Don Siegel (1912–1991) was a director whose career had, in the words of biographer Judith M. Kass, “a historical uniqueness in terms of the Hollywood studio film.” My friend Judy emphasizes that Siegel “makes films that reflect himself,” which is ultimately what auteurism is all about. While she (like Siegel himself) is not entirely fond of either Dirty Harry or its protagonist, it was the director’s most widely seen film and it has had an impact on the culture and language that, while not quite Shakespearian, far outdistances its genre antecedents.
Siegel first made his mark creating montage sequences for Warner Brothers, including the now-classic opening of Casablanca. After World War II, he began to direct what were essentially B pictures, but with many actors who were soon elevated (partly through their work with Siegel) to the A-list, like Robert Mitchum, Broderick Crawford, and Steve Cochran. He also directed Hollywood veterans like Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Ida Lupino, and (yes) Ronald Reagan. Although his output became more diverse, he specialized in black-and-white crime films, making him a key figure in film noir, but he also made color films with contemporary heartthrobs like Audie Murphy, John Derek, and, later, Elvis Presley. In retrospect, perhaps his most memorable early work is the original version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), made at the peak of the Cold War/sci-fi craze, but eschewing much of the sensationalism attached to the genre. He had begun working in scope and eventually became the mentor of Clint Eastwood, directing him in Coogan’s Bluff, Two Mules for Sister Sara, and The Beguiled. Under Siegel’s tutelage, Eastwood became a major director in his own right with Play Misty for Me, made the same year as Dirty Harry and featuring Siegel in a cameo. (Siegel returned the favor by having Eastwood’s film appear on the marquee of a theater during one Harry’s shootouts.) Siegel was also influential in the careers of other aspiring directors like Sam Peckinpah.
The writing Fink brothers began a long association with Eastwood on Dirty Harry. Similarly, cinematographer Bruce Surtees, who shot The Beguiled and Misty, would go on to work with both Siegel and Eastwood on many films, including Siegel’s The Shootist (John Wayne’s masterful last film) and Escape from Alcatraz. However, by the time of Dirty Harry, from the credit sequence on, Siegel was fully in command of the widescreen. For someone who began shooting small black-and-white films, his location shooting proved to be without peer. Siegel was not above borrowing from others (here perhaps Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window), but the greater access to older films through television and revival theaters made film history scholars of many directors, as did the age of VHS and DVD with the next generation of people like Scorsese, Spielberg, Allen, etc. (I vaguely remember a visit by Siegel to MoMA’s Film Study Center, but I believe his primary interest was in reading about what we had on him.)
In many circles, Dirty Harry remains as controversial now as it was when it was released. This was not helped by Eastwood’s “performance” at the 2012 Republican Convention. (For a signature role, it is ironic that the first choices to play Harry were Wayne, Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster, and Robert Mitchum. Whether the film might have been substantially different would make for an interesting debate.) Siegel was accused of betraying his ostensible previous bent toward liberalism, and Eastwood had already shown himself to be a less-than-cuddly personality in Sergio Leone “Spaghetti Westerns”—an image culminating in the cold-eyed killer William Munny in Eastwood’s masterpiece, Unforgiven (dedicated to Siegel and Leone), made just after Siegel’s death. It would be hard to argue the film (like Harry) is not racist, homophobic, and devoid of a genuine respect for what most of us consider constitutional liberties. How much of a defense is it that the film was made in the wake of assassinations, the turmoil of a society engaged in “unpatriotic” rebellion against a murderous and unnecessary war, and the changing values depicted in then-contemporary San Francisco? As recently as last week, a Scorpio-like maniac roamed the streets of California, killing innocents for no rational reason. We sort-of know where Harry Callahan would stand on most of the Bill of Rights. Where would he stand on the Second Amendment?