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Category Archives: Don Siegel

The Verdict

Some films just seem to work for me, to click if you like. They need not necessarily be movies of any extraordinary depth or have any abiding influence. The Verdict (1946) is one of these; it’s a small movie, a B picture really, but through a happy combination of elements it just checks most of the boxes for me. Firstly, there’s the setting: Victorian London as only Hollywood of the 1940s could depict it. Then there’s the fact that the plot revolves around a classic impossible crime, a locked room puzzle. And finally, a star pairing who worked so well and so memorably in tandem that they almost created a little sub-genre of their own. Mixing all these ingredients together results in a delightful little film that has no pretensions of greatness, that seeks only to entertain, and achieves that, not inconsiderable, goal admirably.

The opening is a first class piece of moody and atmospheric scene setting. The caption informs us that we’re in London in 1890, a dark and brooding place, as the camera tracks in to focus on Newgate prison, the last stop for many a condemned man. With the fog clinging to the gas street lamps and a bell solemnly tolling the hour of execution, the story’s protagonist looms into view. Superintendent Grodman (Sydney Greenstreet) is, quite literally, the big man in Scotland Yard. His lumbering bulk and sombre features speak of a man deeply contemplating his actions and his role in the world. Grodman’s latest investigation has drawn to a close and a convicted murderer is on his way to the gallows. Yet Grodman takes no pleasure in this, reflecting that success for a man in his position leaves only a bitter taste. In a sense, Grodman is condemned too, and we’re soon made aware of this paradox as the tale unfolds. Fate, circumstance and the pettiness of a rival have conspired to bring bout a dreadful miscarriage of justice. Grodman has sent an innocent man to the gallows. His professional disgrace is only one aspect of the matter though; a fine little montage succinctly sums up the guilt and paranoia Grodman suffers. Now settled into retirement, Grodman finds himself drawn back into his old life when a curious murder takes place in the boarding house opposite his own quarters. A reprehensible young man (Morton Lowry) had been found stabbed in his room under inexplicable circumstances: the door is locked from the inside and all the windows are sealed up. Grodman’s rival and successor at the Yard, Buckley (George Coulouris), is stumped and reluctantly calls on him for advice. Aside from the baffling mechanics of how the crime was committed, there are a clutch of fascinating suspects: Peter Lorre as an illustrator with a macabre sense of humour, Paul Cavanagh as a stiff-necked politician, June Lorring as Music Hall girl, and Rosalind Ivan’s hysterical housekeeper. Additionally, the possible motives for the murder form a complex web that encompasses jealousy, passion and blackmail. While Grodman strides in his stately manner through this labyrinth of suspicion, it emerges that history is in danger of repeating itself, with the possibility of another innocent victim being ground up by the wheels of blind justice.

The Verdict is adapted from The Big Bow Mystery by Israel Zangwill, one of the classic texts on the problem of the locked room – my thanks to Sergio of Tipping My Fedora for pointing out to me that this is available free as an e-book here & as an audiobook here. This particular form of impossible crime has been a staple of detective fiction for a long time, although its heyday was around the middle of the 20th century. At its best, the locked room problem depends more on the subtle art of misdirection than mechanical hoaxing. As such, this form of the detective story doesn’t always translate well to the screen and is generally far more effective in print. Still, I think Zangwill’s contribution to the canon does hit the mark and should succeed in confounding those not well-versed in this school of trickery. John Dickson Carr, the undisputed master of the locked room, also details the murder method used here in chapter 17 of The Three Coffins – the wonderful lecture on all things impossible delivered by Dr Fell – in case anyone wants spoilers without reading the Zangwill book.

The Verdict was Don Siegel’s first full length movie as director, although he had had extensive experience working in montage and the second unit in the years leading up to it. As a debut feature, it’s an impressive piece of work and demonstrates this was a talented individual with a future. While the film doesn’t bear much relation to what we might think of as a typical Siegel production, it does show that he already had a flair for visuals and pacing. The story is told economically, without unnecessary or tedious exposition, and maintains a consistent rhythm. With cameraman Ernest Haller making the most of the shadowy setups, Siegel uses a variety of interesting angles, dissolves and montage to keep things moving and strike the right tone. Aside from the excellent opening sequence, there’s a fine little section involving a late night exhumation that wouldn’t look out of place in a horror feature. The whole movie is a studio bound affair but, like the best B efforts, it turns this limitation to its advantage. The foggy London streets and mews where the action takes place may be no more than a Hollywood confection yet they have enormous charm, and the controlled environment leaves Siegel and Haller free to extract the maximum level of menace.

Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet established a great on-screen partnership in the 1940s at Warner Brothers, earning themselves the nickname “The Laurel and Hardy of Crime”  – although that term seems to have been developed in retrospect. I remain of the opinion that The Mask of Dimitrios represents their best work together but The Verdict, their final collaboration, isn’t that far behind. Both these men had the knack of injecting a vein of comedy into their playing, of adding a human face to the menacing characters they so often portrayed. In this film, it’s Lorre who gets to indulge in a bit of sly black humour as the philandering cartoonist with a penchant for the gruesome. In contrast, Greenstreet cuts a much more tragic figure, his heavy features reflecting the regret and despair of his character. While Greenstreet’s huge physical presence, frequently emphasized by low angle shooting, dominates every frame he appears in, it’s the scenes he shares with Lorre that tend to be the most memorable. These two brought out the best in one another and seemed very comfortable working together. The main support came from George Coulouris, another actor who specialized in telling character roles, and he has just the right touch of venality as Buckley. In some ways he can be seen as the true villain of the piece, the blustering career cop whose inaction sets the whole affair in motion. Joan Lorring does fine as the blowsy entertainer who may know too much for her own good and ends up as one of Buckley’s chief suspects. Paul Cavanagh, who appeared in three Universal Sherlock Holmes films, has the ideal kind of patrician bearing for the part of the honour bound politician carrying around a guilty secret. Rosalind Ivan is essentially a caricature, a noisy, brittle busybody consumed by unfulfilled passion. The minor parts are filled by Morton Lowry as the slimy cad who becomes the murder victim and Arthur Shields playing yet another of his intense, tight-lipped clergymen.

The Verdict was made available on DVD in the US a while back through the Warner Archive. Additionally, the film has just recently been given a release on pressed disc by Sinister Films in Italy and that’s the edition I own. The transfer is pretty good, although there are plenty of minor speckles and blemishes on show. Some scenes are sharper than others but there’s no serious inconsistency or distraction either. The only extra on the disc is labeled as the theatrical trailer, but it’s actually the opening few minutes of the feature. The film is presented with three audio options: the original soundtrack and no subtitles, an Italian dub, or the original track with Italian subs. The movie is an excellent piece of entertainment, featuring fine central performances, atmospheric direction and an engrossing mystery story. It’s highly recommended for fans of Lorre and Greenstreet or those who like noirish thrillers. The fact that it features a classic locked room problem is an added bonus in my eyes, although those viewers especially familiar with that detective story variant shouldn’t have too much difficulty figuring out the method used.

 
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Posted by on November 21, 2012 in 1940s, Don Siegel, Mystery/Thriller, Peter Lorre

 

Coogan’s Bluff

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As the 60s were drawing to a close the western (at least the traditional variety) was a genre in decline. By the mid-70s it had been more or less supplanted by the hard-nosed urban cop movie. At first glance you might think there’s little common ground, but scratch the surface a little and the similarities are there – men operating alone with their own brand of personal integrity, a hostile and lawless environment, a society that is simultaneously repelled by and in desperate need of the services of those accustomed to violence. Strip away the time and place and those themes could be applied to any number of westerns and 70s cop films. Coogan’s Bluff (1968) can be viewed as a bridge between these two genres, not least because of the presence of Clint Eastwood.

Coogan (Eastwood) is an Arizona deputy who we first see running down a fugitive from a Navajo reservation. This opening establishes not only that he’s a capable and ruthless hunter of men, but he’s also master of his harsh desert environment. A temporary slip on his part lands him in hot water with his superiors and he’s dispatched to New York to complete the seemingly mundane task of escorting an extradited prisoner back home. The thing is though that Coogan is very much a man of then west, and he’s plunged into a world that’s entirely alien to him. When he gets his hands on his prey he allows himself to be duped into a situation that leaves him hospitalized, and without either the prisoner or his gun. His pride refuses to let him take this lying down, and there follows a relentless man hunt through the city’s mean streets. Along the way, Coogan clashes with the local police in the person of Lt. McElroy (Lee J Cobb), and encounters an assortment of hippies, junkies, freaks and low-lifes that are as dangerous as they are strange. Coogan’s the product of a hard place, but the grimy streets he finds himself roaming are every bit as lethal as his desert home. While the scenes of our hero pursuing his quarry through the night spots of the counter-culture offer up a snapshot of the hedonistic late-60s, they also date the film quite badly. Those paisley-shirted kids passing round the spliff, talking in riddles, and chilling to Indian music in psychedelic apartments with beaded curtains seem as far away in time now as the west that Coogan is supposed to embody. In the end, of course, he gets his man, and there’s a nice little coda on the helicopter back home that suggests he may have learned something during his trip to the big city. Where he callously ground his cigarette into the dirt before the imploring eyes of the shackled fugitive at the beginning, he now seems to have learnt a little pity and offers a smoke to his latest prisoner.

The Man With No First Name - Clint Eastwood in Coogan's Bluff.

Eastwood’s Coogan is very much a halfway house between The Man With No Name and Harry Callaghan – in the early scenes the trademark squinting eyes are hidden behind black RayBans and a simple cigarette stands in for the cheroot. However, the western sensibility remains and has not yet been wholly replaced by the full scale urban brutality. Mind you, although he’s playing a fish out of water, there’s no wide eyed innocence about Coogan. Eastwood plays him as a man with quick wits who learns life’s lessons fast. He’s also no superman, taking two beatings in the course of his investigation – the second being particularly rough – yet has the requisite toughness to survive unarmed for the most part. While Eastwood almost always brings some of his dry humour to his roles he pretty much meets his match in Lee J Cobb. The veteran actor deadpans his way through the movie as the world weary cop who recognizes Coogan’s presence as just the source of another headache. Don Siegel’s direction is as lean and efficient as usual, capturing the seedy atmosphere of the inner city perfectly and handling the action scenes like the old pro he was – the pool hall fight being especially well done.

Universal’s UK DVD of Coogan’s Bluff is a very basic affair, with not one extra in sight. The transfer is anamorphic 1.78:1 but it’s a very grainy one, and I’m not usually given to griping too much on the grain issue. Still, it’s very much a budget release so I suppose we can’t expect too much. The film itself remains entertaining throughout, though it’s really only in the mid-range of both Eastwood’s and Siegel’s work. It was the first film the director and star made together, and they would both go on to better things individually and collaboratively. Generally, we’re looking at a good solid piece of filmmaking that acts as an interesting link between genres.

 
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Posted by on December 13, 2011 in 1960s, Clint Eastwood, Don Siegel

 

The Black Windmill

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When a film gets panned by critics there can be a number of reasons why; it may just be a bad movie, or it may simply be a step down from the director’s/actor’s previous work. I’d say the latter is certainly the case with The Black Windmill (1974). Don Siegel had just come off a run of high quality films and this slow burning espionage thriller didn’t quite match up. In truth it’s not a bad film, it has moments of real style, but there is a flatness about it that’s hard to explain.

John Tarrant (Michael Caine) is a former army officer who’s now in the employ of MI6, and is shown to be involved in setting up a sting operation to net some international arms dealers. It’s clear that something else is taking shape in the background though – the opening sequence has just shown the kidnapping of two schoolboys by those allegedly involved in the gun running. One of these boys turns out to be the son of Tarrant, and it quickly becomes apparent that the abduction is being used as leverage to extort money from British Intelligence. It’s also clear that those behind the abduction have the kind of inside knowledge (the nature of the ransom demanded) that suggests the presence of a mole. Tarrant’s superior, Harper (Donald Pleasence), suspects that he may even have orchestrated the whole thing himself, while his estranged wife (Janet Suzman) blames him and his job. Thus Tarrant finds himself in the unenviable position of having to cope with both the suspicions of his bosses and the recriminations of his wife as he struggles to retain the composure and coolness needed to effect the release of his son. When it dawns on him that Harper has no intention of meeting the kidnappers’ demands Tarrant chooses the only option that remains open to him – going “rogue” and risking the wrath of his own people.

Fading into the shadows - Michael Caine and Janet Suzman.  

Don Siegel made a lot of different kinds of movies but the espionage thriller wasn’t really his strong suit and he struggled to leave his mark on The Black Windmill. A couple of years later he would return to the genre with greater success in the more action driven Telefon, which remains more consistently entertaining. It’s really in the latter half of this movie that you actually become aware of the fact that you’re watching a Siegel picture. The chase through the London Underground and the escape sequence in Paris are well filmed and add a much needed sense of urgency as events build towards the violent climax at the titular windmill. In contrast, the first half unfolds at a fairly leisurely pace as characters are introduced and the groundwork is laid. There’s also a tongue in cheek aspect to these earlier scenes; one inspired moment during an MI6 briefing has a room of stunned bigwigs informed that one of the enemy agents is Sean Connery! There’s another nod to Bond in a scene where Tarrant and Harper watch a demonstration of an exploding briefcase carried out by a Q clone. Much of the film’s humour derives from the performance of Donald Pleasence as the fussy and prissy head of MI6. Michael Caine, on the other hand, plays it straight all the way through and is good enough as the agent who has to keep his emotions under tight control. When he finally gives vent to his frustration at the bureaucratic caution that might lead to his son’s death it comes across as more powerful given the detached facade he’s been presenting up to that point. Janet Suzman is limited to bouts of anxiety and bitterness at the beginning but gets to show off her resourcefulness as the story progresses. The two main villains of the piece are John Vernon and Delphine Seyrig – they’re both suitably ruthless but their characters are ultimately one dimensional.

Universal’s UK DVD presents the film in anamorphic scope, and the transfer is very clean and smooth. This is another fairly basic disc, no extras offered at all, but the the image is pleasing enough and anyway it’s not one of Siegel’s or Caine’s better known movies. All told, The Black Windmill is a middling film; it’s not the best of the director, star or even the genre but it’s still reasonably entertaining. If you make it through the slightly plodding beginning it does pick up the pace and gets better as it goes along. I’d give it a cautious recommendation if you’re into spy thrillers, but those expecting a typical Don Siegel movie would likely be disappointed.

 
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Posted by on December 12, 2011 in 1970s, Don Siegel, Michael Caine, Mystery/Thriller

 

Hell is for Heroes

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Don Siegel’s Hell is for Heroes (1962) is one of those small scale, low budget war movies that bears comparison with some of the stuff Sam Fuller knocked out at the beginning of his career. It’s the kind of film that keeps the focus firmly on the guys at the bottom of the ladder, and thus manages to address the futility and brutality of war while still acknowledging the courage of the lowly, ordinary grunts who find themselves having to be extraordinary just to stay alive. War movies in the 1960s would increasingly move towards the big budget spectacular, but this one is almost a throwback to the previous decade due to the small cast and character driven plot.

The story here concerns a battle weary squad of US soldiers on the fringes of the Siegfried Line in 1944. Although their fighting strength has been severely weakened the troops aren’t overly anxious as they figure they’re on the point of being shipped out and finally heading back home. Their meagre ranks are added to with the arrival of a replacement, Reese (Steve McQueen). He’s a former master sergeant, busted back to private for flaking out and stealing a jeep. In fact, Reese is a man dangerously near the end of his tether; his distinguished service record has saved him from falling further but he keeps on chipping away at the corners of army discipline. An evening’s visit to the nearby town’s off limits bar would probably have done for him if it hadn’t been for the intervention of Sergeant Pike (Fess Parker), an old acquaintance. When news comes through that there will be no welcome departure, just a move back onto the line, the only man not to show dismay is Reese. For these men the news is about to get even worse, as they are to be left behind as a temporary rearguard while the bulk of the force move on. The challenge is for the isolated squad to fool the Germans into thinking that they’re a much bigger force. To this end the troops devise a number of ingenious ploys, from running a backfiring jeep in low gear to simulate the sound of a tank to stringing ammo boxes full of rocks through the bushes so the enemy might take their rattling for the movements of patrols. This is all well and good but a brutal assault by a German patrol (which sees Reese in his element, even savagely hacking one man to pieces with a butcher knife) renews the danger. With no guarantee when the main force will return to back them up, the squad need to decide between sitting it out in hope or taking the initiative and trying to knock out a pillbox. Reese urges action while the cautious Sergeant Larkin (Harry Guardino) counsels patience. In the end, a stray shell makes their decision for them and Reese gets to lead a tense sortie through a minefield. There are no happy endings in this movie, just sudden and graphic deaths, hard decisions, and harder consequences. Even the final scene offers no real respite; the army surges on amid fallen bodies and there’s no end in sight – more positions will have to be taken and more men will have to give their lives.

Close to the edge - Steve McQueen in Hell is for Heroes.

The part of Reese was ideal for Steve McQueen who must have relished playing the moody loner unburdened by excess dialogue, and it had the added bonus of handing him the opportunity to show off all those twitchy mannerisms that audiences have come to associate with him. It’s really McQueen’s picture from beginning to end and it’s always a pleasure to watch him keep all that angst and bottled up machismo raging just below the surface. He gets some good support from Fess Parker and Harry Guardino, as the respectively sympathetic and exasperated sergeants, and from a bespectacled James Coburn – the squad’s technical jack-of-all-trades. The novelty casting of Bob Newhart and Bobby Darin is altogether less satisfying, but it’s not enough to do any serious damage to the film. Don Siegel’s direction is as tight and professional as could be, and he works wonders on what must have been a small budget. The stark monochrome photography adds just the right touch of bleakness and, while this is essentially a character study, Siegel’s handling of the action scenes is urgent, exciting and realistic. 

Paramount’s R2 DVD of Hell is for Heroes offers an excellent transfer. The movie is presented 1.78:1 anamorphic and looks in very good shape all the way through. There’s not an extra to be found on the disc, which is the only black mark against it for me. This isn’t one of the best known war movies, nor is it likely to be one of the more familiar works of either McQueen or Siegel. However, for fans of the genre, star or director it does deserve to be seen. It’s a powerful little movie that doesn’t try to manipulate the viewer or preach – it simply presents a dispassionate view of war and the men involved.

 
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Posted by on December 11, 2011 in 1960s, Don Siegel, James Coburn, Steve McQueen, War

 

Charley Varrick

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The term “underrated movie” is one that tends to get thrown around with abandon these days and its overuse is in danger of rendering it meaningless. However, there are times when that label is most certainly appropriate, and Charley Varrick (1973) is a prime example. I’ve no real explanation for this, but I do have a hunch that it frequently comes down to other work by the people involved dominating the thoughts of film fans. For most people (if they’ve heard the names at all) Don Siegel is identified with Dirty Harry, and Walter Matthau with comedic roles alongside Jack Lemmon. Without wishing to disparage any of those films, it is a shame that such thinking has lead to what is arguably the best work by both of these men being virtually forgotten.

Charley Varrick (Matthau) calls himself The Last of the Independents, something that’s true on two levels – his crop dusting operation is in terminal decline due to the rise of the conglomerates, and the small-time criminal activities he’s turned to are overshadowed by organised crime. When the botched robbery of a tiny New Mexico bank yields a huge payday Charley realises that something is very badly wrong. His sole surviving partner, Harman (Andy Robinson), can’t believe their luck but Charley’s been around long enough to recognise the stench of mob money and the consequences of stealing it. When an apparently unstoppable hitman (Joe Don Baker) goes to work the chase is on, and Charley has to figure out a way of staying one step ahead of both the law and the mob. What follows is a violent and dangerous game of criminal chess played out amid the hick towns and trailer parks of the southwest. Charley Varrick starts out as a man who shouldn’t be expected to engage our sympathy (after all he is the leader of a gang of murderous thieves), but by the end of the film we’re rooting for him - when the odds are stacked so heavily against a man it’s hard not to find yourself taking his part. Added to this Charley is, almost perversely, the only figure who displays any real honour or integrity – this petty hood is the only honest one in a world of crooked bankers, sadistic killers, lowlife chiselers and sharp suited mafia front men.

Sheree North & Walter Matthau - Charley Varrick

Although Walter Matthau’s sourpuss features seem destined to remain forever associated with his comic roles he made a trio of tough crime pictures in the early seventies; The Laughing Policeman, The Taking of Pelham 123 and Charley Varrick. The fact that he was able to switch genres so effortlessly and credibly says much for the talent and versatility of the man. While he plays Charley Varrick as a cool and efficient veteran crook he still manages to fit in a few examples of his trademark deadpan humour. I’d have no hesitation in saying that this is the best I’ve seen of Matthau, and his career was by no means characterised by poor performances. The other standout member of the cast was Joe Don Baker as the smiling, heartless contract killer. Having said that, there is no particularly weak playing and John Vernon, Andy Robinson and Sheree North all give good solid support. Don Siegel rarely gets mentioned when top directors are discussed, but the fact remains that he regularly churned out tight intelligent films that eschewed pretension and made everything look deceptively simple. This and The Shootist are his two best films in my opinion, and I’d hate to have to choose between them. And last but not least, there’s a fine score from Lalo Schifrin that’s just about the ideal accompaniment for both the period and the mood.

As for the DVD, Charley Varrick is available in R2 in the UK from Fremantle in a nice anamorphic widescreen transfer (I think the R1 is an open-matte affair). It may not be pristine and it’s an almost barebones disc but there’s no major problems and the price is definitely right. All in all, Charley Varrick is a high class crime movie that really ought to be better known.

 
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Posted by on December 10, 2011 in 1970s, Don Siegel, Mystery/Thriller, Walter Matthau

 
 
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