Posts Tagged ‘Don Siegel’

It looks like it’s going to be a slim year in terms of visits to watch new movies: checking my notes, I see I’m five or six down on my running total for the end of September 2013. Partly this is the result of a change in my working practices, with the result that there have been many fewer two-movie days across the summer, but it’s also down to my becoming a fairly regular visitor to the local Picturehouse’s Vintage Sunday strand. New films are, after all, always at least a little bit of a leap into the dark, whereas something forty or fifty years old which is still on the big screen must have something special about it.

Which brings us to Don Siegel’s famous 1971 thriller, Dirty Harry, the latest recipient of a Vintage revival. As ever, it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen a film on TV or DVD: watching it on the big screen is a wholly different experience. I note that this movie, which was originally an 18-certificate, has now slid down to a 15, and wonder what this tells us about changes in cinema, censorship, and society: certainly there are elements of this film which seem as urgent and timely as they must have done forty-three years ago.


Clint Eastwood is unchallengably cool as Harry Callahan, a detective inspector with the San Francisco PD. The film tells the story of a battle of wits and wills between Callahan and a demented killer calling himself Scorpio (Andrew Robinson). Scorpio starts by picking off people from the rooftops with a hunting rifle, demanding to be paid to stop, but later moves on to kidnapping. Callahan – nicknamed Dirty Harry because, as he says, he gets ‘every dirty job that comes along’ – has to stop him, but can he do so while by being a responsible, rule-respecting policeman? Or even a good human being?

Dirty Harry has lasted because, first and foremost, it’s simply a very well-made film: Siegel’s direction is a masterful example of economical storytelling, Clint is at his most impassively charismatic, Lalo Schifrin’s jazzy score adds a lot, and the script, though passing through many hands on its way to the screen, balances elements of action, character, and humour superbly well, barely putting a foot wrong throughout. You could quite easily watch Dirty Harry and think of it as nothing but a supremely polished piece of tough action movie-making – and I’m sure many people do.

But, of course, one of the other reasons why Dirty Harry is still important as a piece of cinema is that it uses the thriller format to introduce and explore a lot of other political and moral ideas, all of them to do with rights and what it means to be a good person. Callahan is a cynical, no-nonsense kind of guy: he shoots first, and then probably shoots some more later. And yet he is surrounded in his work by sociologists and politicians – the mayor in particular is depicted as a slightly wussy bleeding-heart – who seem less concerned with what’s actually right than he is. Callahan, the film makes clear, will do anything in pursuit of a just goal: in one of the film’s most vivid sequences, he tortures the wounded Scorpio for information that he hopes will save the life of a kidnapped girl (the camera pulls back for what seems like forever from Callahan and the killer, until both figures are swallowed by darkness).

The result of this, of course, is that Scorpio walks out of hospital (the evidence being inadmissible) and Callahan gets a rollicking from the DA for ignoring the criminal’s rights. Callahan is duly outraged, and by this point we probably are too: what about the teenaged girl Scorpio has tortured, raped and murdered? What about her rights? It is a debate which is still with us today, with these same questions being asked in the right-wing press all the time.

Of course, Dirty Harry is guilty of stacking the deck in favour of its rather illiberal argument – not least because the mouthpiece for it is Clint himself, who was at the height of his powers at the time the film was made. Callahan is always in the right, and we’re even invited to feel for him a bit – there are references to his dead wife, killed by a drunk driver. Rather less subtle is the depiction of Scorpio, who is depicted as not much more than a frothing, rabid psychopath – he is barely humanised at all, and we learn next to nothing about him (Robinson is just credited as ‘Killer’). He is just plain bad, a dangerous animal to be put down as quickly as possible (and, again, Robinson’s memorably nasty performance serves the film well – I should perhaps mention that I had the privilege of meeting Andrew Robinson a couple of times a few years ago, and in real life he is one of the most amiable and pleasant people you could ever hope to meet).

It’s actually quite tempting to consider Dirty Harry as part of a group of films, all made around this time, reflecting the unease of the traditional American establishment with the values of the counter-culture which had arisen in the previous few years. Harry dresses very conservatively; Scorpio has long hair and, all due respect to Robinson, a slightly effeminate voice. Eastwood taking him on doesn’t feel a million miles away, thematically, from Charlton Heston confronting the cult of zombie-hippies in The Omega Man. By 1971 it was clear that the hippy dream was merely that, and perhaps films like Dirty Harry are another expression of the status quo reasserting itself.

Dirty Harry is a powerful movie, even if its main contentions – let the police do their job, and worry less about criminal rights and more about victims’ rights – are just simplistic. Perhaps the film even recognises this itself, in its rather ambiguous conclusion: having ignored the orders of his superiors and finally disposed of Scorpio, Harry takes out his police badge and looks at it for a moment, then hurls it away in apparent contempt. But is that contempt for the badge itself, and what it stands for? Or contempt for himself, and the things he’s been forced to do in pursuit of justice? We are left to decide for ourselves. It is subtle moments such as this that raise Dirty Harry above the level of simple quasi-fascist wish fulfilment and make it the great film that it is.

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Most of the famous SF movies of the 50s cast long shadows in various ways, and some of them have even earned a remake. More influential than most, however, is Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which seems to have entered the cultural landscape on an almost unconscious level. Or perhaps it was there already. It certainly seems to be a story to which film-makers are repeatedly drawn back, as demonstrated by the three remakes this film has received to date.

It’s also received no end of critical acclaim, and a good deal of hyperbole too: ‘a chilling sci-fi movie with one of the greatest endings ever filmed’ proclaims the back of the DVD cover. Space appears to have prevented the end of this sentence being included, which runs something like ‘…and then moved to another point in the film’, for this is what actually happened. The original cut of the movie was deemed to be too downbeat, which is why the generally-available version is told using the device of a frame story.

Small-town doctor Miles Bennell (Kevin Carthy) has turned up at a Los Angeles hospital in a hysterical condition, telling a tale that leads everyone to doubt his sanity. Arriving back home after a holiday, Bennell found a strange psychological malaise spreading through the community – a peculiar neurosis whereby people, seemingly at random, believe their friends and family have been replaced by identical duplicates. Bennell doesn’t know what to make of it, and in any case is slightly more interested in romancing recently-divorced old flame Becky (Dana Wynter, who died only recently).

Then, things escalate: a friend discovers what seems to be a dead body, but one whose features appear only half-formed – though as time passes the thing assumes his appearance exactly. Other, similar duplicates turn up elsewhere. Eventually the source of the phenomenon is revealed: giant alien seed-pods have infested the town, and the replicas they have spawned are taking over. Lacking in human emotion or any feeling beyond the desire to spread, the replicas are determined that everyone should become like them…

As a serious thriller, Invasion of the Body Snatchers has two aces up its sleeve: a plot which demands no special effects or monster props beyond a few pods, and Don Siegel as the director. The slow build in tension throughout the story is masterfully done, with the tension mounting almost imperceptibly until it finally becomes clear just what a grim situation Bennell and his associates are in.

The story has some similarities with that of It Came From Outer Space – small-town American infiltrated by alien duplicates – but while that was a thoughtful and somewhat sombre take on the story, Invasion of the Body Snatchers isn’t afraid to go for thrills, and fairly visceral ones at that. It’s certainly one of the greatest exercises in paranoia in all of cinema. Does it work better than the 1979 remake, which reframes the story in terms of urban alienation? I don’t know. But it certainly works well, even with its teeth pulled by the happy ending provided by the frame story (and even so, given what we’ve seen in the movie I’d give the human race a fifty-fifty chance of survival at best).

It is traditional for Kevin not to be the only McCarthy under discussion when Invasion of the Body Snatchers is written about. Rather interestingly (and perhaps indicatively) the movie lends itself equally well to interpretations as either a Red-menace jeremiad or a satire on McCarthyism itself. If you ask me, of the two it’s the former – but by all accounts it wasn’t made with any particular subtext in mind. It picks up on deeper concerns about society and paranoia and identity.

Like most films of this ilk, the performances are competent rather than anything special, and some of the dialogue is a little bit hokey – particularly some of the romance between McCarthy and Wynter. There is also a fairly major issue with the climax and the fate of one of the characters, which flatly contradicts everything that’s previously been said. But by this point the film’s achieved enough to earn a little latitude, at least.

I saw The Invasion, which really isn’t a very good film, in 2007, and when asked what I thought of it said it was the third-best version of that story I’d seen. Someone said that wasn’t saying much, which is true, but then The Invasion could have been massively better in every single department and that would still have been the case. Nevertheless, it’s a story we seem drawn back to, time after time – whether that’s a tribute to the strength of the concept or the quality of this particular film, I don’t know. I suspect it may be the former – but it would be silly to deny the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers any of the credit.

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