Spoken today, such a statement might arouse contention and debate, but it is far from unthinkable or even impertinent—as it might have been, say, in 1954, the year that Truffaut penned his politique; or in 1966, when Jean-Pierre Léaud played a man named “Donald Siegel” in Godard’s Made in U.S.A.; or even in 1968, when Siegel was the subject of a career retrospective at London’s National Film Theatre and an entry in the “Expressive Esoterica” section of Andrew Sarris’ landmark The American Cinema. In a 1971 issue of Film Comment, film critic Jim Kitses was still able to dismiss Siegel as “a good commercial director, no more and no less,” relegating the “subversive idea—that the French... consider Siegel to be Hollywood’s most gifted filmmaker” to the purview of gossip columnist Joyce Haber (“nobody really believes that kind of thing in this town”). But the filmmaker’s reputation in the U.S. has since risen—to such a degree that in 1996, Siegel’s films were presented in a near-complete retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. And by 2011, Siegel’s standing had become so secure that, writing in The Village Voice, J. Hoberman could nominate the filmmaker for the title of “greatest genre director” in a brief aside—no more, no less—while writing about a different director entirely. A month-long retrospective at the Cinémathèque Française (originally slated to run from March–April of this year) effectively closes the circle of Siegel’s critical (re)evaluation. Whatever he might once have been in old-era Hollywood, Siegel is now respectable.
Born in Chicago in 1912, Siegel studied at Jesus College, Cambridge and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in England, and after a brief period as an actor, got his start at Warner Bros. as an assistant film librarian, which led to stints in the insert, editing, and montage departments, and eventually to second-unit direction. As he tells it in his autobiography A Siegel Film, nepotism (“better than experience”) got him in the door. But talent, bull-headed tenacity, and a bit of luck did the rest. His montage work ranged from Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties (1939) to Michael Curtiz’s Mission to Moscow (1943), though it wasn’t until 1946 that he directed a feature film of his own. Following two Academy Award-winning shorts (Star in the Night and Hitler Lives), Siegel made The Verdict, marking the start of what British critic Alan Lovell (who wrote an extensive survey accompanying the London retrospective that has since been expanded into a monograph) identifies as the first period the director’s career: the years 1946–1954.
Of this period in Siegel’s career, The Big Steal (1949) stands out for its comedic verve and breezy economy. With a script from Out of the Past (1946) writer Daniel Mainwaring, it takes Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer, the stars of that film, and spins them out onto a sunny chase-adventure across Mexico, from Veracruz to Tehuacán. Covering a fair amount of ground in just 71 minutes, it showcases Siegel’s facility with both suspense and comedy, and his ability to work around production obstacles of whatever kind, which in this case included a bout of “Montezuma’s revenge” that hit the cast and crew, the delay of Mitchum’s arrival due to a marijuana charge, and the actor’s drunken presence when he finally got on set. (Siegel’s account of trying to sober the actor up adds a layer of documentary to Mitchum’s soused-out sherriff in Howard Hawks’ El Dorado.) As accomplished and formally controlled as The Big Steal is, however, the style that Siegel would become known for was not yet readily identifiable. His own assessment of the period, pegged to 1953’s China Venture, was even grimmer: “It was a typical Siegel picture of the time. You had to catch it the first day at your neighbourhood theatre, or it would be gone, only to arise years later in mutilated form, squashed in a television box.”
For most critics and commentators, 1954 was the turning point, and there’s no reason to dispute that assessment. Lovell saw it as the start of a new stage in Siegel’s career, coinciding with the rise of television (as Siegel’s aforementioned comment suggests) and cinema’s decline as the dominant form of entertainment. It’s at this time, too, that one first glimpses the director’s character fixations and preferred patterns of identification, expressing what Sarris later termed “the doomed peculiarity of the antisocial outcast.” Ostensibly intended to expose the brutal facts of prison life, drawn from producer Walter Wanger’s time as an inmate, Riot in Cell Block 11 pushes far beyond its problem-picture provenance, and Peter Bogdanovich’s opinion that it is the director’s “first important film” is shared by many, Siegel included.
Already well noted for its on-location shoot at Folsom State Prison, and its use of actual inmates and guards—qualities that one could trace forward to Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956), Jacques Becker’s Le trou (1960), and eventually to Siegel’s own Escape From Alcatraz (1979)—Riot in addition presents a tense mix of controlled camera movement and anarchic activity, and showcases Siegel’s unblinking treatment of violent behavior. The vivid, but unsensational treatment of Neville Brand’s psychopathic inmate is exemplary in that regard. In his American Cinema entry on the director, Sarris slots this into broader formal pattern: “Siegel declines to implicate the world at large in the anarchic causes of his heroes. Nor does he adjust his compositions to their psychological quirks. The moral architecture of his universe is never undermined by the editing, however frenzied.” And if this refusal “to implicate the world at large” seems at odds with Riot’s social consciousness, so much the better, for this tension concretizes the hard, physical environments of Siegel’s cinema—spaces that cannot be abstracted away, but have to be chipped at, struggled with, and forcibly molded to one’s designs.
In this regard, the unjustly underrated Private Hell 36 (1954) might seem oddly misshapen—and by Siegel’s account it was the product of clashing sensibilities: his, and those of screenwriters Collier Young and Ida Lupino. The film’s first half hour follows a pair of detectives (Steve Cochran and Howard Duff) who enlist the grudging help of a materialistic nightclub singer (Lupino) in solving a counterfeiting case. But following a tightly edited car chase, it transforms into a bitter romance between Cochran and Lupino, featuring a shadowy, violent drive that plays something like a stripped-down, de-glammed version of the Humphrey Bogart–Gloria Grahame scenes in In a Lonely Place (1950). Private Hell’s overall shift from police investigation to private drama, though, might elicit a charge that bedevilled a different Nicholas Ray picture, On Dangerous Ground (1951)—namely, that it felt like “two films.” In any case, the contrast proves instructive, as Siegel’s films often have little room for expressionistic flourishes and symbolic touches such as Ray’s; and the hieratic grace that Lupino brought to On Dangerous Ground is nowhere to be found in the endpoint of this film’s all-too-material private hell: a dead body in a trailer park.
Siegel’s testy account of Private Hell’s production—in particular, his charge that Young and Lupino were “pretentious in thinking they were artists” for wanting to start shooting without a fully completed screenplay—is indicative of the tone he maintains throughout his autobiography, which, despite a few scripts’ worth of “remembered” dialogue, isn’t precisely a good book. But as these things often are, it’s revealing all the same: a highly personalized tour of the innumerable compromises and convolutions that comprise a decades-long career, particularly one that spanned a number of film industry upheavals. Sam Peckinpah, whom Siegel gave his start as a dialogue director on Riot in Cell Block 11, recalls how “In those days… 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.” Not one to abandon a production, Siegel only ever threatened to walk off set if he had weighed the scales and determined that they were in his favor—and by his count, he did so many times. As he later confessed, if he was “feisty,” it was because he had fun “playing the game” of making movies within the studio system.
This workmanlike attitude to artistic compromise didn’t do much to get him recognized early on. As Nick Pinkerton observes in a review of 2017’s The Beguiled, Sofia Coppola’s remake of Siegel’s 1971 picture, he “was the classic example of the foot soldier craftsman who worked his way up the ranks, an artisan belatedly celebrated as an artist though the hard-bitten austerity of his style never fundamentally changed.” It is this aspect of his reception that has led many—Siegel included—to allegorize his career in the terms set out by his 1956 sci-fi classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers, as a relentless battle against the “pod” people (read: unsympathetic producers and industry money-men) out to extinguish any sense of individuality. (Wanger, who worked on Body Snatchers after the success of Riot, is one of only a few producers that Siegel has praised unreservedly.) The film has been read as everything from anti-communist to anti-McCarthyite, but no matter what interpretation one favors, what remains unchanged are Siegel’s unemphatic narrative shifts and his taste for hard, externalized evocations, which here become a source of constant terror, carrying the threat of a world in which appearances aren’t just everything, but the only thing. At times, it’s if the film were imperilling the very foundations of its own construction.
That Invasion is more often discussed in its relation to the sci-fi genre than Siegel’s oeuvre is understandable, particularly given the multiple screen versions that followed, and the malleability of the basic premise. Even so, there remains a certain tension surrounding the director’s overall reception, encapsulated well by Manny Farber’s 1969 assertion that Siegel “has been wrongly deified by auteurists… he is interesting only if he’s left life-size and unhaloed.” Far from an expression of snobbishness—Farber, after all, was a champion of underground films and “unprized second-gear celluloid”—this statement more generally speaks to the potential dangers of critical (re)evaluation, the tendency to neglect historically specific modes of production in the process of overturning categories of taste. Then again, it’s not as as if the auteurists disagreed—Siegel never received the reverential treatment that the Cahiers critics accorded figures like Hitchcock and Hawks. Rather, his films were granted a more general respect that Truffaut, especially, gave even the most ostensibly disreputable, outwardly mercenary Hollywood B-pictures, explicitly calling for audiences “to refute by ceaselessly reappraising it a scale of values that belongs to business people.” In this, he resembled his mentor Jean Renoir, who said in a 1954 Cahiers interview—this was after having encountered Val Lewton around the time of 1947’s The Woman on the Beach—that B-pictures were “an expression of the great technical quality of Hollywood” and “are often better than important films because they are made so fast that the filmmaker obviously has total freedom: they don’t have time to watch over him.”
“Total freedom” is, of course, overstating things, but having been embedded in the industry for so long, Siegel knew the system—and how to exploit it. As he tells it, his well-known efficiency was merely one way of getting the higher-ups off his back, and his facility as an editor often led him to cut scenes in his head, minimizing the necessary coverage and negating the possibility of post-production tampering. Not all problems could be so avoided though: for Invasion, he was forced to add a prologue and epilogue; and even as far into his career as 1969, he reluctantly took over the making of Death of a Gunfighter from Robert Totten, a TV director whom he’d mentored while producing The Legend of Jesse James. Later in his life, he expressed some bitterness that even after the outsized success of Riot and Body Snatchers, he never got the chance to make A pictures. This is perhaps clearest in his terse account of directing The Gun Runners in 1958, an attempt to remake 1944’s To Have and Have Not (a film that he’d in fact done second-unit work on years earlier) on a C budget, which he saw as “a stupid trick at best.”
As if in response, Siegel that same year made the The Lineup, the high watermark of his career up till that point, laying the groundwork for the blistering achievements of The Killers (1964) and Dirty Harry (1971), still to come. Spun off from the CBS network police drama of the same name, it follows a pair of hit men—Eli Wallach as the violent psychopath Dancer, and Robert Keith as his composed handler Julian—as they carry out a drug-ring job across San Francisco. Farber praised it as an “extensive structured pictorial tour,” drawing attention to Siegel’s use of the Steinhart Aquarium (also seen in The Lady from Shanghai) and the climax in the Sutro Museum, with its “Japanese-print compositions, the late afternoon lighting, the advantage taken of the long hallways, multi-level stairways in a baroque, elegant, glass-palace building with an exposed skating rink, nautical museum, and windows facing the sea with eye-catching boulders.” Siegel wanted to call it The Chase, a title that rightly highlights the film’s justly lauded finale, a furiously edited pursuit through the city’s (unfinished) freeway networks. But what that otherwise bland title misses is the film’s (quite literal) plays with identification. Through the lens of a routine police operation, The Lineup’s opening 20 minutes lay out a heroin operation run through the San Francisco port—later traced to a wheelchair-bound figure known only as The Man—and only after this Mabusean mechanism is established does the script introduce Wallach’s “wonderful, pure pathological study,” gradually aligning the viewer’s experience of the film with his fate.
Flaming Star (1960) transposed Siegel’s clean geometric action into a purgative frontier drama centered on Elvis Presley’s Pacer Burton, a bi-racial loner riven in his allegiances to his white father and brother, and to his Kiowa mother and her tribe. Siegel managed to get the film down to just two musical numbers—quickly forgotten after an early, startlingly violent massacre—which is part of why Dave Kehr deemed it “not the best Elvis Presley movie… but very likely the very best movie with Elvis Presley.” And though the film’s legacy is dwarfed by Andy Warhol’s treatment of one of the film’s publicity stills, the sight of a mortally wounded Dolores Del Rio stumbling out of her home across a windswept desert, chasing “the flaming star of death,” ranks among the most memorable passages of Siegel’s cinema.
But if the expressive contours of Flaming Star seemed to suggest a possible alternate career trajectory, Hell is for Heroes (1962) provided a clarifying jolt, with Steve McQueen’s Private John Reese taking the template of the Siegel hero into the terrain of the war film. The basic setup, in which a small squad of American soldiers hold off the Germans by making it seem like they have the full force of their army in place, is as good a metaphor as any for what Siegel often had to do with paltry budgets. Much of the runtime unfolds under the cover of darkness, though it’s no deficiency that even some of the most visceral action is swallowed in shadow, for the same stylistic pattern applies to Siegel’s deemphasized portrayal of Reese’s psychotic need for battle. In particular, his dangerous decision to take a German pillbox is so subsumed into the squad’s increasingly desperate activity and the grim logic of the battlefield that his compulsions—possibly suicidal, possibly maniacal—cease to matter.
The drive to make sense of such compulsions is at the core of Siegel’s most successful films—you might call it his compulsion—and The Killers, the second feature-length adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s short story, remains the director’s most richly connected example. For one thing, it offers an reexamination of its noir inheritance: the film preserves the Citizen Kane–like flashback structure of Robert Siodmak’s 1946 version and lifts its central heist subplot from Richard Quine’s Drive a Crooked Road (1954), but trades the voluptuous fatalism of those films for chilly nihilism. Gone are the earlier film’s sensuous orchestrations, in place of which, per Richard Brody in The New Yorker, Siegel’s “terse, seething, and stylish direction glows with the blank radiance of sheet metal in sunlight.” For another, there’s the film’s memorable gallery of actors, each with their own rich legacies: John Cassavetes’ doomed racecar driver, Angie Dickinson’s steely seductress, Ronald Reagan’s odious sugar daddy, Lee Marvin’s unnervingly composed killer, and Clu Gallager’s twitchy, trigger-happy younger partner. In particular, Marvin’s stolid resignation when he finally dispatches Reagan and Dickinson is startling in its unfeeling cynicism (John Boorman would take the actor’s somnambulistic relentlessness to something like its terminal point in Point Blank), and his response to Dickinson’s pleas (“Lady, I don’t have the time.”) deserves a place alongside Clark Gable’s famous exit in Gone With the Wind. The first of three television movies Siegel made in the sixties—that is, before it was deemed too violent for TV in the wake of the Kennedy assassination and was instead released theatrically—The Killers marked a relatively a rocky period in the director’s career. But its grim, garish pulp distilled something of the era’s ambient unease, signalling a future that was all violence and corruption—and so threateningly bright.
In his monumental 1954 essay “The Westerner,” Robert Warshow declares that “The two most successful creations of American movies are the gangster and the Westerner: men with guns.” By the mid-sixties, Siegel’s oeuvre comprised a veritable rogues’ gallery of American gunmen, thus charting not just the move from founding frontier to urban metropolis, but also the consolidation of law enforcement, the development of the carceral state, and the sundry territorial conflicts waged both at home and abroad. (Lest that sound needlessly grandiose, it’s perhaps enough to observe that Siegel’s favored genres are all embedded in an economy of guns, and that American history is the story of that economy.) This is also to say that his heroes are, for the most part, not western heroes. The characteristic “repose” and “completeness” that Warshow extols in his conception of the western hero are not available to Siegel’s protagonists; their environments do not permit it. But what his films do offer is a view of criminal behavior as not just plausible, but logical. His career-spanning interests in psychopaths, his canny inflections to conventional character identification, and his stolid presentation of a range of violent behavior—these combined to build an experience of a world where all means bear a moral taint.
Madigan (1968) offered a major expansion of this worldview. Richard Widmark’s eponymous detective and Henry Fonda’s police commissioner set the bounds of the film’s urbane New York Police Department milieu, but the film as a whole is a fount of rich characterization, introducing a detailed set of domestic dramas, personal entanglements, and bureaucratic operations with seeming unconcern as to their ultimate endpoint. Madigan’s rhythms are defined by the patterned, cyclical drama of a police procedural, but as in Private Hell 36, the film gives the impression that you could follow any of its narrative lines to their conclusion with ease. (If the script’s accommodation of multi-character arcs seems like what one would find in a first-rate TV pilot, that’s something the studio execs saw as well—Madigan was later spun out into a short-lived series.) But, of course, not all of these could possibly be resolved within 100 minutes, so the film converges onto a climactic shootout in an apartment kitchen, channeling its variegated concerns into a visceral, cathartic burst of tragic action.
Madigan is the last of the films listed in the Siegel entry of The American Cinema, and Sarris’ conclusion therein expressed uncertainty regarding the director’s future: “For the present, Siegel seems most assured with the middle-budget action film, and it is to be hoped that he does not become a casualty of Hollywood’s excluded middle.” Given the tectonic industry shifts of the period, there was cause for concern. Fortunately, with Coogan’s Bluff (1968), his first collaboration with Clint Eastwood, Siegel didn’t just avoid obsolescence, but inaugurated the strongest stretch of his career. From its title alone, the film took up the considerable challenge of establishing Eastwood’s post–Sergio Leone persona. Following an Arizona sheriff who goes to New York City to pick up and transport a prisoner, it explicitly played off of audiences’ familiarity with The Man With No Name, offering an outsider’s tour of an urban landscape, most memorably during Coogan’s jaunt into an hippie-nightclub called The Pigeon Toed Orange Peel. Despite Vincent Canby’s assertion in The New York Times that there was “simply no hint of comedy in Eastwood’s deadpan,” the film finds a deep well of humor in Coogan’s exploits, alternating between fantasies of dominance and humiliation, thus allowing it to bemusedly comment on both contemporary culture and the archaism of the Eastwood hero.
As Siegel tells it in his autobiography, his partnership with Eastwood was the product of a glitch in the system: for his first project at Universal, the storied actor was considering two directors, Alex Segal and Don Taylor, but when these names were “fed” to a brand-new computer in the Black Tower (the studio’s Burbank headquarters), the computer erred and instead spit out the name Don Siegel. The anecdote is almost certainly apocryphal—Siegel may not have been much interested in Langian systems, but he sure wasn’t above using such machines to generate spectacle—but it does highlight the mythic significance of their partnership. With Siegel’s encouragement, Eastwood made his directorial debut Play Misty for Me in 1971, and one might wonder whether Unforgiven (1992), dedicated to both Leone and Siegel, would exist if not for that initial push. The question is, at bottom, an impossible one, and perhaps only fit for idle speculation—for then one could ask what Eastwood’s career might have looked like without Leone, or what Leone’s films might have looked like without Budd Boetticher, or what Boetticher’s filmography would be without the presence of Randolph Scott, and so on. As it happens, these connections did come about, making possible the superlative Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970), co-starring Shirley Maclaine and Eastwood, made from a story credited to Boetticher, and featuring a score from Leone collaborator Ennio Morricone.
Like Coogan’s Bluff before it, Two Mules establishes a clear, but minimal plot drive at the outset, then allows its digressive movements to open up to comedic surprise and visceral action, grooving pleasurably to the ambiguous identities of Eastwood’s Hogan, a former soldier turned mercenary, and Maclaine’s Sara, a nun whom he saves from rape and murder in the opening scene. Boetticher wrote the original script for Two Mules while filming the long-gestating, never-completed Arruza—though in truth the movie owes little to his sensibility, and the revelation that Sara is in fact a prostitute in disguise is nowhere to be found in his initial treatment. (Though a friend of both Eastwood and Siegel’s, Boetticher was thoroughly unhappy with the resulting film, and later called it an “abortion.”) Granted, it’s possible to trace the film’s steady, relaxed accretion of narrative incident to the deceptive languor of Boetticher’s exemplary Ranown Cycle pictures, but the inexorable progression of its concatenated action scenes—moving from a tense encounter with a group of Yaqui Indians to a methodical arrow extraction scene to the detonation of a supply train trestle—is recognizably Siegel. And that goes doubly for the explosive finale: a frenzied assault on a French garrison in Chihuahua, which, with its canted compositions and staccato bursts of activity, plays something like a scaled-up, depersonalized variation of the final Madigan shootout.
The film that followed, though, was something else entirely. His third Eastwood collaboration at Universal, The Beguiled was an adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel A Painted Devil, a gothic Civil War-era tale that, by all accounts, Siegel had a very particular idea about. By the time shooting began at a former plantation estate in Baton Rouge, he and his producers had gone through two writers and at least six script drafts, eventually settling on an (uncredited) version from associate producer Claude Traverse. The result is a lurid psychosexual picture of marked intensity, and seen in the context of Siegel’s career, it is an unquestionable anomaly, making use of elements that his films had heretofore avoided: heavy symbolic imagery, rococo formal maneuvers, not to mention a menacing, macabre, Rosemary’s Baby–esque dream sequence. A reading that connects Siegel’s stylistic shift to The Beguiled’s heavy air of sexual repression and moments of violent release is, perhaps, best left aside, but the film does highlight the arbitrariness of his being pigeonholed as a genre specialist. Indeed, with this project, Siegel seemed intent on escaping that designation: He later expressed regret that The Beguiled never played any film festivals and that Universal botched its U.S. release (it was a success in France). But time has only accentuated The Beguiled’s singular attractions, and seen today, the ferocious fullness of its vision—a phantasmagoric dissection of sex and seduction against a Civil War-era backdrop both Grimm and Gothic—seems to carry its own sense of finality and closure. What might once have looked like an alternate beginning or a one-off aberration, now stands as both a self-contained stylistic terminus and a cornerstone of Siegel’s legacy.
In any case, Dirty Harry (1971), the director’s biggest commercial success, ensured that he would not soon be forgotten. And far from sacrificing his interests, the film deepened Siegel’s conception of the hero-monster figure, operating along the opposition between Eastwood’s “Dirty” Harry Callahan and Andy Robinson’s murderous Scorpio. There’s a direct line from the latter to Peter Lorre’s child-murderer in Fritz Lang’s 1931 masterpiece M, not just for the pair’s bug-eyed stares or their late-breaking pleas for human rights, but also for the nocturnal maze-like geometries of the cities in which they move. In a way, though, these parallels only accentuate the marked difference between the two directors: Whereas Lang’s interest is in the rippling effect the murders have on the interlocking networks of Depression-era Berlin (social, criminal, legal), it is telling that Siegel declines to show any sense of public hysteria, preferring to alternate between two highly individualized poles of identification. Neither approach is, strictly speaking, preferable, and rather than test one against the other, it might be more useful to see Dirty Harry as transferring the burden of social response shown in M from screen to viewer: Lang’s film culminates with the denizens of the criminal underworld holding an extended trial for Lorre’s serial killer, Siegel’s makes judges of us all.
Certainly, audiences and critics at the time took up the challenge—most famously in the case of Pauline Kael, who called it a “right-wing fantasy” and a “deeply immoral movie,” one that brought out the “fascist potential” of the action genre. And Dirty Harry offered ample ammunition for such attacks—the way that it tapped into contemporaneous fears around the Zodiac Killer, its use of religious imagery (the vertiginous, rotating neon “Jesus Saves” sign, Callahan’s stations-of-the-cross journey towards Mt. Davidson Park), and its canny situational deployment of race and racial stereotypes. As it stands, the subject of the film’s politics is too large to address in passing, and the debate it continues to incite on that score is as much a part of its legacy as Eastwood’s iconic lines, Bruce Surtees’ nocturnal, neon-lit cinematography, and the climactic school bus setpiece. But in all of this, two images stand out: the manic helicopter shot that rushes back from the fog-shrouded football stadium where Callahan is torturing Scorpio, and the reverse-zoom into extreme wide shot that closes the film, Callahan having killed Scorpio and thrown his badge away. If M’s agenda was to use its monster-figure to test the limits of “civil” society and expose the ruthlessness of its sundry mechanisms, these rhymed shots in Dirty Harry place Callahan (and Scorpio) beyond society altogether. The Dirty Harry sequels arguably undo the productive ambiguity of this conclusion, but if the film is, in fact, meant to be read as a perverse sacrifice, it’s in the recognition that Callahan’s killing of Scorpio obviates his necessity. And so the end offers neither victory nor defeat; Callahan’s existence becomes an impossibility.
Siegel followed the popular success of Dirty Harry with Charley Varrick (1973)—his masterpiece, and also the boldest refinement of his directorial sensibility. The film opens with a near-parodic idyll of home-on-the-range rural town life: In Tres Cruces, New Mexico, a tinkling piano score plays over the sight of freshly-mown grass, sprinklers going off, and children frolicking all around. David Lynch would dive beneath the Blue Velvet lawn soon enough, but beginning with a professional hold-up of the local Western Fidelity Bank arranged by Walter Matthau’s eponymous hero-criminal, Siegel performs his own singular analysis of American iconography. Finding that he has, by coincidence, stolen dirty Mafia money, Matthau’s Varrick orchestrates an ingenious plan, putting him in contact with a cowboy-hatted killer in a souped-up Cadillac, a tan-suited business exec who puts out calls from a cavernous conference room, and a wheelchair-bound Mafia contact, to name but a few of the film’s memorable types.
Although he won a BAFTA for his work, Matthau never did like the movie, apparently disconcerted by its obscure narrative movements. But if the actor didn’t understand it, so much the better, for the key to Varrick’s success—and the source of the film’s giddy appeal—is his perfect simulation of accidental genius, his execution of a heist where the left hand knows not what the right is doing. (The film’s narrative procedure is best expressed by Varrick’s exchange with a storekeeper: "May I ask what that's for?" the man asks. "You certainly may," Varrick responds as he politely walks out the door.) Sarris deemed Charley Varrick “the closest thing I've seen to a Hawksian caper movie,” which gets at the movie’s dogged progression of professional activity. But if Hawks later in his career tended to expose his movies’ architecture through their barely-there genre impulsion, offering “little in the way of plot—more characterization and the fun of just telling a story,” Siegel, never one to neglect the requirements of genre, fused these elements into a seamless, perfectly proportioned whole. Filmmaker-critic Dan Sallitt concisely sums up the film’s great achievement: “The beauty of Charley Varrick is that the protagonist’s machinations, which constitute the low-key but steadily advancing narrative, remain obscure until the explosive final ten minutes; Varrick’s self-effacing, relentless efforts mirror so perfectly Siegel’s narrative techniques that the entire film is experienced as Varrick’s artistic creation.”
It is this aspect of Charley Varrick that makes it not just the signal victory of Siegel’s cinema, but also the closest the director ever came to expressing an ethos. Like most of his hero-killer protags, Varrick does not conform to Warshow’s conception of the western hero, who is a “classical figure, self-contained and limited to begin with, seeking not to extend his dominion but only to assert his personal value,” a man who “has judged his own failure and has already assimilated it.” (The great exception is John Wayne, whom Siegel directed in The Shootist three years later, and who is the Warshow Westerner par excellence.) What Varrick understands is that failure can only be defined in relation to the sundry systems in which he moves. And so, not presuming to make such judgments, even of himself, he locates his existence, his value within a full field of complex relations and operations. (This, in a sense, is what Callahan does not grasp, and it is his downfall.) The film’s triumph is the way it suggests multiple lines of action proceeding with precise regularity, proportion, and force; Varrick’s is that his energies are directed not at overturning this whirring world order, but slotting himself into its flow. Or just about, anyway—for he escapes with his life, leaving only the evidence of his failure and death. We may not be able to destroy, remake, or transfigure the world machine, but we can certainly take advantage of its glitches.
And so, even if Siegel’s story of meeting Eastwood due to a computer error wasn’t precisely true, it provides some insight as to how the director viewed what Renoir once called “the formidable industrial machine known as Hollywood.” For all of his evident focus on individuals—social outcasts, men outside society—it may be that his films have a cannier understanding of systems than has been recognized thus far. After all, his career necessitated such understanding, and he accomplished much because of it. An altogether indispensable body of work, Siegel’s cinema exemplifies the paradox of a genuinely self-effacing style. On this score, Charley Varrick again puts it best: “When he runs out of dumb luck, he always has genius to fall back on!” goes one of the film’s taglines. It is an enduring mark of Siegel’s methods that he could so easily make one look like the other—which is about as good a definition of mastery as I can think of.