Thursday, 17 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.

Sunday, 13 June 2021

Werner Herzog Goes to New Orleans

Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans (Directed by Werner Herzog) 

Werner Herzog’s remake of Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans is indebted to Abel Ferrara’s notorious 1992 original in name and subject matter only. The screenwriter William Finkelstein, a veteran of TV police dramas Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue, has taken the character of a dishonest, drug-addicted detective, changed the setting to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and constructed a new story. Eschewing the original’s overt Catholic symbolism, Ferrara’s uncompromising portrait of self-destruction is still fertile ground for the German director whose doomed tales of excess this recalls. Herzog however injects the story with his own sly touches of surreal humour, surrealist imagery and an unexpected tone of optimism amid the brutality and seediness.

Nicolas Cage relishes the role of drug-fuelled cop Terence McDonagh, a part suited to his on-screen histrionics. He strides through the increasingly tortuous plot recalling the great driven monsters of Herzog’s early years: Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo and Nosferatu as played by the great Klaus Kinski. Herzog gives Cage enough freedom to indulge his excesses without the film veering into parody.

The film opens in the aftermath of Katrina with McDonagh attempting to free a prisoner from a water-filled basement only to injure his back in the process. We jump six months forward, to discover he’s been promoted to lieutenant, only the pain medications to deal with his now chronic back pain have led to a full-blown coke and crack addiction, which he obtains by exploiting his status as a cop to steal, get sex and keep his girlfriend provided with dope.

The story revolves around  an investigation into the drug-related killing of a family of Senegalese illegal immigrants, as he searches down a reluctant witness who can identify the perpetrators. 

Meanwhile, he is in debt due to gambling, is forced to steal narcotics from the police evidence room to support his habit, and begins pitting one gang of criminals against another. He is fiercely protective of his erratic partner and alcoholic father, even as he sinks into a hallucinatory daze as a result of the alcohol and drugs. He sees iguanas in an apartment and alligators beside the road. Not merely the products of a mind reeling out of control; they are reminders, animals of the Louisiana swamp, the primeval origins of the city itself.

McDonagh's behaviour grows more outlandish and hysterical, unable to sleep, threatening witnesses, teaming up with criminals, seemingly hurtling towards his own doom. As the local mob, debt collectors, internal affairs, and a state senator circle around McDonagh, respite arrives in the sudden and inexplicable form of grace.

Such an unexpected turn of events is in keeping with Herzog’s ironical view of the moral codes of the police procedural, and give the film a playful and open feel, taking the film in a direction quite different to the redemptive arc of Ferrara’s original. Herzog’s updated version has a completely different tone, it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and although Herzog's film had its origins in commercial expediency, Herzog imbues the uncompromising script with his own unique strange, erratic, and delightful touches that make the film a genuine work of wonder.

The film belongs to Cage, he takes centre stage, his mania grounded in a solid supporting cast. It’s his best role since Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead, a similarly hallucinogenic account of a man at the end of his tether. 

In the following article Werner Herzog discusses the making of the film, his relationship with Nicolas Cage, and it’s indebtedness, or lack thereof, to the original film. 

It does not bespeak great wisdom to call the film The Bad Lieutenant, and I only agreed to make the film after William (Billy) Finkelstein, the screenwriter, who had seen a film of the same name from the early nineties, had given me a solemn oath that this was not a remake at all. But the film industry has its own rationale, which in this case was the speculation of starting some sort of a franchise. I have no problem with this. Nevertheless, the pedantic branch of academia, the so called “film-studies,” in its attempt to do damage to cinema, will be ecstatic to find a small reference to that earlier film here and there, though it will fail to do the same damage that academia — in the name of literary theory — has done to poetry, which it has pushed to the brink of extinction. Cinema, so far, is more robust. I call upon the theoreticians of cinema to go after this one. Go for it, losers.

What the producers accepted was my suggestion to make the title more specific—Port of Call: New Orleans, and now the film’s title combines both elements. Originally, the screenplay was written with New York as a backdrop, and again the rationale of the producers set in by moving it to New Orleans, since shooting there would mean a substantial tax benefit. It was a move I immediately welcomed. In New Orleans it was not only the levees that breeched, but it was civility itself: there was a highly visible breakdown of good citizenship and order. Looting was rampant, and quite a number of policemen did not report for duty; some of them took brand new Cadillacs from their abandoned dealerships and vanished onto dry ground in neighboring states. Less fancy cars disappeared only a few days later. This collapse of morality was matched by the neglect of the government in Washington, and it is hard to figure out whether this was just a form of stupidity or outright cynicism. I am deeply grateful that the police department in New Orleans had the magnanimity and calibre to support the shooting of the film without any reservation. They know — as we all do — that the overwhelming majority of their force performed in a way that deserves nothing but admiration.

This was fertile ground to stage a film noir, or rather a new form of film noir where evil was not just the most natural occurrence. It was the bliss of evil which pervades everything in this film. Nicolas Cage followed me in this regard with blind faith. We had met only once at Francis Ford Coppola’s, his uncle’s, winery in Napa Valley almost three decades ago when Nicolas was an adolescent, and I was about to set out for the Peruvian jungle in order to move a ship over a mountain. Now, we wondered why and how we had eluded each other ever since, why we had never worked together, and it became instantly clear that we would do this film together, or neither one of us would do it. There was an urge in both of us to join forces.

Film noir always is a consequence of the Climate of Time; it needs a growing sense of insecurity, of depression. The literature of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett is a child of the Great Depression, with film noir as its sibling. I sensed something coming in the months leading up to the making of the film: a breakdown which was so obvious in New Orleans, and half a year before finances and the economy collapsed, the signs were written on the wall. Even films like Batman turned out to be much darker than anyone expected. What finally woke me up was a banality: when attempting to lease a car I was confronted by the dealership with the unpleasant news that my credit score was abysmal, and hence I had to pay a much higher monthly rate. Why is that, I asked — I had always paid my bills, I had never owed money to anyone. That was exactly my problem: I had never borrowed money, had hardly ever used a credit card, and my bank account was not in the red. But the system punished you for not owing money, and rewarded those who did. I realized that the entire system was sick, that this could not go well, and I instantly withdrew money I had invested in stock of Lehman Brothers while a bank manager, ecstatic, with shuddering urgency, was trying to persuade me to buy even more of it. I love cinema for moments like this.

The screenplay is William Finkelstein’s text, but as usual during my work as a director it kept shifting, demanding its own life, and I invented new scenes such as a new beginning and a new end, the iguanas, the “dancing” soul (actually this is Finkelstein’s, who plays a very convincing gangster in the film), the childhood story of pirate’s treasure, and a spoon of sterling silver. I also deleted quite a number of scenes where the protagonist takes drugs, simply because I personally dislike the culture of drugs. Sometimes changes entered to everyone’s surprise. To give one example: Nicolas knew that sometimes after a scene was shot I would not shut down the camera if I sensed there was more to it, a gesture, an odd laughter, or an “afterthought” from a man left alone with all the weight of a rolling camera, the lights, the sound recording, the expectant eyes of a crew upon him. I simply would not call “cut” and leave him exposed and suspended under the pressure of the moment. He, the Bad Lieutenant, after restless deeds of evil, takes refuge in a cheap hotel room, and has an unexpected encounter with the former prisoner whom he had rescued from drowning in a flooded prison tract at the beginning of the film. The young man, now a waiter delivering room service, notices there is something wrong with the Lieutenant, and offers to get him out of there. I kept the camera rolling, but nothing more came from Nicolas. “What, for Heaven’s sake, could I have added,” he asked. And without thinking for a second I said, “Do fish have dreams?” We shot the scene once more with this line, and it looked good and strange and dark. But it required being anchored in yet an additional scene at the very end of the film, with both men, distant in dreams leaning against the glass of a huge aquarium where sharks and rays and large fish move slowly as if they indeed were caught in the dreams of a distant and incomprehensible world.

From Bad Lieutenant Port of Call: New Orleans. By Werner Herzog. Courtesy of Emmanuel Levy.