Don Siegel died thirty years ago - April 20th 1991- and millions of folks who care not a jot or tittle about the names of movie directors surely know at least one Siegel scene. Here is Clint Eastwood five decades ago in Dirty Harry, with one of the most quoted lines of cinematic dialogue of the last half-century:
Such a scene would be unthinkable today - if only because a contemporary audience wouldn't be rooting for the cop. The whole thing would be caught on a hundred cellphones, and the punk would be George Floyd and the policeman discharging the empty Magnum into him would be Dirty Derek Chauvin, and in the next scene he'd be fired from the force and charged with attempted homicide, etc. Even more than other popular media, movies operate on very Leninist who/whom principles.
Don Siegel went back a long way - so far back that his curriculium vitae includes this:
Don Siegel didn't direct Casablanca - that was Michael Curtiz - but by 1942 he was head of the Warner Bros "Montage Department", which meant that he got to direct montages, preferably in the style of the guy who directed the non-montage bits. Six months earlier, Siegel had done the montages for another Curtiz hit, Yankee Doodle Dandy, and so he was entrusted with the newsreel-style explainer that kicks off Casablanca.
The later picture has, of course, one of the all-time great montages - the we'll-always-have-Paris flashback. Curtiz shot the stars dancing to "Perfidia" and doing the "Here's looking at you, kid" stuff, but it was Siegel and James Leicester who found and pieced together the Germans marching in - and to have a segment of this scene would be enough of a film career for most of us. It's a superb combination of two little people not amounting to a hill of beans and all around them the great swirl of the world's affairs:
Between Casablanca's montages and Dirty Harry's lucky punk, Don Siegel made many fine films, including the very last picture in the long career of Ronald Reagan. For The Killers, Siegel signed Reagan to play his first ever villain - and very credibly he acquitted himself. The guy's problem is that his moll is getting a little too pally with one of the underlings. It's a great performance in a great film, but by the time it came out Ron was stumping the country for Barry Goldwater. So that's how he ended his movie career - slapping around Angie Dickinson.
For all that, if one had to identify the masterpiece in Siegel's oeuvre, it would be a 1956 B-picture with a C budget and D-list stars. Invasion of the Body Snatchers has loomed so large in both the popular consciousness and among generations of film-school graduates that it has been remade three times, with bigger and bigger budgets and to lesser and lesser effect. The original, therefore, is an object lesson in what you can do within the constraints imposed by lack of money and lack of first-rank talent; it has no big budget and no big stars, but it's a big film and always will be.
Almost everyone knows the plot outline: seeds drift through the skies and land in a farmer's field; the seeds grow into pods, and in the pods grow humanoids that absorb the outward appearances and inner memories of the neighborhood's actual humans. Having read Jack Finney's original novel not too long ago, I'm in no doubt that Siegel improved on the source material - I don't mean just by junking what feels like a hasty and unconvincing ending to the book, but by grasping that its concept is inherently cinematic. The problem with most science fiction or horror is that the terrifying creatures on the page appear clunky or ludicrous when translated to VistaVision. But Finney's novel inverts the source of terror: the "pod people" are terrifying because they look just like us, so it's not always easy to tell when they've taken over your auntie or your dentist or your feed-store clerk. That's hard to convey on a page, but it's a premise made for a great director.
It begins in a small community called Santa Mira - a typical California town back before the Golden State got wrecked; it's neat, prosperous, perhaps just a little stifling to a restless soul. Coming back from a short trip, Dr Miles Bennell runs into an old sweetheart, Becky, also returning home after venturing into the wider world and finding nothing but divorce. They begin to notice that, in small, subtle ways, the people of Santa Mira seem to have ...changed.
If you saw me on Fox News Primetime a week or so back, you'll know that I included a clip of YouTube's CEO explaining to her fellow Davos guys how in the last five years they've developed more and more sophisticated "machines" capable of tracking down and eliminating "hate". Then I played this scene from Siegel's Body Snatchers:
As Miles marvels: What a world. That scene is brilliantly done by actors you couldn't put a name to (Larry Gates is Dr Kauffman, King Donovan is Miles' best friend Jack) but who are just right for what the tale requires. The 1978 remake with Donald Sutherland has its admirers, but makes the error of moving the action from Anytown USA to San Francisco. I think that's a loss - because a) most terrors start on the fringes of the map and then move inwards; and b) it's the very bland placidity of Santa Mira that makes its surrender to monsters all the creepier. Look at Dr Kauffman above, calmly and reasonably explaining the benefits of a society without human emotion: why, how wonderful it would be to be "reborn into an untroubled world"!
As the years went by, Invasion of the Body Snatchers was said to be a metaphor for the stultifying conformity of Eisenhower's America. But at least movie audiences of 1956 knew enough not to root for the fellows trying to usher in a world without human emotion. These days the enforcers of stultifying conformity are the good guys: While you sleep, they erase all your conflicting emotions - or anyway your Facebook or Instagram account, which in the twenty-first century amounts to the same thing. The newest version had a starry cast (Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig) but opened just before social media got going and cemented its death grip on the Internet, and so was already hopelessly confused about whether conformity was good or bad: The Invasion relocated the story to Washington, and made it a metaphor for power, with endless references to Iraq and glimpses of Bush on background TV screens. It is by far the most "outdated" adaptation.
Every version of the story includes a scene where the protagonists are obliged to go among the transformed masses and pass for just another couple of pod people. But Siegel's original is still the best: After the above exchange, Miles and Becky manage to out-thwart Dr Kauffman and escape the office for what appears to be a perfectly normal American Main Street. The characters as played by Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter look as if they belong on such a street - dressed perfectly conventionally, because you have to have conventions before you can undermine or subvert conventions. But in fact they are trying hard not to betray that the essential spark of humanity still lives within them, underneath their glassy-eyed expressions.
And then a dog darts out in front of a truck.
And involuntarily Becky screams - and the pod people all around know she is not one of them, for what could be more human than not wishing to see a poor wee pooch hit by a car?
Don't you find a whole lot of contemporary life is like walking with Miles and Becky down Main Street in Santa Mira? Walking on eggshells lest the persons who present as perfectly normal suddenly discover you have some non-conforming views on transgender sports or climate change or Black Lives Matter or some other of an ever growing list of subjects where vigorous, spirited, messy human debate is no longer permitted. And, as in Santa Mira, when the pod people determine you're not 100 per cent one of them, the nice, reasonable types turn in seconds into a snarling, vicious mob determined to hunt you down and destroy you.
Don Siegel's film is a masterpiece that now can never be remade - for the same who/whom reasons as Dirty Harry: Wokeworld identifies with the pod people.
~If you are missing, as we all are, our peerless picture columnist Kathy Shaidle, do check out our new Shaidle at the Cinema home page for the full archive of our late friend's work: It's a grand collection of the best writing on films and film-makers.
Mark will be back tomorrow to launch another of his Tales for Our Time. If you're a member of The Mark Steyn Club, do please share your view of our movie feature in the comments section. If you're not a member of The Mark Steyn Club, we're fast approaching our fourth birthday and would love to welcome you to our ranks.