At first glance, many define Don Siegel’s career only by the action films he has made. Many saying he is an action pioneer making Hollywood films about tough guys. He has most likely been given this stamp due to his most widely seen film, Dirty Harry with Clint Eastwood. While he has made his fair share of these type of films, he should not be subjugated into making only action thrillers. He has succeeded in such genres as western, film noir, war, science fiction, prison films, and others. Siegel has been understandably compared to Sam Peckinpah (who he was close friends with) because of his tales of hardened criminals with no moral compass. While Siegel never became as refined or as comfortable in his own skin as Peckinpah did, one can argue that Siegel brought more variety and flexibility to the screen.
Siegel began his career in the film industry at Warner Brothers making film montages, most notably making the montages in Casablanca. By the late 60s’, he was one of the most sought after directors in Hollywood, working with actors like Steve McQueen, Lee Marvin, Michael Caine, John Wayne, and most notably making five features and catapulting the American career of Clint Eastwood. While some of his films are outdated, there is no arguing that he played a part in shifting film from the Old Hollywood mindset to the 70s’ New Hollywood realism. The audience for the first time was seeing gritty loner characters as protagonists and brutal violence reflecting what Americans were seeing on their TV screens reported back from Vietnam. Siegel’s films have left an impact not only on American cinema, but American popular culture.
10. The Shootist (1976)
The Shootist uses the basic formula of the majority of John Wayne westerns. The way this one differs from the others is that “The Duke” plays a gunfighter who is facing his last days due to terminal illness. Based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout, Siegel almost gave the lead role to Clint Eastwood (and a variety of others) before deciding on Wayne.
The movie is typical of Wayne’s other films and will be dull to some, maybe most, but what makes it special is that it is John Wayne’s last film before his death in 1979. The real standout performance of the film comes from Ron Howard who plays the teenage son to Lauren Bacall’s character. Howard’s performance follows the “boy turning into a man” arc, but it’s the darkest character that he played up to this point in his career. Jimmy Stewart also brings his charisma to lighten the mood playing Wayne’s doctor. The Shootist is nowhere near a masterpiece, but Siegel does a respectable job of filling the final piece of the puzzle that is John Wayne’s career.
9. The Beguiled (1971)
What a strange film this one is, but strange fits the film. The first Siegel/Eastwood collaboration to appear on this list, The Beguiled tells the story of a wounded Union soldier (played by Eastwood) who is sheltered by an all girls boarding school in Mississippi. As the women of the boarding school begin to fight over the attention of Eastwood’s character, the tone of the film becomes almost unbearably dark dealing with themes of obsession, jealousy, incest, and sexual repression. Geraldine Page is great as Martha, the ruthless head of the boarding school.
Up to this point in his career, Eastwood only ever played the witty and strong hero. Siegel smartly throws the audience for a loop, for possibly the first time where Clint turns out to be everything but the tough guy. The members of the boarding school torment and tear Clint’s character to pieces. At the time of it’s release it was overlooked, partly because Universal had no idea how to market the film to an audience, but 40 years later it has found its following with help from a stylish remake directed by Sofia Coppola. The film is a true mixed bag of melodrama, romance, Southern Goth, psychological suspense, and horror and Siegel somehow ties it all together to make it work.
8. The Big Steal (1949)
Siegel dabbles into tropes of film noir in every single one of his 60s’ and 70s’ crime films, but The Big Steal is his best full blown noir. Just like almost every film starring Robert Mitchum, his performance propels the film to another level. The film follows Mitchum as a military commander who follows a criminal who robs him to Mexico. Jane Greer stars as the female lead who accompanies Mitchum to Mexico to help find the felon (played by British actor Patric Knowles).
The film never reaches the heights of Mitchum and Greer’s previous film, Out of the Past because of how much lighter it is than that film. The humor in the film and the chemistry between the two leads are what lighten the plot and make the film so enjoyable. One thing that Siegel is great at is making an incredibly tight film and this is no different. The film is only 71 minutes and it never overstays its welcome. The Big Steal will be a pleasant surprise for classic Hollywood noir fans looking for a hidden gem and is a must see for Robert Mitchum fans.
7. The Killers (1964)
Siegel outlines one of the themes that he will repeatedly come back to for the rest of his career in The Killers. There are no good guys, just bad guys and worse guys. Following two hitmen, played by Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager, as they search for a truck robber to kill him for his stolen cash. Angie Dickinson and Ronald Reagan also get mixed up in the plot that becomes a “last man standing” tale for the stolen money.
The film is most most well known for being adapted from an Ernest Hemingway short story and from a 1946 film of the same name. When the film came out in 64’, audiences had to have been taken off guard by it. The film was a huge leap of faith for Universal. One for how violent it was for the time and two because every single major character has zero moral compass. Almost no one has redeeming qualities in the film.
Siegel helps Lee Marvin fall into the character that he is most typically type cast as, and this is the film where he really comes into his own as the tough assassin that we later see in films like Point Break and Prime Cut. The Killers is also one of the first times a widespread audience sees John Cassavetes in a major feature film role where he plays Johnny North, the truck hijacker. Even if the film does not have the depth that one would expect from a Hemingway adaptation, it is incredibly entertaining and an essential for crime fans.
6. The Lineup (1958)
The Lineup is not the only film of Siegel’s where his love for San Francisco is just seeping through the screen. In 1958, Siegel did the same as what Hitchcock did in Vertigo where he uses San Francisco as more than just a setting. The city brings more character than some of the actors do to each project. Just like Vertigo, the city never feels forced upon you as the characters make their way all over Fog City. The highlight of the entire film, is an amazing action set piece that takes place on the Embarcadero Freeway.
The story follows three criminals who smuggle in heroin from Asia and the manhunt that pursues them. Eli Wallach plays Dancer, the ring leader of the criminal trio and the performance is out of this world because of the intricacies of that Wallach brings to the character. He brings an uncertainty to Dancer as this maniac is that can only be described as a loose cannon. Hints of Michael Mann’s Waingro character from Heat ring a bell here. The Lineup is so taut, tense, tight, and unpredictable that it would be hard imagining any audience not having a blast here.