and professionalism. I realized that I might be considered in the latter category when, upon seeing one of my earlier TV shows, he turned away muttering, “You’re not that good!”

When my Quonset hut burnt down in one of the earlier Malibu fires, I sent my kids back to Fresno and moved in with Don and his mother. I was in a complete state of shock. For three weeks, completely flat broke, I was provided with clothing, shelter, and warm understanding. Years later, when a similar tragedy happened to Don, I refused to accept the fact, or even acknowledge that it had even happened, or that it could. I still don’t believe it. He wouldn’t let it—not ever.

If this is beginning to sound like an accolade to a talented filmmaker and close friend, it is and is not. He was my “patron,” and he made me work and made me mad and made me think. Finally, he asked me what his next setup should be on a picture, and for once I was ready, and he used it. I guess that was the beginning.

I was lucky.

Wednesday, 9 June 2021

Jacques Rivette: the Story of Films

 Celine and Julie Go Boating (Directed by Jacques Rivette)

Jacques Rivette came to the fore with the French New Wave movement in post-war Paris, starting out as a journalist and film critic before pursuing a career in filmmaking. Rivette, along with Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer, wrote for the influential Cahiers du Cinéma, with Rivette eventually becoming editor in chief. Their writings focused on the director as an auteur who expresses a strong personal vision. Further, there was an emphasis on authenticity, emphasising location shooting, natural lighting, and improvisation. Rivette’s criticism focused on American cinema of the 1940s and 50s, and he was an advocate of the films of Howard Hawks, John Ford and Nicholas Ray. 

Rivette’s first film, Coup du Berger, 1956, was a short comedy about the destiny of a coat as it passes through a series of unfaithful lovers. It was co-scripted by Chabrol, in whose flat it was shot, and had brief appearances by Godard and Truffaut. His first feature Paris Nous Appartient was a rambling paranoid thriller set amongst bohemian Paris of the 1950s. Rivette’s next film La Religieuse (The Nun, 1965) was more successful, riding the controversy of a ban owing to its portrayal of the Roman Catholic Church. The film, based on a book by French philosopher and novelist Denis Diderot, told the story of a young girl who is forced to become a nun as a result of her familial circumstances. It was arguably Rivette's most traditional picture. 

Céline et Julie Vont en Bateau (Céline and Julie Go Boating, 1974) arguably his most accessible and successful film to date, is a charming, witty, groundbreaking meditation on the nature of fiction. Two young women, a magician and a librarian, meet and become entangled in a seemingly endless theatrical drama unfolding in a suburban house. The film launched a series of projects by Rivette characterised by improvisation and narrative experimentation. 

Celine et Julie was shot without a screenplay, allowing Rivette to develop the narrative with his two actresses, Juliet Berto and Dominique Labourier, during the production. Rivette constructs, in the words of David Thomson, "the most innovative film since Citizen Kane. Whereas Citizen Kane was the first film to suggest that the world of the imagination was as powerful as reality, Celine and Julie is the first film in which everything is invented."

La Belle Noiseuse (1991; "The Beautiful Troublemaker"), Rivette's most acclaimed film, was nominated for five César Awards and won the Palme d'Or at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival. It stars Michel Piccoli as a painter and Emmanuelle Beart and Jane Birkin as the two women in his life. Frenhofer, a painter, has lost his creative spark, eventually finding inspiration in Beart. The film delves deeply into its subject, focusing carefully on the painting process, to the small failures and advancements of creativity. 

La Belle Noiseuse is a contemplation on the artist's relationship to his or her environment and the difficulties of artistic inspiration. Rivette also creates a fully rounded portrayal of two spouses and two lifestyles merging, with unforeseen and life-altering consequences. La Belle Noiseuse is the first completely formed work of Rivette’s mature period, following the passionate, drawn social depictions of his early films with something poised and more thoroughly apprehended. La Belle Noiseuse can be considered a semi-autobiographical work, with echoes of Rivette in Frenhofer, the elder artist urgently searching for some lost source of inspiration and rediscovery of the joys of creation.

Rivette directed Jeanne la Pucelle in 1994, a two-part, six-hour adaptation of the Joan of Arc story. Starring Sandrine Bonnaire the film was strongly grounded in reality, emphasising the political and social above the spiritual. 

Following that, Haut/bas/fragile (1995), a musical set in Paris, was a delightful romantic comedy, while Secret Défense, was an intriguing update of the Electra myth to modern Paris. Both films set the scene for one of Rivette’s best films Va Savoir which continues Rivette’s interest with the theatrical: the protagonists are an actor and a director who are preparing to stage a play by Pirandello. Rivette skilfully employs the play’s themes to parallel the characters’ intricate lives. 

Rivette’s capacity for experimenting with new techniques of self-expression and reflection maintained him as a vital and current filmmaker throughout his distinguished career, his remarkable oeuvre remaining as innovative, fresh and impressive as the day they were produced.

In 1997, Hélène Frappat contacted Jacques Rivette, who was about to finish editing his modern thriller Secret Defense, in order to propose a conversation intended for publication in a new quarterly magazine called La Lettre du Cinéma. What resulted was a collaborative open ‘dialogue’ in which Rivette reflected on criticism and its relation to the history and practice of cinema. The following is extracted from the larger two-part text and offers a glimpse into Rivette’s thoughts on aspects of his creative outlook.

Hélène Frappat: One of the things that interest you, as Serge Daney said, is to film work.

Jacques Rivette: Yes, yes, yes, well… I try to. The idea of work. Because I think it’s impossible to really film it.

HF: You work towards filming this idea of work…

Yes, it leads to the idea that films are the story of films. You may say that it’s tautological, but I think it isn’t just that… or rather, there is a truth in tautology. Forty-five years later, I want to go back to the lines at the beginning and the end of my old article on Hawks: “That which is, is”, but the second “is”, if done right, doesn’t have the same meaning as the first! So the work of filming work isn’t purely tautological, and at the same time, I think we shouldn’t shun tautology. For example, one of the tautologies we must assert is that films are films. It means a lot of things, it means that a film should be a film, i.e., something that exists in space and time, on screen, before our eyes, but it’s also celluloid that is printed upon, sensitized by both optical and chemical processes that should be taken into account. Light isn’t something magical, but it is part of the work, and there are individuals whose profession it is to work with light.

HF: In the idea of mise en scène, there is both this evidence that you speak about in your article on Hawks and, to get to this evidence, quite a detour?

Yes, in cinema, you take a detour through this machine that is the camera. Even if it was initially a very simple machine—the admirable Lumière camera which is a small wooden box you can hold in the palm of your hand—it was a machine all the same. Not to mention today’s cameras, which are much more sophisticated than those from thirty years ago, like today’s film rolls that are infinitely more complex than Lumière’s film roll. But with Lumière’s celluloid, the photographic process intervenes between what the eyes see and what will be on screen: so there’s an activity here that you can’t deny by saying “it’s magic”… And if I feel like repeating “a film is a film”, it’s also in relation to most critics who are, very often, concerned with a film’s story, possibly its characters, at times the actors, and that only rarely. But it seldom matters to them that it’s a film, i.e., something that should have the truth of film, in the sense that Cézanne spoke of the truth of painting, a material truth, which should hold up on the screen just like a painting should hold up on the wall, on the canvas. I admit that it’s very hard to speak about it in words, it’s something on the level of intuition. You get the feeling that it’s either there or not, and this feeling is quite arbitrary. It’s very hard to justify it, and you are tempted to say “that’s how it is”, following the method of Mr. Alain, for instance, who, in his writing on works he admired, refused arguments and discussions, preferred examples and said: “Well, that’s how this one is, and that’s how that one is, and you either agree or don’t.”. The principle is that opinions, like works, should be stated as clearly as possible: take it or leave it. I still think that it’s at the heart of Hawks’ aesthetic, as it is in Ford’s or DeMille’s…

HF: Do you feel like you’ve returned to Hawks with Secret Defense?

I hope I haven’t completely lost sight of him in the meantime! Hawks was one of our rare references for Joan the Maiden: we’d quickly adopted the Western in general, i.e., Hawks and Ford, and of course Rossellini, as our model for the construction of episodes, the tone of the dialogue and the relation between characters. Those were our references. We’d also thought of Renoir at the beginning, but I think he disappeared along the way: what remained were Hawks’ and Ford’s Westerns, and Rossellini.

HF: At the beginning of Battles, there is a tracking shot on Joan who walks along a wall. Then the camera pans to reveal an opening in the wall. It’s The Searchers!

I agree, it’s a Western shot in any case; on top of that, she is looking westward at that moment… Now, how could one say that such a film exists and such a film doesn’t? I cited Alain, but ultimately, my main reference (I’m speaking of writers I know well, whom I’ve often read; Rohmer was the one who made me read Alain) is [Jean] Paulhan, whom I read by myself, if I may say so, when I was a teenager in Rouen. There are whole books by Paulhan on this question; not on cinema, but it amounts to the same thing. A Short Preface to All Criticism is Paulhan’s fundamental book on the subject, except that he asks the question, but doesn’t answer it: how is it that we speak of a particular work because we think it’s important, and how is it that we know that all the others, full of good things they may be, aren’t of any importance whatsoever? That’s the most important point; it’s what comes first. We can comment all we want after this, but why do we speak of this work and not that? Why is it that even those who find a work “terrible, monstrous” pick this one out for consideration, and not those around it? How is it that such and such painting, book, music or film exists, that they have an existence as a painting, as a novel, as a poem, as a symphony, as a film? That’s the fundamental question that everyone dodges. For Baudelaire’s contemporaries, why was it soon evident that Baudelaire was someone to fight over, and that others weren’t? It is especially clear from the nineteenth century onwards, where the idea of conflict is more pronounced, but it was true even before: when we read, for example, Madame de Sévigné on Racine, we can see there was a relentless discussion; with Corneille, it was the Quarrel of Le Cid… I’m not saying that the only criterion for a work’s “existence” is conflict, conflict at the moment of its reception, but it’s one of the criteria; admittedly, works that are embraced by everyone right away, in general, don’t interest anyone ten years later. At the same time, if you work towards provoking a conflict, you go wrong grossly… Baudelaire and Flaubert were incidentally the first ones to be sorry about what happened and thought, understandably, that it was all a terrible misunderstanding.

HF: But does cinema have the same status? One of the problems facing film critics is that they don’t really know what they are talking about. At times, they aren’t really writing on cinema, they might as well be writing on literature…

Ah yes, of course! That’s why I often feel like repeating: where is the film in what you’re writing?

HF: Does cinema need different criteria of judgment than the ones traditionally used?

Yes, I think so.

HF: That brings us back to the question of “mise en scène”.

But saying “mise en scène” is replacing one problem with another! That’s actually what we did at Cahiers, and I am one of those responsible for putting this term mise en scène on a pedestal. It allows us to put a word on the mystery, but once we have said “mise en scène”, what do we mean by it? The problem is simply displaced, let’s say it is named, but it isn’t resolved. Sure, it does revolve around mise en scène, but what is mise en scène? A vast question!

HF: It revolves around what you call “the idea”…

It revolves around the fact that mise en scène is a very precise activity, and even if everyone does it in their own way—which is different from the next person’s, thankfully, because it wouldn’t be interesting otherwise; everyone has their own technique—they all seem to talk about the same thing. That’s what surprised our first readers at Cahiers—there are probably other examples, but I’m speaking of what I know best, hence Cahiers in the fifties. Here’s Bazin, for example, who was both intrigued and, at times, taken aback by us, even if he loved us and even if we respected him deeply: “What makes it possible for you to defend Renoir, Rossellini and Hitchcock at once?” And the big question: “How can you reconcile Rossellini with Hitchcock?” It’s clear that, for Rossellini, Hitchcock was the devil himself… For his part, Hitchcock knew well that Rossellini existed (since he had “taken” Ingrid Bergman), but whether he saw even one film by Rossellini in his life, I don’t know, but it was perhaps the least of his worries. Well, yes, there was something that made it possible for us to admire Rossellini and Hitchcock at once and on the same level—not in the same way, but equally strongly. That’s what must be resolved.

HF: We come back to what you called the “politique des auteurs”.

Yes, but the politique des auteurs quickly became an evasion, because it meant saying: they are really very different, but they have the commonality of being “auteurs”. Sure, but then, everyone becomes an auteur after that! Now, it’s true for Rossellini and Hitchcock, it’s still true for Ford and Renoir, it’s true again for Hawks, it’s still true, naturally, for Lubitsch or Dreyer, but is it still true for Minnelli, or even for Richard Fleischer? And then, you come to Positif, where they start talking about Pollack or I don’t know who, or some random director, since when you talk about Pollack, you’re not far from some random director! So the politique des auteurs is a poor response, and above all, it doesn’t explain why, in the work of “great” auteurs, as in the work of great novelists, great painters and great musicians, everything is interesting, because their failures deserve more attention than a hack’s accomplishment: that’s indeed what the politique des auteurs originally wanted to say. Why is a commission executed by Abel Gance infinitely more interesting (for, if I recall correctly, it was for Gance’s film Tower of Lust, a purely made-to-order product that Gance spoke about with great modesty, that François [Truffaut] coined this expression in Cahiers) than Delannoy’s masterpiece? That’s the first question. That one is an open-and-shut case, but what was never resolved, and still remains unanswered, is the question of how one can admire on the same level—because of their consistency, because of their logic, let’s say, but that isn’t enough—filmmakers as different as—let’s retain the same names—Rossellini and Hitchcock.

HF: “Consistency” is a partially satisfying answer, but it also goes round in circles.

Yes, because what do you say to justify it? You talk about scripts, you talk about themes and the recurrence of themes, and you’re trapped there. Sure, it does happen that there are favourite themes in the work of great filmmakers: it’s evident in Ozu, less so in Mizoguchi, but in the work of other filmmakers like Hawks, it requires a work of “clarification”; and it’s very fuzzy in Renoir: what’s common between La Chienne and Night at the Crossroads? There are seventeen years and many kilometres between them! Not to mention indisputable “auteurs” like René Clair or Mankiewicz, who aren’t for all that great filmmakers. These are real questions. There are others too, which still remain unanswered; it’s as if people dodged them because it obliges them to ask what a film is (I’m not going to answer that! Don’t count on me!) What do we expect from a film? Why do we sit in front of a white screen, the same way that we pick a book and begin reading it with the intention of going all the way to page 363? What do we really expect at that moment?

HF: That’s kind of the question at the heart of Secret Defense: what can I expect? It’s a question of exigence, in a way, and if the film was received coolly, it is perhaps because it was faced with people who had no desire to ask that question.  

They were afraid of being bored, that’s all. Did they know what it was about? Maybe not, but it’s certain that they were afraid of being bored. Admittedly, when I think a film may be boring, I’m not too keen to go see it either. It’s simply that the films I’m bored at aren’t the same…