PRINT December 1969


Don Siegel, Madigan, Coogan’s Bluff, and The Lineup

Considering the automatic high coloring of his vermin, the anxious hopping around for the picturesque, the hokey scripts with worn-out capers and police-routine plots, why write about Don Siegel? Having made a few good modest-budget films—Baby Face Nelson, Flaming Feather with Presley, Return of the Body Snatchers—that aren’t shown in art theaters, he has been wrongly deified by auteurists, though he’s basically a determinedly lower case, crafty entertainer who utilizes his own violence to build unsettling movies with cheap musical scores that leave in their wake a feeling of being smeared with bilge. Not as good as Hawks before Red Line 7000, probably better than Blake Edwards (Gunn), another manipulative sock-bam director, not as gutty or lyrical as the Sam Fuller of Pick Up on South Street, he is interesting only if he’s left life size and unhaloed.

What is a Don Siegel movie? Mainly it’s a raunchy, dirty-minded film with a definite feeling of middle-aged, middle-class sordidness. Every cop, prostitute and housewife is compromised by something: the pimp in Madigan is compromised by his connection to the police; the police commissioner keeps company with the society matron when her husband is on a camping trip with her son, and so on. There are elements of the Brighton Rock Graham Greene (the suspension between melodrama and farce in Baby Face Nelson), Robert Louis Stevenson (the odd feeling for desert greyness and squalor in Flaming Feather) and Al Capp (cartoon exaggeration in the Daisy Mae who services Coogan of Coogan’s Bluff in a Mojave shack’s wooden bathtub). With these elements and the fact that he’s a commercial director who’s good at his job, the movie works out so that it has something more than push and slime.

Siegel’s movies are spiritually as opportunist and crafty as the grafting cops, cheating wives and winged hoods who make up the personnel. They are also zesty, hard-working entertainments with good nervy second bananas (Don Stroud, Steve Inhat) working alongside the wooden sat-upon Widmark (Siegel normally discourages his expensive actors from becoming anything but wooden replicas of themselves), unsettling camera work with a lot of zooms, high-angle shots, zigzagging action scenes, and funny human interest doodles at the edge of scenes that make devastating cut-away material. (The last thing heard in a police station is the line, “I know it was him, Officer, because this is his shoe.”)

While using as his movie basics the same ingredients that rattle around in a TV crime drama—a twenty minute wait for a decent Stirling Silliphant line, two stiff-brainless-righteous cops who are like Hoboken lawyers, with everything being played for its sensational value—Siegel gets at least one scene in The Lineup as sensitive as Robert Frank’s still shots. What is so lyrical about the ending, in San Francisco’s Sutro Museum, is the 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. It’s a minor masterpiece of pre-planning by an assistant director and an extensively structured pictorial tour by Siegel, expediently using Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (the interesting, relaxed use of girls from a convent school, a dummy-body carefully described in its three story drop) and Welles’ Shanghai film (nice glass cases with miniature boats). The Siegel touch is always apparent in the excessive number of viewpoint shots, the nice feeling for an eroded structure with awkward angles, a sad reliance on edgy Broadway acting (Eli Wallach overworking his nervous-leering eyes) and especially the fascination with a somewhat mannered athleticism seen from above, in which the body is poised or moving against background action that is a violent contrast in space, tone, movement.

Siegel is a director who stays strictly outside of people, away from their ideas, emotions: the scripts from the bottom of a TV office barrel concern impulsive, nervous-energy types who live strenuously and usually die fast in scenes that are cluttered with their cronies and enemies. Individually rather shallow creations they pick up color from contact with one another. It’s symbolic that Dancer, main criminal of The Lineup becomes hysterical when faced with a non-communicative stone-faced hawk in a wheelchair who is supposed to receive the cache of heroin. The Man’s absolute refusal to be familiar drives Dancer to shove Man and wheelchair off the balcony into a somersault that ends three floors below on an ice rink. (If someone won’t talk to a Siegel character the effect is literally a mortal insult.)

Though Siegel doesn’t let his star actors seek their own level of expression, Betty Field and Don Stroud, mother and son in Coogan’s Bluff, can literally tear the screen apart with ribaldry while being squashed. “That wasn’t nice, that wasn’t nice at alt. I show you the coat my son bought for me and you say things like that. You talk like that to a mother.” Always surprised, strident, Field here is a great comic caricature trying to rid her territory of a hostile intruder. Stroud has this evasive, rabbity quality, as though people were harassing him and he’s had just about enough. “Leech off,” the old high school expletive for shrugging off a pest, has never been varied more ways that in Stroud’s writhing-lifting maneuvers. Siegel’s lop-sided discourse on the cantankerous New Yorker has sweetness, kookiness, and, behind its stiffly parodied face, enough lyrical humor to almost cover the rushed-through feeling of a TV production.

Siegel has a way of suggesting chains of rapport and intimate knowledge, from a police commissioner down to the pimp and teen-aged thrill addict in the hinterlands of Brooklyn. Much of the interest comes from the swift connection between weirdly separated types. A tough Manhattan prostitute walks into the hotel room of a just-arrived Phoenix cop: “Hi, sugar, will you zip me up?” The opening of Coogan’s Bluff is a slam-bang parody of Kubrick’s 2001 start: space devouring images, a sheriff’s jeep whipping across the desert floor, and a ravaged-faced Indian hopping around in the hills, setting up his arsenal to destroy the world as the jeep approaches. The first line of dialogue has a funny intimacy that establishes the sheriff’s snide antihero character in seven small words: “OK chief, put your pants back on,” and the pants fly into the shot, landing at the feet of a most eccentric Apache—very stocky, battered face, hair cut with a tomahawk.

Siegel’s concept of what a secondary player can do is more idiosyncratic and inventive than Peckinpah’s boisterous use of Strother Martin and Warren Oates, who always stand for earthy, beer-guzzling, whoring health of life. The real humor perhaps stems from his putting second leads into roles that reverse their real natures in compositions that have a rowdy off-kilter vigor sensitive-gentle-practical Betty Field as a pop-eyed bat out of Hell’s Kitchen. How does one explain the wild fun in the scenes between Cobb, a New Yorker with not one minute of patience left in his harassed body, and Clint Eastwood, a cunning nonverbal actor who makes most of his acting scores by going cool-faced while others talk at him. (“Look Tex, you’re not a cop here. How many times have I got to tell you? There’s a plane leaving for Phoenix in three hours. If you’re not on it I’m putting you in jail.”) The real punch comes from the queer intimacy: this precinct cop uptown on the West Side acts as though he’s been putting up with the annoyance of Eastwood’s stubbornness and clear blue eyes for a lifetime. He acts tired of Coogan from the moment Eastwood, totally polite and civilized, enters his office.

Manny Farber