Weekly Top Five: The best of Don Siegel | Bleader

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Weekly Top Five: The best of Don Siegel

Posted By on 07.21.13 at 12:00 PM

Charley Varrick
  • Charley Varrick
On Mon 7/22 at the Patio Theater, the Northwest Chicago Film Society presents the great Don Siegel film The Lineup. Siegel should be a familiar name, as he's the director behind such canonical American favorites as Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the Dirty Harry films. A master formalist who relished the opportunity to jam as much movement, commotion, and physical action as possible into a single scene, Siegel's films are also supremely serious examinations of criminality and violence, as well as solitary males prone to both—and averse to civilized behavior. (With Dirty Harry, it can be argued that Siegel helped mold the character type now referred to as the "antihero.") The critic John Baxter once wrote that Siegel's characters "encourage us to see mirrored our own urges for violence and anarchy. . .[He] finds proof of this symbiosis in our legal system, an imperfect tool which we ourselves sabotage. His films mock its structures [and parody] sociology, legal procedure, and especially the concept of rehabilitation."

My five favorite Siegel films follow.

5. Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970) Siegel is a tremendously underrated director of actors, as evidenced by this western and the stunning performances he gets from Clint Eastwood and Shirley MacLaine, who are both essentially in early self-parody mode. Another unique wrinkle: the story was originally conceived by Budd Boetticher, although the final product doesn't bear much resemblance to his style.

4. The Shootist (1976) Though famous for featuring John Wayne in his very last role—and rightfully so, as it's easily one of the best performances of his long career—this contemplative western is also notable for being one of Siegel's most somber and reverential films.

3. The Lineup (1958) Of course, the climactic car chase alone is worth the price of admission, but its appeal derives less from the inherent sensationalism of a thrilling action sequence than from Siegel's masterful use of spatial design and continuity editing.

2. Riot Block in Cell 11 (1954) A grim and starkly naturalistic prison drama that doubles as a Platonic survey of institutionalized living. Siegel was a formalist, but he deftly handles the weighty thematic material here—including interactions between the discontented prisoners, the sympathetic prison guards, and the tyrannical state officials—with the same precision as his most successful action set pieces.

1. Charley Varrick (1973) Siegel's greatest crime thriller, featuring an endearingly miscast Walter Matthau as a small-time crook who accidentally rips off a bank run by the mafia. The way Matthau, as the titular Varrick, is able to evade and deter the mafia's constant pursuit verges on slapstick comedy, culminating in the famous "biplane versus car" set piece that's as thrillingly constructed as it is ludicrous—the logical precursor to a similar scene in the recent Fast 6, which ups the ante to the nth degree.

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