Hardy Plumbing
April 12, 2006

The Good The Bad The Ugly

One of the key events of the film year so far has been Film Forum's retrospective on director Don Siegel, whose reputation hovers somewhere between that of expert craftsman and minor auteur, and whose renowned economy of storytelling is all too rare in today's Michael Bay–inflected action films, which conflate flashiness with excitement. While the retro is basically over, many of Siegel's films are available on video; for anyone with a jonesing for intelligent crime films (among other genres), they're worth checking out.

As any retro dealing with Siegel must, the series once again raised the question of the murky reputation of Dirty Harry. This iconic 1971 Clint Eastwood thriller has always posed something of a problem for critics, since it's clearly a brilliantly constructed police thriller — indeed, it holds up better than some of its contemporary classics, like The French Connection (1971) and Serpico (1973) — that happens to endorse a social message described, generously, as Neanderthal-reactionary.

As "Dirty Harry" Callahan, Eastwood chases a longhaired serial killer across San Francisco. (He also pauses along the way to foil a group of caricatured African-American bank robbers, and utter his famous "Well, do ya punk?" speech.) The problem isn't the movie's implication that effective crime fighting often entails bending the rules; if that's a standard of value, then L.A. Confidential would be a terrible movie. It's that Dirty Harry stacks the deck relentlessly in Harry's favor — showing him as a tireless advocate of justice (certainly not the case with all cops) — and portrays the killer as exploiting the system merely for sport.

Critics who have come to the defense of Dirty Harry — notably Dave Kehr, now a DVD columnist for The New York Times — have argued that Siegel is subtly likening the cop to the killer. Watching the film again, it's easy to see what he means: Note the matching hairdos, and how each character is defined in terms of how he points his gun. But in an Occam's Razor sort of way, Dirty Harry still manages to offend — it's a revenge thriller that, in its own time, teased audiences into siding against the rights affirmed by Miranda.

That said, the relativism that Kehr speaks of is amply represented in many of Siegel's other films, notably Coogan's Bluff (1968), which sends Arizona cowboy Coogan (Eastwood) into the jungle of New York to retrieve a criminal, unfazed by the rule book laid out for him by bureau chief Lee J. Cobb. The climax, in which Coogan chases his prey through the wilds of Fort Tyron Park, is one of the most exciting sequences Siegel ever filmed; needless to say, Coogan wins the race, but unlike Callahan, he can't get around the city bureaucracy.

That same year, Siegel also made the superb Madigan (1968), which makes explicit Siegel's ambivalence about law enforcement by cross-cutting between a straightlaced police commissioner (Henry Fonda) who's trying to weed out the corrupt cops in his department, and the titular police officer (Richard Widmark), who, like Callahan, bends the law to get his man and often ends up regretting it. For the way it shows sympathy for all perspectives, Madigan, not Dirty Harry, should have been the film that Siegel dedicated to men who died in the line of duty.

Siegel protagonists are often characters forced to make compromises while negotiating their own moral universes — whether their ultimate goal is evil (Eli Wallach in 1958's The Lineup) or good (John Ford's dying gunfighter in 1976's The Shootist). The wackiest version of that theme can be found in the rarity Baby Face Nelson (1957), which stars eternal adolescent Mickey Rooney as the famed bank robber. It's mild hoot to see shorty Rooney dressing down his team, but (anti-)heroes who always manage to be cannier than they appear are an essential part of the Siegel touch.

As for Siegel's own political views, the case is further obscured, of course, by Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), a lean, ingeniously structured sci-fi classic that — nearly everyone points out — can be read as both anti-Communist propaganda and an anti-McCarthy, anti-conformist parable. Those looking to pin Siegel as pure reactionary might find a case in The Beguiled (1971) — his favorite of his films — a Civil War story in which a wounded Union soldier (Eastwood) is held hostage by a school of man-eating Southern belles. All told, the film seems less explicitly political and more like one of the many exercises in oneiric mysticism (see also, for example, Robert Altman's excruciating 1977 film 3 Women) that followed in the wake of Ingmar's Bergman's Persona.

There's also now an unintended subtext to The Killers (1964), a tense made-for-TV (but theatrically released) adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's short story, and one of Siegel's most effective efforts at merging multiple narrative perspectives. It closes with hit man Lee Marvin taking down a high-powered thief played by Ronald Reagan, in his last and only villainous screen role.

For sheer suspense, though, no Siegel film tops Escape From Alcatraz (1979). With keen attention to small objects — spoons, magazines, posters — Siegel unfolds the purportedly true story of Alcatraz's lone prison break, and his famed economy dovetails with his characters' lack of resources. Like the prisoners, Siegel always used limited means to accomplish a great deal. Whether he did it for good or for bad, and the exact extent of his accomplishment, will be debated at retros for years to come.

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