Not to second-guess, but Film Forum's decision to open a Don Siegel retro with Charley Varrick isn’t exactly a flattering introduction to their subject's talents. Languidly unraveling the consequences of Walter Matthau’s inadvertent heist of Mob money during the starting-gun bank job, Siegel prods tired character quirks (old lady frightened of "mashers"; soft-spoken hit man, etc.) towards their marks; the par-for-the-70’s-crime-thriller-course sex ‘n’ sadism is singularly joyless. Almost nothing remains of the trim virtues present even in his earliest output.
Take his debut, The Verdict, an inelegantly plotted perfect crime scenario straight out of the drawing room, propped up by choice fogbound framings of the inevitable Victorian-facsimile backlot. (It’s also a casting oddity: marvel that Peter Lorre, at his most self-parodically misshapen, is provided with a nearly responsive love interest, and that Sydney Greenstreet was pinged for the lead even with his corpulence so visibly sapping him of energy and inflection.) Its double feature partner, The Big Steal, reunites Robert Mitchum with his Out of the Past inamorata Jane Greer (Mitchum’s ideal onscreen foil, probably because she had such a well-tuned bullshit detector) for a caper fallout chase sparking with pidgin Spanish and unsentimental romantic banter.
Most atypical for Siegel is The Beguiled, starring his flinty muse Clint Eastwood as a wounded Union soldier convalescing in a sequestered Deep South school for girls. It’s a Gothic premise and a lush, viny atmosphere, but Siegel’s rhythms favor the staccato strains of primal instincts over restraint: as period pieces about the repressed sexual urges of laced-up schoolgirls go, it’s a far more libidinous precursor to a certain Peter Weir movie. (Picnic at Hanging Cock, anyone? Um, strike that.) But it climaxes too soon; Act Three can’t maintain proportion once the passions Eastwood unsuccessfully manipulates boil over into fervid release. (It screens with Two Mules for Sister Sarah, the best Western ever made about the Madonna/Whore Complex.)
The series centerpiece (and the selection most representative of Siegel’s narrative economy) is Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a Cold War shockwave emanating from the far right—The Day The Earth Stood Still’s wild-eyed ideological counterargument. Progressive admirers may frame the allegory as a critique of the Red Scare mentality rather than an embodiment, but its ripe paranoia over an insidious, corrupting menace-from-within (one whose credo reads like the lyrics to “Imagine”) makes even the most liberal viewer think twice about the fluoridation of drinking water.