Clint Eastwood, Don Siegel, and the great anti-hero

Feature Aliya Whiteley 16 Sep 2013 - 06:50

Between them, director Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood created some classic movie anti-heroes, including one Dirty Harry...

Let’s start at the end of this story.

Unforgiven (1992) is a film that builds on the groundwork of others, and takes the ideas of the past to a new level. In it, Clint Eastwood plays a once-vicious killer, William Munny, who chooses to return to the role of bounty-hunter in his old age. It's no wonder that the film is dedicated to the two directors who shaped the public image of Eastwood to such an extent that we can view Unforgiven as an extension of the mythology of his classic role- the anti-hero. One is Sergio Leone, who turned Eastwood into the Man With No Name. The other director is Don Siegel.

Siegel directed five films that starred Eastwood and was a great influence on him when he started to direct his own films, even playing a small part in Eastwood's directorial debut, Play Misty For Me (1971). The movies they made together relied heavily on Eastwood's silent sneer (Leone said of Eastwood – “As an actor, he has two expressions: with, and without the hat”) but also began to stretch him as an actor in interesting directions.

These films shaped the crime movies and the Westerns that followed, and are still incredibly entertaining and iconic today. Here's a look at them:

Coogan's Bluff (1968)

Siegel said, “Eastwood has an absolute fixation as an anti-hero. It's his credo in life and in all the films that he's done so far.” Coogan's Bluff is absolutely an anti-hero film. Coogan is an Arizona Deputy Sherriff who comes on a manhunt to New York, and wears an expression of disdain for all things of the city, particularly elements of the counter-culture lifestyle and places such as the drug-ridden club with the memorable name of Pigeon-Toed Orange Peel. Coogan breaks the rules but this doesn’t always work out for him; still, in the main he gets what he wants, and looks pretty smug doing it. It’s a film that wants to have it both ways. It looks disparagingly at the naked women of Pigeon-Toed Orange Peel, but its gaze still lingers on their nakedness. It’s an uneasy balance of severe expressions and psychedelic backdrops.

Siegel directed Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1956) and there’s something of that sense of distrust and alienation in Coogan’s Bluff. Everyone looks so strange. They really are from a different world to Coogan, and there’s the sense that his values are opposed to those he finds in the city.

The third element of success in these Siegel/Eastwood films is Lalo Schifrin. He scored three of these films, and made a brilliant job of it. The Pigeon-Toed Orange Peel song really gets stuck in your head.

Two Mules For Sister Sara (1970)

It's strange to think that Two Mules For Sister Sara would become such an influential Western - it must have seemed like a strange piece of casting to put Shirley Maclaine in it as a nun whom Eastwood saves from a gang-rape, and then escorts across the Mexican desert. The script was written with Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr in mind (if you want to see that pairing, Kerr had already played a nun to Mitchum's tough guy in the excellent Heaven Knows, Mr Allison) but with Siegel's involvement it evolved a harder edge, and Maclaine brings her unique charisma to the role, and stands tall against Eastwood's sneer. I think it's the most engaging female performance opposite Eastwood until The Bridges Of Madison County (1995), and the tension between them for control of the screen is a good reason to watch the film.

The other great thing about the film is the music. Written by Ennio Morricone this time, it's another one of those scores that you recognise instantly, and it's been reappearing recently in movies as an ironic aside. Tarantino uses it in his phenomenally fun Western Django Unchained (2012) and you can also find it in Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows (2011).

The Beguiled (1971)

This has to be one of Eastwood's and Siegel's most interesting films. It's the story of a Civil War deserter who seeks shelter in a girls' school and plays with the affections of the teachers and pupils. It's a slow, creepy film, shot in a Louisiana mansion, making use of the setting to build the tension long before things start to go wrong. And when they do go wrong, it's shudderingly horrible and filled with Freudian symbolism. By the end we’re in the territory of Gothic horror.

Eastwood’s performance is far from Leone’s claim of him being an expressionless actor. He’s great in this – tender and demanding and bored and bullish, he rules the roost. It’s another character you can love to hate, but for very different reasons from someone like Coogan.

The film was considered a flop in the US, and if you look at the original trailer and posters you can see why. It plays up the salacious elements and makes it sound like some sort of 1960s Confessions Of A… type film – “Is he a helpless victim to be teased, enticed, loved at their will and pleasure?” asks the voice-over artist. Anybody who went along hoping for bedroom capers would have come out traumatised.

Dirty Harry (1971)

It's interesting when you look at the dates on these films to realise that they are all so close together. Perhaps that's why they build so effectively in terms of Eastwood's characterisation as an anti-hero. For Harry Callaghan is probably a character you'd think of if I asked you to name a great anti-hero of the movies - he hates everyone, he never plays by the rules, he has no family or friends, and yet we all love him. He's the pinnacle of Eastwood's early roles, a natural extension of the Man With No Name and Coogan, with no softness or pity.

Later Eastwood's characters began to soften, just a little, so we see caring elements in The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) and comedic influences in the Every Which Way... films. But Dirty Harry reminds me more of Judge Dredd (and makes me wonder if Eastwood would have made a great Old Stoney Face) in that they both represent ultimate judgement. If you have been judged, and found wanting, then you will be punished.

Time, and our familiarity with it, has robbed the film of some of its controversial status. We're used to seeing vigilantes chase down criminals, from Death Wish (1974) to Batman in all his incarnations, with Eastwood even revisiting the territory in Gran Torino (2008). Technically Harry isn’t a vigilante, but he’s certainly not always acting within the parameters of the law. The frustration with due process, of feeling let down by the system, is here for perhaps the first time.

Now watching Dirty Harry is about the lines we all know. But there are so many successful elements to it: the action-heavy direction, the brilliant casting of Andy Robinson as Scorpio (who still gives me the chills), and another fantastic score by Lalo Schifrin. And it has one of the great openings, and great endings, in movie history.

Escape From Alcatraz (1979)

By 1979 Eastwood was a superstar, and it shows in this film. How many actors would have the clout needed to make a gritty prison movie based on a true story in which the hero is not wrongfully imprisoned? Frank Morris was in prison for crimes including burglary and bank robbery, but still we’re asked to invest in him, and we do, because Eastwood is so still, so collected, that we are drawn to him. He’s the centre of that island.

This was the last time Eastwood and Siegel worked together, and has more in common with The Beguiled than with Dirty Harry. It’s the building of tension that is so well done, to a point of inevitability. The movie was filmed in Alcatraz itself, and the claustrophobia and despair of being incarcerated in such a place is palpable.

Is Frank Morris an anti-hero? He’s not your traditional action man, but the prison is portrayed as so terrible that he is the guy flying in the face of the establishment, which is an idea that appears a lot in Eastwood films. To come full circle, it’s also in Unforgiven; William Munny is going to bring down the brutality of the regime of local Sherriff Little Bill (Gene Hackman). The law does not mete out the deserved justice, so Munny will have to. Munny is a classic Eastwood character, and a Siegel one for that matter. We’re just catching up with our anti-hero a few decades down the line. And yet this time around we see his despair at the fact that violence is still the only solution against violence. You get the feeling William Munny would like to throw the gun away and go back to his kids and his pigs. But we, the viewers, still haven’t lost our love of the anti-hero, and so he goes on, as Seth Gecko, as Travis Bickle, as D-Fens, and as Tony Montana. I wonder where he’ll appear next?

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Smashing article! Now I'm picturing an alternate reality where we got late-70's Clint Eastwood playing Dredd.

Challenge accepted...

Two Mules For Brother Loki

Pretty sure Dredd's original look was modeled on Eastwood's tall, slim Dirty Harry.

It's easy to forget now, but when Dirty Harry came out there was a huge backlash against it from many liberals and the left for being a fascist film. The depiction of how the perps would be treated was a tad skewed, and the notion of presenting a hero who didn't hesitate to appoint himself judge jury executioner was very controversial.

But it is still a great movie.

The sneering, mewling serial killer Scorpio, based very loosely on the real life Zodiac who terrorized the San Francisco Bay Area (and was never caught), is played by Andrew Robinson.

Which means in that photo we have a face-off between Dirty Harry and Garak from Deep Space Nine!

PS: It is because of the political backlash against Dirty Harry that in the second film, Magnum Force, Harry fights against an overtly fascist outfit of young cops who chose to execute criminals without trials.

He even has a couple of little speeches about the system, flawed as it is ...

PPS: An excellent film about the hunt for the Zodiac killer, called Zodiac, is directed by David Fincher and stars not one but two Avengers!

Robert Downey, Jr. and Mark Ruffalo. Downey plays a real life newspaper reporter, with Ruffalo a real life police detective.

It's in large part because RDJ had such a great time working with Ruffalo on Zodiac that he pushed to have him in The Avengers.

The irony is that the Scorpio killer targets minorities and vulnerable citizens detached from the Protestant white male hierarchy: girls, women, children, gays, blacks, Catholics. He could be a KKK member, or George Zimmerman, a madman going free on a technicality.

Zimmerman is not a mad man going free on a technicality. His acquittal was practically a slam dunk. I found no suspense in it.

Interesting point about Scorpio's victims, not that it has much to do with Harry being a fascist or not.

Scorpio does target an upper class white girl, who naturally gets the most attention.

I thought that there was a good case for a manslaughter conviction, even if the defense failed to really make it. Zimmerman's injuries suggested that he may have been losing a fight, but not that he was on the verge of death. Indeed, a real man does not shoot and kill someone because he has lost a fight and suffered a bloody nose and some scrapes.

Regardless, his behavior since his acquittal suggests that Zimmerman is indeed a sociopath, or at least a man out of control. He is possibly committing further crimes (and certainly further acts of violence) because he'd gone free despite disobeying police orders and stalking (and then shooting) a person who had been minding his own business. If Callahan had arrested Zimmerman, he would have been furious about the acquittal and likely would have trailed the perpetrator to try and prevent further crimes from occurring, just as Callahan stalks Scorpio in the movie. Callahan did not approve of killers going free, and the technicality was the Stand Your Ground-inspired changes to Florida's self-defense laws. Those rhetorical changes possessed nothing to do with justice, but with the confluence of business and politics, namely the gun lobby and its primary advocacy arm, the NRA, exploiting its leverage with certain politicians. Indeed, one of the points obliquely offered by "Dirty Harry" is that the law doesn't necessarily have anything to do with justice.

About the upper class white girl, are you referring to Ann Mary Deacon? I don't think that there is anything to suggest that she's "upper class," and she may as well be a Catholic girl from a blue collar district. Or are you referring to the pool victim at the start?

My point about Scorpio's victims is that one could argue that of all the characters and elements in the film, the villain is the one who perhaps most reflects attitudes associated with fascism. Therefore, the criticism of Callahan and the overall film proved misplaced, as the sequel, "Magnum Force," would effectively establish.

Thanks for the write-up. I especially enjoyed your comments about the fascinating, deeply underrated "The Beguiled." (However, is Eastwood's Corporal John McBurney really a deserter, as opposed to a mere coward? I guess that I'll need to see it again; I've viewed all these films many times, but not since 2003. In any event, McBurney seeks shelter after being wounded in battle.)

Let me note, though, that Eastwood was arguably a 'superstar' about a decade before "Escape from Alcatraz." In fact, "Life" magazine placed Eastwood on its cover for its July 23, 1971, edition with the line, "The world's favorite movie star Is—no kidding—Clint Eastwood.” By that time, a poll conducted for the Hollywood Foreign Press Association had named Eastwood the globe's leading international star, while Eastwood had finished second in Quigley Publishing's annual "Top Ten Money Making Stars" poll, which surveys North American theater owners and exhibitors about the movie stars who sell the most tickets at their establishments. Eastwood had ranked second for 1970 (trailing only Paul Newman), after finishing fifth in 1968 and 1969. Indeed, the "Life" cover story appeared five months before the release of "Dirty Harry" and even before the release of Eastwood's esoteric yet commercially successful directorial debut, "Play Misty for Me." If Eastwood wasn't a 'superstar' before "Dirty Harry," then perhaps no one else happened to be, either; in those days, the term was still new and wasn't thrown around loosely and glibly. What "Dirty Harry" did was to make Eastwood a legend with true crossover resonance in the manner of John Wayne or Humphrey Bogart, so that even people who hadn't seen the film or who did not attend movies in general knew of Clint Eastwood and possessed some sense of his mystique.

I actually think that your point about Eastwood's clout better explains "The Beguiled," the content of which is virtually noncommercial. In the case of "Escape from Alcatraz," Paramount was going to produce the film with Don Siegel as director irrespective of whether Eastwood would be the star. However, what's true is that perhaps no other major star would have wanted to play such an anti-hero, a violent criminal who (as you smartly note) is not wrongly imprisoned in accordance with a prison film's classic appeal. Nor is Morris sentimentalized or presented as redeemable, except for the way (as you again smartly note) that he flouts authority by attempting to escape.

By the way, I don't think that William Munny is really pursuing justice in "Unforgiven," nor do his actions really result in justice. If the story in "Unforgiven" had been written and told conventionally, then he would have been pursuing and achieving justice, but justice in this movie is either a rationalizing and self-excusing facade or a desire that transmutes itself into the vicious cycle of violence and vengeance. The result, then, is not justice, but further despair and emptiness. Munny briefly pays lip service to the idea of justice, but he's really interested in the money and—perhaps—a task where he can prove physically competent and adequate, as opposed to his failures as a pig farmer and homesteader. Indeed, "Unforgiven" achieves so much of its subversive and ironic value by presenting a narrative that could be glibly described as serving the interests of justice, but by then showing a far more shattering, distressing, dissatisfying result—namely, the absence of a moral universe.

Also, I wouldn't say that Coogan's "values" (a word that carries a moral or political connotation) are different from the denizens of New York, so much as his sense of style and identity. And that distinction would be telling, for modern anti-heroes such as Coogan defined themselves not by superior morality, but superior style and a polarizing identity.

Indeed, I disagree with your reading of "Coogan's Bluff" as a reactionary text. I don't think that Coogan and the overall film possess a disdainful or disparaging view of the psychedelic club and its naked women, so much an an indulgent view. Coogan is not a moralistic man (hence the character's anti-heroism), but rather a promiscuous one who emphasizes impatience and animal impulse rather than ethics. Coogan seems to bemusedly enjoy the presence of all that female nudity in the club, and then he beds the film's principal female hippie, Linny Raven (played by Tisha Sterling). I'll quote longtime "Village Voice" critic J. Hoberman's 2003 book titled "The Dream Life: Movies, Media and the Mythology of the Sixties", page 228:

"In Coogan's Bluff, the acme of social disintegration is the hero's visit to a psychedelic disco called The Pigeon-Toed Orange Peel. ... This chaos is contagious. Coogan's Bluff has little moral gravity—and was, indeed, condemned as 'socially irresponsible' by the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures. Coogan triumphs through a combination of illegal and unethical means. He lies to the NYPD, rifles a therapist's personal files, and exacts information by seducing a zonked-out hippie chick—sitar-accompanied sex on the crash pad floor! But whatever the cowboy does, the system is even worse."

So rather than the contradiction that you suggest, I think that there's a sense of logic to the film's treatment of the counterculture. There's the visual indulgence that you note, but that visual indulgence furthers, rather than counters, the movie's theme, which is more about amoral impulse than moral censure. One could easily argue that Coogan shares New York's permissive sexual values (at least short of homosexuality and prostitution) and that his disdain is directed toward civilized modernity: bureaucratic hierarchies, legal procedures, eradication of the natural landscape, and mass conformity. Indeed, the film's only real ideology is iconoclasm.

I do appreciate your pairing of "Coogan's Bluff" with "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." I hadn't thought about it before, but there is a thematic parallel at play.

I wouldn't suggest that Harry Callahan in "Dirty Harry" possesses no sensitivity or humanity—see his impassioned concern for the fourteen-year old female victim, Ann Mary Deacon, or the way that Harry empathizes with Chico and his wife, agreeing with his erstwhile partner's desire not to return to the police force. But this sensitivity and humanity are not expressed in sentimental terms (they're barely expressed at all), and Harry is indeed profoundly alienated and isolated. The filmmakers make no attempt to warm him with even a token romance, while the only character in the film that Callahan possesses anything in common with is the killer, Scorpio. Harry's misanthropy and iconoclasm run that deeply, and in that way, "Dirty Harry" achieves its greatest distinction. Eastwood's darkest and "hardest" character, however, would come slightly later with 1973's "High Plains Drifter," which he also directed.

I don't see Munny as a Siegel anti-hero, though. Siegel's anti-heroes (at least in the films that he made with Eastwood) were not guilt-ridden, and although they challenged authority, they didn't really question their own actions. Munny, on the other hand, is plagued by guilt and self-doubt for much of "Unforgiven," and even after he emerges from his fever, there is a degree of self-awareness that isn't really present in Siegel's anti-heroes. No, I'd say that Munny is a true Eastwood anti-hero, meaning that much like other Eastwood-directed films such as "The Outlaw Josey Wales," "The Gauntlet," "Firefox," "Honkytonk Man," "Tightrope" (which Eastwood directed without credit), "Heartbreak Ridge," "Bird," "White Hunter, Black Heart," "A Perfect World," "The Bridges of Madison County," "True Crime," "Gran Torino," and "J. Edgar," "Unforgiven," examines the man behind the gun (or the plane, or guitar, or saxophone, or camera, or notepad, or podium), plagued by guilt or self-consciousness, or some form of inner turmoil and affliction, often stemming from a tragic past. Siegel's anti-heroes, conversely, were plagued more by external environments: the cramped quarters of New York City in "Coogan's Bluff," a female-filled plantation in "The Beguiled," the heights and nights of San Francisco (not to mention the legal obstacles) in "Dirty Harry," and a supposedly impregnable prison in "Escape from Alcatraz" (or a small town full of dupes and aliens in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"). And I agree with a point offered by Eastwood biographer Richard Schickel, namely that while we may be invested in Frank Morris and his fellow escapees, our investment stems from what they are attempting to accomplish rather than in who they are. Indeed, "Escape from Alcatraz" refuses to enlist audience investment via sentiment, morality, or personal biography.

To your credit, you do recognize that there is something differentiating Munny from these earlier anti-heroes, namely his despair with violence, or what could be termed his guilt and self-consciousness. But I don't think that Munny refuses to throw away his guns simply to satisfy audience expectations, or even to satisfy them at all. For when he commits his final killings, the resonance is not celebratory or heroic, or "A man's got to do what a man's got to do," but rather one of a massacre, the kind of which we have become all too familiar with here in America. Munny may be fueled by righteous rage, but unlike many other anti-heroes, his violence functions more as an affliction or an addiction, as some sort of demonic sickness that he cannot cure despite his awareness. In that sense, and in the fact that he has killed women and children, William Munny in effect moves Harry Callahan that much closer to his doppelganger, Scorpio, almost bridging the two characters. What "Dirty Harry" vaguely alludes to and symbolizes, "Unforgiven" openly explores, to chilling effect.

My friend, I'm really not reading that long screed about Zimmerman, especially after you start off complaining that the defense failed to make the prosecution's case.

Your sense of self-defense in America is, however, simply laughable. Zimmerman is an ass, like so many who claim he's a murderer, but he's simply not guilty under the law.

If I wanted to read uninformed comments about the Trayvon Martin case, which I don't, I wouldn't be here.

You're the one who wanted to discuss the case, or who tried to do so. Just because you have virtually pledged allegiance to George Zimmerman (whom anyone objective would call a bad apple), as part of an apparent requirement of current conservatism, doesn't mean that my comments are uninformed at all. You can't have matters both ways: either discuss why you think that they're uninformed, or refrain from commenting at all. But hypocrisy is unacceptable.

Needless to say, you don't need to respond. But the "long screed" constituted two paragraphs (one of which was three sentences long); clearly, you're not going to accept any criticism of your boy, George Zimmerman.

Try to say SOMETHING accurate here. Your comments are deranged.

1. You brought up Zimmerman, not me, apropos of nothing rational.

2. I am hardly a Zimmerman supporter, much less have I "pledged allegiance to him."

I think he's an obvious ass, as I mentioned, who totally mishandled the situation. But none of that makes him guilty as charged.

3. I'm obviously not a "conservative" as any rational reading of my very public record makes clear.

4. Your long screed was a long screed as comments go. Maybe only a few sentences -- because you write in such run-on fashion -- but hundreds of words.

5. You had some idiot phrase here about being vastly better educated than me, but I don't see it now.

As I said, deranged.

Showing in a double-bill with early 70's James Coburn playing The Stainless Steel Rat.

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