The UCLA Film & Television Archives’ retrospective of films by Don Siegel (which runs through Sunday, August 27 at the James Bridges Theatre) launched on Wednesday, July 20 with a salute to the late director by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This opening-night event, hosted by Curtis Hanson (director of L.A. CONFIDENTIAL) took place at the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theatre in Beverly Hills, with Clint Eastwood as special guest. Hanson and Eastwood discussed their memories of Siegel in between clips from several of his films, including RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 (1954), DIRTY HARRY (1971), THE KILLERS (1964), THE BEGUILED (1971) and ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ (1979). The evening ended with a screening of a brand-new, widescreen 35mm print of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956), which Paramount Pictures had prepared especially for the occasion.
In these days of home video, plasma screens, high-def TV, DVD, AMC, and TCM, it is increasingly hard to get an audience to attend a theatrical screening of a classic movie like BODY SNATCHERS. But never underestimate the drawing power of an Academy Award-winning actor-director-producer. Thanks to Eastwood’s presence, the Academy Theatre was sold out days ahead of time, with people lining up outside in hope of snagging “no-show” tickets. Several Hollywood celebrities were on view: Michael York (LOGAN’S RUN, the AUSTIN POWERS films), Valeria Golina (RAIN MAN, ESCAPE FROM L.A.), and Angie Dickinson (who starred in THE KILLERS for Siegel). Siegel’s widow was also in attendance.
The event began with host Curtis Hanson making some prefatory remarks about the lessons that contemporary Hollywood could learn from Siegel’s work. The evening’s first standing ovation occurred when Hanson introduced Kevin McCarthy, the star of BODY SNATCHERS, who got a big laugh by saying, “I have to tell you: they’re not coming” (a reference to the hysterical warning his character gives near the end of the film: “They’re coming for you!)
The next standing ovation occurred when Hanson introduced Eastwood, who had selected BODY SNATCHERS to be the film that launched the Siegel tribute. Eastwood had re-seen the film a few years ago and was impressed with how well it stood the test of time.
“I just thought it was one of the great [films]”, Eastwood said. “It was a very small movie. It was the first movie that I remember Don Siegel was famous for. It was a B-movie, a modest budget at that time, when they made A- and B-movies. But it was a great B-movie, a great example of filmmaking, a great example of getting a lot with very little. He had very good actors, but he didn’t have a lot of money to make that movie. You can see that, but you still are engrossed by it. Even though you can see the movie-set type streets, it’s a very engrossing film. And it’s one of the greater little science fiction films, without all the gore, without the stuff you’d have to put in nowadays, and without any visual effects, to speak of.”
Hanson pointed out that, in the 1950s, when Siegel directed BODY SNATCHERS, he was a contract director, who worked on projects that were assigned to him. Because of his earlier work as a second-unit montage director, he earned a reputation for being able to handle non-dialogue sequences—a fact that typecast him as an action director. BODY SNATCHERS is his only science-fiction feature film (he also directed some episodes of the old TWILIGHT ZONE television show).
Eastwood acknowledged the problem of typecasting in Hollywood, which relegated Siegel to the B-Movie realm for most of the early part of his career, but he added that Siegel “was great at making a lot with little. He didn’t have a lot of sets to work with. He wasn’t getting the budgets that John Ford and William Wellman and Howard Hawks were getting. So Don had to make a lot with little; that’s why he was a B-Movie maker. He eventually went on, and I’m proud to say I was on the ride with him, into A-Movies. He was a guy who knew how to economize, and he was forced to do that. If you went over-budget, you didn’t get the next job. Even the A-Movie directors…did two or three movies a year, which is astounding today. Nowadays, a guy takes five years to make a movie, and you wonder what the hell are they doing out there? I guess they are looking for the right property, and I can’t blame them. If you can do it, why not?”
Hanson recalled Siegel’s “two rules” for working in his early B-movie days. “One was ‘Start the movie fast and under schedule, so that the front office won’t pay any attention to you.’ The second was, ‘Shoot only what you need, so when you finish, they can’t screw it up too bad.’”
Eastwood elaborated: “In those day, everything was on production reports. They would say, ‘When did you get the first shot?’ So most directors, who were very clever, would pick some shot like an insert and make that the first shot of the day. Sure enough, the guys would call them, and they’d say, ‘We got the first shot five minutes before we were supposed to start shooting.’ And then they’d never call back the rest of the day. That was one of Don’s tricks. I’d learned them from TV directors, but Don knew them all. He couldn’t help himself as far as being economical. In this era, there are guys who’ll print 30 takes, and there were guys who did it then, too, like George Stevens. It would drive the actors fruitcake. You can see a certain weariness to those old films. In Siegel’s films you didn’t. Even if you didn’t like the actors and the relationships, there was never a weariness, because they were always ready—they had to be.”
One of the A-pictures that Siegel and Eastwood made together was THE BEGUILED, an atypical effort about a wounded Union soldier in the Civil War who is sheltered by some Southern women in an isolated girls boarding school. Essentially a drama, the film does creep toward Gothic horror territory to the extent that the soldier is (like Miles Bennell in BODY SNATCHERS) a lone individual trapped by an alien society of Others (in this case, women) whose group identity puts him at risk.
“That was a wonderful experience,” Eastwood recalled after viewing a clip of the film, with Geraldine Page. “Universal owned the property. They wanted me to do it, so I got it to Don. It was the first time he’d ever done a picture of that nature. It’s not an action film. It’s manipulation, on both sides: the female side and the male side. The guy’s trying to protect his existence, but he’s a liar, obviously. It seems like he should get into the movie business!”
Hanson explained that Siegel had introduced him to Clint Eastwood on the set of COOGNA’S BLUFF, the first of five films in which Eastwood starred for the director. At the time, Hanson was struck by the fact that the star was always on the set, watching and learning. Apparently, the learning experience paid off, as Eastwood has now won two Oscars for directing (UNFORGIVEN and MILLION DOLLAR BABY). One of the lessons Eastwood learned from Seigel was to work quickly and economically, often trying to capture a scene on the first take.
“Everybody gives me that reputation; I don’t like it,” Eastwood said. “I base my career on the same thing as Don: I’m trying for it. I always try to get it the first time—that doesn’t mean I get it, and it doesn’t mean I print the first take—but it’s a nice legend to have out there,” he smiled, “at a very young age.” He added that he admired older pictures that were made quickly and inexpensively. “Even though you can see the flaws, you can see the [phony] sets, the emotion of the picture is so powerful that it carries on through. That’s the way they operated, and they entertained us. I show pictures to my kids now; I make them watch old black-and-white films. The other night I showed them a double feature of ON THE WATERFRONT and SUNSET BOULEVARD…. SUNSET BOULEVARD is one of the truly bizarre combinations of silent movie-style acting with contemporary actors. It’s a brilliant film; you see it today and the kids went nuts over it—they thought Gloria Swanson was fantastic. You don’t get that kind of film nowadays because nobody is taking on that kind of story. Everybody’s interested in cartoons and guys in tights [presumably a reference to this summer’s FANTASTIC FOUR]. There’s nothing wrong with that either, but it seems like there’s a wider variety of films to be made.”
Eastwood repaid Siegel, in a sense, by giving him a cameo role as a bartender in Eastwood’s first directorial effort PLAY MISTY FOR ME. “I told him it would make him much more sympathetic to actors!” Eastwood laughed. “He thought I was being very remiss. He said, ‘You should be hiring a solid character actor.’ I said, ‘If anything goes wrong, I’ve got you right there beside me.’”
Eastwood admitted that, on the day of shooting, he had some concerns. “I was worried when I came in,” Eastwood recalled of arriving on the set. “He was behind the bar, pasting pieces of script; he’d cut it up and he was pasting it all over, so that he could walk over and say a line here and there. I said, ‘You can’t do that.’ I made him take his glasses off. I said, ‘We’ll just talk. You don’t have to worry about what you say; we’re not married to any of this.’”
After the final film clip of the evening (from ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ), Hanson thanked Eastwood for sharing his memories of working with Siegel, then wrapped up with some words about INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and the print being screened.
“The film holds up so well in terms of tension,” Hanson said. “After it was completed, the studio found it a little too disturbing and insisted that a prologue and an epilogue be shot. Don argued and lost, then shot the prologue and epilogue himself, because he didn’t want them shot by anybody else. One could—it was a thought tonight—one could show the movie without the prologue and epilogue, but in truth this is the version that went out into theatres; this is the version that became part of our culture. To just cut them off would not create a director’s cut, because Don was also unhappy that some other things were cut out of the movie.”
Hanson thanked Paramount for preparing a new print of the film. “The original negative had been destroyed; they put together a new negative and made a widescreen print,” he explained. “The movie has not been shown in widescreen, with a decent print, in a long, long time.”
Eastwood called the opportunity to see a new print of BODY SNATCHERS on the big screen “a great treat, a great example of Siegel in his younger days. This is one of many fine films that he made on limited budgets. It’s a good example of what people had to do. There’s no luxuriating. I’ve said it many times, but I still think the picture we are running tonight is one of the best B-movies ever made.”
It would be hard for many films to live up to praise like that, but INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS comes close. The new print was fabulous, and the film itself has not dated badly at all. There are some obvious flaws, but they were always apparent. Not only are the wrap-around prologue-epilogue sequences a bit of a cop-out (providing a phony Hollywood happy ending), the added voice-over narration sometimes overstates the obvious, drawing unintentional laughter. (The low-point comes when Miles realizes that his romantic interest has become a pod person: “I never knew real fear until I kissed Becky.”)
In spite of these problems, BODY SNATCHERS remains a classic, maybe even a masterpiece. Too often we hear older films praised for being made with low budgets in the days before computer-generated imagery and graphic special effects, but BODY SNATCHERS is an example where the praise rings true. Don Siegel’s resources may have been limited, but he managed to direct a film that works emotionally and dramatically on its own terms, so that there is never a moment on screen that makes you think, “If only they had a little more money…”
The film’s portrait of human beings gradually assimilated by an alien invasion of emotionless duplicates creates a profoundly disturbing sense of paranoia that seems somehow rooted in reality. Despite lip service to the science-fiction genre (a few dialogue references to seeds from outer space), this is a great piece of film noir that plays out like a Kafkaesque nightmare or a TWILIGHT ZONE episode expanded to feature length. It wouldn’t be surprising if many in the audience checked under their beds and in their closets that night, making sure no pods were waiting to snatch them.
Of course, in Hollywood, it might be hard to tell the difference.