Archive for Don Siegel

Things I read off the screen in Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , on June 8, 2017 by dcairns

I hadn’t watched Don Siegel’s original INVASION for years — no, decades! And I can’t think why — I always preferred the Philip Kaufman remake, it’s true — check out the Arrow Blu-Ray for my article on that — but had only seen the original in pan-and-scan, then got hold of the widescreen edition, then failed to watch it, like a fool.

Now I’ve watched it! How excellent it is, and how ahead of its time, even with the tacked-on bookends and VO. I was watching it and I could sort of see the original, bleaker version THROUGH the re-edit, and it damn well nearly moved me to tears. Apparently the original cut does exist, so it’s monstrous that nobody seems to have released a dual edition. Still, if you were watching this in 1956, seeing love blossom between divorcees Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter only for the latter to get pod-personned out of existence would be pretty tough and shocking. It still is. Being more sentimental than I was as a teen, it really got to me, and I could appreciate how well set-up we are for that moment.

(Though, come to think of it, Dana’s conversion in a cavern doesn’t follow the pattern elsewhere — no pod in sight, and her doppelganger has somehow got all her clothes. The VO even tries to bodge this by saying her body’s been taken over, but that’s not what happens. That’s INVADERS FROM MARS you’re thinking of, Mr. Anonymous V.O. Writer. Haven’t you been watching?)

FOR FIRE ONLY. Alien creatures like THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD are always vulnerable to fire. Later, Kevin will torch a couple of pods in the road.

ETAVIRP. The PRIVATE sign on Kevin’s door features A LOT, usually reversed. It symbolizes his individuality and his belief in personal freedom, also his all-important ability to lock himself in and the pod people out, which is critical later.

Save $1.25 FLINT-WARE. Dana Wynter’s character, who loves to cook, is positioned next to signs of domesticity. WIN A VALUABLE PRIZE! Kevin is in with a chance, or would be if this were a different kind of movie. But the advertising has a more sinister significance. Kevin McCarthy, in later interviews, says he saw the pod people as being like Madison Avenue men — harbingers of conformity, pushing a product. We see them arranging its distribution. Every home should have one! And they TALK like salesmen, stressing the necessity of their product. Once you have it, you won’t be able to imagine how you ever got along without it…

The prints on the wall may represent local author King Donovan’s book jackets, I’m not sure. CHAT BLANC (WHITE CAT). MIRROR NOIRE (BLACK MIRROR). FEMME FATALE. The black mirror is particularly apt here, as King looks at his own unformed reflection on the pool table. Femme fatale is of course what Dana will become. Not sure about the white cat, unless that’s what she presently is. In which case, reading from left to right we can chart her progress from innocent kitten (Alice’s cat, Dinah), through the looking glass black mirror, emerging as a fatal woman, possibly the Queen of Hearts.

LUBRICATION of the body-snatchers! Easing their penetration of society, I guess. Dunno what VEEDOL is, but we’re told it’s PREMIUM QUALITY 100% PENNSYLVANIA, which has a sinister ring to it.

UNION. My favourite! As the pod people gather to arrange their further dissemination. If you want to read them as communists, here’s your evidence.

RICHFIELD GUARANTEED BEST. More advertising hyperbole. The rich field calls to mind the seed pods, the agricultural nature of this evil. Pod people start out in the country, take over the small towns, then assail the cities. Which, as we’ve seen more recently, is true.

Contemporary audiences may also have been surprised by the partially-formed Wynter pod’s nipples (top). The censor’s rules are more complicated than I ever suspected. There’s the little-known Annabella doctrine dealing with small, French breasts, and now it turns out that the nipples of a pod person are acceptable as long as they’re not fully-formed and she hasn’t come to life yet. A loophole few other filmmakers were able to take advantage of.

 

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Movie of the Week

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 8, 2015 by dcairns

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My friend and collaborator Niall Greig Fulton — Edinburgh Film Festival Programmer and actor — has put together an enticing season of American TV movies for this year’s fest, including such classics as Salem’s Lot, Duel, The Jericho Mile and the rarely-seen Noon Wine. It’s all about finding the cinematic in the televisual, and with an array of directors like Hooper, Spielberg, Mann and Peckinpah, the exercise is clearly going to be worthwhile.

I’ve seen a few interesting pieces from this era of US TV — A Cold Night’s Death is about killer psychic chimps at the North Pole, which is pretty non-generic. You can watch that one here. I wrote about Gene Roddenberry’s bizarre Spectre here, a show which introduced me to the thrills of Robert Culp. Rod Serling’s The Man looked at the travails of America’s first black presodent. But I wanted to dig a little deeper to see what else I could find, because really, I remember American TV of the seventies as a HORRIBLE WASTELAND. Growing up in the UK we saw a lot of it, you see, and the good bits were very much overshadowed by the transcontinental miasma of blandness. It was apparent that things like The Rockford Files were a cut above. But on the whole, everything looked the same, was shot the same, used the same locations, the actors all seemed to look the same and dress the same and talk at the same speed, the credits were all in yellow blocky letters, and it kept fading to black in the middle of scenes, where the BBC had removed the ad breaks. I think you could make a pretty good case that any show that fades to black in the middle of a scene and then fades up again with everybody still standing in the same position (with meaningless musical sting as we fade out and in) just shouldn’t have been on the BBC at all.

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The first thing I looked at was Stranger on the Run, an early (1967) TV Movie of the Week, given the class treatment — it reunites star Henry Fonda with his 12 ANGRY MEN writer Reginald Rose, though Rose’s story has been fleshed out by screenwriter Dean Riesner (coincidentally the son of Chuck Riesner). The director is Don Siegel, and how these talents fit together within the context of a TV movie is sort of interesting.

The story transposes to the west and then inverts the premise of 12 ANGRY MEN (itself a TV play before the more famous movie) — Fonda is now the suspect, an alcoholic drifter hunted by a surly posse of railway company thugs for murdering a woman. The debate about his possible innocence (of course we know he’s innocent) occurs among the posse as they track him, which in theory should make it more exciting and filmic. In fact, Riesner’s dramatic values — he was a writer for Siegel, on COOGAN’S BLUFF, DIRTY HARRY and CHARLEY VARRICK, which I would characterise as a desire to play out a story’s themes in the form of action, without philosophising about it — rather clash with Rose’s, since he sets things up deliberately to provoke debates about personal and social values. In 12 ANGRY MEN these are filtered through some strong, sweaty characters, so it’s still solid drama. Here, the genre action doesn’t seem to reinforce the deeper themes, though there’s some good talk in there. When Fonda mourns that the day of testing whether he’s a man has passed, and he failed the challenge, Bernie Hamilton cheers him with a hearty “That just means you’re lucky — you’re going to get another chance!” An upbeat way of viewing the present situation, which is that a gang on armed men are coming to kill him.

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The movie is crammed with interesting actors — Anne Baxter is top-billed after Fonda. They’re good together, and he’s particularly effective as a broken-down hobo, not trying to make the character more initially appealing than he should be. Michael Parks, Dan Duryea, Sal Mineo, Tom Reese and Zalman King (!) make a characterful posse. Plus Lloyd Bochner and the reliably strange-looking Walter Burke.

In the early scenes, Siegel seems to have a lot of trouble covering scenes with all these mugs, no doubt due to the tight schedule. He does fine in the exteriors, but most interior scenes get treated with one wide shot that’s too wide for comfort — it serves to establish where everyone is, but then you can’t look at it any longer because everyone’s miles away — then he’ll cut to individual closeups that are too tight — we lose all context and quickly get a little disoriented. In general, critics don’t talk about the problems of shooting large groups, but it’s an absolute nightmare. You never have time to shoot a single on everyone, and if you do, it confuses the audience. I had some fun with the worst ever example of this, here. A far better approach is to make each shot work as hard as possible, tying in one character to another to keep the audience cognisant of who is where in relation to whom. A truly amazing example, from Otto Preminger, is discussed here. Siegel’s best strategy might have been to spend all his time picking a great master shot and then hold it, as he would on CHARLEY VARRICK, for instance, but TV, with its low-res image and demand for close-ups, wouldn’t have allowed that.

Ultimately, Stranger on the Run feels like a B-movie with ideas above its station, ideas which overstuff it and overbalance it, and the plethora of characters (who never quite develop into a caseload of suspects for us to wonder about, as they would in a well-plotted mystery) spread the drama too thin. The production values are OK — the desert cycloramas are a lot more convincing than in Siegel’s more celebrated THE KILLERS (originally made for TV but fobbed off on the big screen after concerns about the violence). But it isn’t clean and simple like, say, THE LINE-UP, and the look has a generic quality, that made-for-TV feel, which dulls down the possibilities of the form.

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Chris Schneider recommended The Outsider, a 1967 PI story directed by Michael Ritchie and crammed with aging Hollywood greats — the presence of Ann Sothern, Edmund O’Brien and Audrey Totter could almost put this in the league of something like THE OUTFIT. Then there’s Shirley Knight, Ossie Davis and Joseph Wiseman. In the lead, Darren McGavin is surly and deadpan and very, very enjoyable, with Roy Huggins’ script providing plenty of zingers (it’s no surprise to learn Huggins created Jim Rockford and thereby trained up David Chase).

Best of all, it’s directed by Michael Ritchie, just about to break into features on the big screen and eager to show what he can do, even on the kind of schedule where the grips start disassembling the tripod before you’ve said “Cut!”

McGavin’s down-at-heel gumshoe is, per genre requirements, perpetually sleep-deprived and roughed up, though the scenario comes up with novel ways of mistreating him — a near-garrotting and a drugging with chloral hydrate that leads to the stomach-pump. Even Jim Rockford didn’t have it this tough.

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My favourite bit started off looking like it would be an embarrassment. Having tracked his would-be strangler to a beach-side shack, McGavin finds the suspect’s mother, Ann Sothern, who tells him that the guy is inside, tripping with a friend and won’t be coherent for interrogation for several hours. They go in, and there’s sitar music playing and hysterical laughter from the next room, which is kind of ridiculous. And here’s Joseph Wiseman — Dr. No himself, as the acid guru, who starts lecturing McGavin about the joys of turning on and experiencing the cosmic laughter. And all this while, Sothern is plugged into headphones and smiling at a TV game show where various sub-lebrities are trying to guess the phrase “Little Lord Fauntleroy.” Big closeups and surprise angle changes start to suggest all this is getting to McGavin. The world has slipped out of joint. In other words, while the young hood is having a TV movie acid trip next door, with laughing and freak-outs and sitar music and a fisheye lens on a handheld camera — McGavin is having a REAL acid trip in the front room — an experience in which reality comes to seem unreal.

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That sensation is one which the TV movie genre could profitably have pursued more doggedly — it is well within the constraints of time and budget, it can work within all kinds of genres, and it is familiar enough to anybody paying attention to the real world that it ought to be highly commercial, a staple of entertainment like romance or tension.

Pipe Dream

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , on April 5, 2014 by dcairns

Why am I so amused and bemused by this scene in the Don Siegel-directed melo NIGHT UNTO NIGHT, in which Ronald Reagan has an epileptic fit?

It isn’t because it’s Ronald Reagan — not everything he does is automatically funny. Admittedly, some aspects of his presidency were humorous, but I didn’t, on the whole, find the idea of this jocular, ruddy-faced buffoon hovering over the doomsday button particularly funny. I spent my adolescence in a state of terror. I would have probably been terrified anyway, for more general/biologically reasons, but I still hold him responsible for that part of my anxiety not linked to hormones.

And it isn’t because it’s an epileptic seizure — those aren’t funny at all, certainly no funnier than any other neurological malady.

It isn’t even the unlikely combination of Ronald Reagan having an epileptic seizure. Though that makes me smile a little bit.

It’s more to do with Siegel’s direction, which is weirdly ineffective and wrong. It turns out that his talent, on sure ground when dealing with direct, determined action — he would have made the best movie ever of a Richard Stark Parker novel if given the chance — falls apart when called upon to render the hallucinatory, the abnormal, the fugue-state. Instead of some kind of evocation of perceptual crisis, we get a low angle or two placing striking emphasis on Reagan’s smoking material. Pipes are just funny, I think, in a way that Reagan and epilepsy aren’t, always. Pipes are always a bit funny. Making a pipe the fulcrum of a dramatic neurological crisis experienced by Ronald Reagan is very funny.

And then there’s the dog. Interesting to note that was a montage director at Warners before his directing career took off. That’s not at all the same thing as being an editor. Siegel shot his own material to create montage sequences for other directors’ films, showing the passage of time, the development of a situation, or just the atmosphere of a place. It probably explains his admirable terseness. But nothing explains that very voluble dog, who barks and reacts for an extraordinary length of time. The shortness of the shots suggests that Siegel had trouble getting the mutt to understand his direction (Later he would have similar struggles with Shirley MacLaine, but succeed). It looks as if all the usable bits of dog footage have been spliced together — and then abandoned, left in the film without any narrative shaping. It’s quite peculiar.

But the pipe bit is the best.