Originally published in Sydney University Film Group Bulletin no. 50, First Term 1970, pp. 6-7. Republished with the permission of the author.

Audiences who try to “read” rather than “see” films, who are more concerned with what is referred to than with what is shown, have difficulty in appreciating Don Siegel. Alert to literary conventions, they frequently fail to discern the rhetoric of the cinema.

The Killers

Siegel is responsible for at least ten films deserving of close study, and three of these are without peer, if not without fault: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Baby Face Nelson (1957) and Hell is for Heroes (1962). The later two not only contain much violence, they are about violence. The difficulty for literary viewers is in arriving at an awareness of what the film refers to: they are denied access via the dialogue of intellectual challenge; instead they must concentrate on what the film shows.

The Killers [1964] shows relatively little violence, yet the total impression of the film is of a work saturated in violence. Siegel’s method is as precise and economical as that of his killers – after an early demonstration of violence a predisposition onwards it is implied in all manifestations of behaviour. Geoff Gardner, in Annotations on Film 1/69, speaks of the film’s “cool control”; its characters “live on the brink of an apocalypse; violence is the background texture of their lives”.

Siegel’s style dispenses with pictorial felicities. Composition of form and colour is bold, its parts simple; textures have a coarse sensuous effect which impinges directly rather than pervades gradually; dramatic elements tend to gravitate by collision rather than equilibrium; dramatic tensions alternate between periods of expenditure and conservation. Siegel communicates a drive which would fret if bound to a sensibility moved by subtle discriminations in the visual field (this is not the same thing as subtle implications drawn from contents of the visual field). This is equally true in the field of dialogue, but his uneventful scenes quiver with overtones of the introductory sequence; his style invests the furnishings of everyday existence with the potential of brutal impact. It is a style visceral rather than cerebral.

The Killers

Aficionados will recognise some recurring motifs of Siegel’s personal rhetoric; the shattered eyeglass, the somatic thrill of high powered cars, the tumescent quality of gun play, and – most characteristic – the death walk. Whilst I regard the values of tragedy as principally irrelevant to the aggression fantasies of the electronic age, I accept the notion of the tragic vision as it recurs in some of Siegel’s best work: the notion that death is not merely an incident in life that brings an end to life, but an essential event which gives form to life. In his last moments the individual is masked off from the flow of life; he is defined by death.

Charlie’s [Lee Marvin] death walk in The Killers is the most exquisite example of this Siegel motif – but there is another variation on the death walk in the film. When the full impact of his own degradation is brought home to Johnny North [John Cassavetes], duped by Sheila [Angie Dickinson] and shot by Browning [Ronald Reagan], he staggers off into the darkness – the death walk of one who survived killing and yet was destroyed.

Another important aspect of Siegel’s work to be seen in The Killers is his refusal to accept a moral constant; most audiences feel uncomfortable when there is nothing in the filmmaker’s attitude to anchor their sentiments to. But there is another aspect of his style which is even more likely to cause a vague but lasting uneasiness.

The Killers

Siegel’s work is repeatedly concerned with the conflict of incompatible associations built into his images. (In Invasion of the Body Snatchers the whole thesis of the film is an exploration of the anxiety produced by finding the non-human in the most exemplary human form.) At first glance the ironies of a spectacle such as assassins who assume the demeanour of businessmen seem too obvious to warrant close attention. For those who “read” films, the message is simple, momentarily amusing, and subsequently devalued.

Closer attention leads to two discoveries. Firstly, there are the detailed observations to be made in Siegel’s visual content – not in the intricacies of high definition images, but in the unstructured, unemphasised minutiae of behaviour. These may be made more difficult to detect by occurring independently of the drama, and by the absence of close-ups to underline them editorially.

The second discovery is that repeated exposure to familiar material allows opportunity for intellectual as well as merely physical – saccadic – scanning. Each new observation pleasurably renews the initial irony. At this stage reflection commences, testing for “inner meaning”.

The irony deepens upon examination – the assumption of the characteristics of the businessman by the criminal is more than a disguise to escape attention. Their similarity extends beyond the convenience of the occasion; they also share a compatibility of ethos.

The suggestion is made, by associative rather than logical connection, that businessmen and criminals are birds of a feather. The transition from one vocation to another seems easy, even “natural”. The suspicion begins to grow that the direction of the transition is not one-way but mutual.

A trite enough point in the context of sociology, but here on film it has been imaginatively and progressively amplified. And to make one’s points associatively rather than logically is the prerogative of art.

About The Author

John Flaus began writing film criticism in 1954, and was sacked the following year when he wrote that On the Waterfront was right-wing propaganda. He has been writing film reviews intermittently ever since. These days he makes a living as an actor, script editor and occasional lecturer.