Cinema Station

Don Siegel: A Man of Craft | September 22, 2010

Don Siegel

The Line-Up (1958) isn’t a good movie.  It is a feature-length continuation of the San Francisco-Dragnet rip-off TV Show of the same name. The screenplay is clumsy.  It’s the right length (86 minutes) but the movie doesn’t really begin till minute twenty-two. It does perhaps the worst thing one can do in pulp: make characters philosophers.

Still, it stands for the impeccable craft of director Don Siegel. There is one scene in the picture that shows just how good this Authentic American Primitive was.

Eli Wallach, the movie’s main gangster-psychopath, needs to drop a package off at an amusement arcade (a structure of the past, part-museum, part fun-land). The problem is, the package isn’t complete. The plan went sour when a little girl decided to wipe a bag of stashed heroine on her doll’s face. Wallach is supposed to leave the drugs and walk away: he has been warned repeatedly to leave no later than 4 o’clock, because he must not see the man who makes the pick-up.

But he must stay, he must explain their mistake.  And so after waiting around a while, a thin-faced man in a wheel chair rolls up to the place where the drugs should be dropped.  Wallach approaches him.  He explains the situation.  The man does not even look at him: he gazes with a stern but calm expression at nothing. Wallach begs for some kind of response.

The man says, “You’re dead. No one sees my face and that makes you dead.” Wallach, enraged, kicks the chair over the ledge. The man falls to his death and the death of an innocent skater on the ice rink below.

The scene is stark. It is stripped of all artifice. The violence is sudden, shocking. On the commentary of the DVD, crime-writer James Ellroy says it just about as good as it can be said: “Siegel was proficient.  He knew where to put the camera.  He knew what to tell the actors.”

Siegel and his cameraman only use close-ups when necessary and when they do, boy are they powerful. He learned how to make movies from chopping montages together. Some of his work can be seen in classics like Casablanca. From there he learned the economy of images. When he was ready to direct, he no longer needed montages. He knew where everything belonged. He came to every picture as a professional: a man of craft.

There is much more to be written about this director.

Siegel and Eastwood, who credits Don as one of his main influences.



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