BOOK REVIEW / Candid king of the Bs: 'A Siegel Film: An Autobiography' - Don Siegel: Faber, 20 pounds

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The Independent Culture
WHAT IS the link between Dirty Harry, Coogan's Bluff and Invasion of the Body Snatchers? The immediate answer is that they were all directed by Don Siegel, but that evades the other, more interesting question: what makes 'a Siegel film'? The word auteur occurs once in this autobiography, with ironic overtones, but French critics have occasionally claimed to detect an authorial style in his work. More often, however, even in the pages of Cahiers du cinema, he is seen as essentially an effective studio director - the King of the Bs.

There is nothing routine about Siegel's approach to autobiography. His preface includes a modest disclaimer: 'I am not a writer . . .'; and the effect of not having any professional pretensions makes him formally more daring in his autobiography than he ever was in his films.

He starts inthe middle of his career, in 1976, when he was making The Shootist with John Wayne, and goes back from there to his early days in the film library at Warner Bros, for two chapters on the technical skills of montage and editing, on special effects, stock footage and the day-to- day work of a big Hollywood studio during the 1930s and 1940s, which are in many ways the most interesting part of the book.

His other formal experiment is to write a good deal of the book in the form of a dialogue script, in which the central character, 'Me', is overheard in conversation with others. There are prose links between these passages of dialogue, as well as extracts from film scripts, diaries and other materials: a life in montage.

Each chapter covers a different film, and the list of titles, from The Big Steal to Jinxed], makes a somewhat depressing litany of more or less unremarkable movies, punctuated by the occasional success. Don't let this put you off. The little movies often had big stars and, even when they didn't, they were bound to involve Hollywood characters in the behind-the-scenes manoeuvres that precede the making of any film.

In his final chapter, looking back over whathe has written, Siegel accuses himself of being 'feisty' and of 'bitching' his way through the book. This is unfair. What he does supremely well is to evoke the battles of wills, the compromises and the co-operative effort that are part of the process; it is precisely this that one is least likely to glean from the autobiographical writings of an A-movie auteur.

In one sense, obviously, Siegel is not being truthful about his life: no one would imagine that he could remember all those conversations word for word. But his story is honest in a more profound sense: 'Me' is the centre of the story, but never its sole hero; the conversations are dialogues that depend, like the rest of the director's work, on the participation of others.

And, in the course of writing, Siegel discovers something about his life and work, as the book begins more and more to revolve around his co- operation with Clint Eastwood. They made five films together, which are among Siegel's best. In exchange, Siegel clearly taught Eastwood a good deal of the craft of directing, as Eastwood acknowledges in his preface. Both unpretentious professionals, they made a highly effective team.

Much of the rest is anecdote, for the veracity of which we have to rely on Siegel's memory. There is no index and no filmography, both irritating omissions in a book of this price, which should entitle the purchaser to a work with some later reference value. As ample compensation, we have 500 pages of solid entertainment, with stars (Lee Marvin, Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, Wayne, Eastwood and many more), front office, crew and extras: a Siegel film, reliably well made, and able to teach you something about how to make movies.