Don Siegel | Subjects | Structure and Story Telling | Visual Style | Rankings

Films: Star in the Night | The Lineup | Madigan

Classic Film and Television Home Page

Don Siegel

Don Siegel is a Hollywood film and television director, active from the 1940's to the 1980's.

Critical commentary:

Don Siegel: Subjects

Locales: Communication and Information: Women: Men: Men and problems: Imagery:

Don Siegel: Structure and Story Telling

Narrators: Plot: Cinema:

Don Siegel: Visual Style

Architecture: Visual Style: Geometry: Camera Angles: Camera movement: Color: Costumes:


Here are ratings for various films directed by Don Siegel. Everything at least **1/2 is recommended.

Theatrical films:

Frontier: Montage sequences:

Star in the Night

Star in the Night (1945) is a short film, which retells the story of the Nativity in the U.S. Southwest. It is touching and emotionally involving.

The film is set in a desert motel and lunch room. It shows Siegel's fondness for hotels and places that house transients, often poor and socially alienated.

Star in the Night contrasts people who are bitter, and who have lost "normal" social feelings, with an ideal ability to relate to others. Such a contrast will later appear in the alienated crooked cops getting separated from humanity in Private Hell 36, the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and the alienated hit man in The Lineup.


The large high lit-up sign that gives Star in the Night its title, anticipates the red-and-blue sign in an early scene in Dirty Harry.

For more Siegel storytelling involving light emanating from machines, see the light test in the police crime lab in The Lineup.

The Lineup

A Semi-documentary

The Lineup (1958) is a late example of the semi-documentary crime thriller. The police sections especially follow the cops around in almost documentary fashion. In addition The Lineup features three standard components of semi-documentary films:
  1. A government team. In The Lineup, the San Francisco police.
  2. The team uses high technology. In The Lineup, a visit to the police crime lab.
  3. A finale in a spectacular industrial or technological area. In The Lineup, an unfinished freeway.
Unlike some semi-documentaries, no one from the police goes undercover. Nor are the police especially militarized here.

The police good guys in The Lineup, go after a gang of dope smugglers.


Influences on The Lineup: The contrast between the puzzled but ordinary local gangster (Richard Jaeckel) and the way-out imported hitman (Eli Wallich) will recur in Irving Lerner's Murder by Contract (1960).

Forward camera movement in corridors

Siegel likes to move his camera forward along interior corridors. This occurs both in the opera house, and in the Seaman's Club.

Wheeling Pans: revealing Architecture

He also includes pans in the interior of buildings, as well as exterior locations. His pans sometimes reveal whole aspects of facades, which wheel into view as he pans. These pans and tracks have a majestic quality, as large, imposing panoramas of building architecture are displayed.

The Lineup is most notable for its San Francisco location photography.


Horizontal zones - in pans. Siegel often organizes his images into a series of narrow horizontal zones. These zones extend from one side of the screen to the other. They form of series of thin parallel stripes. Siegel often makes these parts of panning shots. The zones keep extending through the whole length of the pan, so that at any given moment, the zone exists beyond the left and right hand boundary of the screen. The zones tend to be much thinner and more narrow, than those of other directors. And more numerous: zone after zone will be layered into a shot. It makes for a complex image, with many different kinds of activity going on in each zone. The zone can include people or spectators, as in the early shots of the port. It can also include different kinds of architecture or roadways.

Verticals. After the horizontal zones are set up, Siegel likes to introduce strong verticals into the composition as well. These can be towers of buildings, masts of ships, columns or pillars in front of buildings: Siegel loves such column structures on official locations. They can also be tall, repeating windows, telephone poles, or trees. These verticals often make their appearance after the horizontal stripes are introduced.

Curving lines on the ground. Siegel also likes curving lines extending along the ground, from the foreground to background of the shot. These are road sections, train tracks, car lanes, and other ground lines. These tend to be curved, not the straight perspective lines favored by some directors.


The big finale of The Lineup consists of a car chase along a highway. This takes the position of the "industrial location" finale of the semi-doc paradigm. It is not quite industrial. But it does involve a large, engineered object, in this case the highway. There are construction aspects here: part of the highway is unfinished. And it does take us to a high height: another popular characteristic of semi-doc finales.

The finale combines two visual motifs from earlier in the film:

This combines the bands-stripes structure with the curving line structure of Siegel's images.

The finale also embodies two other elements of the film's style. It has background panoramas of San Francisco. And it shoots from high elevations, looking down towards the ground.

The car chase finale was probably pretty hot stuff in 1958, and even still in 1968, when Andrew Sarris praised it in The American Cinema. But since then, it has been endlessly imitated. It seems to be the source and archetype for every freeway car chase made since that time. The half-built freeway, ending in mid-air, even shows up again in Speed (1994).

Links to Dirty Harry

The Lineup has basically the same plot as Siegel's later Dirty Harry: "Psychopathic mass-killer in San Francisco kidnaps and threatens to kill little girl, while San Francisco police try to catch him."

I confess I find both The Lineup and Dirty Harry hard to take, with their sick violence. I especially dislike Dirty Harry, and am floored by its seemingly eternal popularity. I can't stand Clint Eastwood either.

The police in The Lineup, however bland and boring, are at least trying to accomplish something. But the film keeps veering back to Eli Wallach's killer. I just don't like this character or want to see him.


Siegel's Police Films: the prototypes for 1970's TV cop shows

Madigan (1968) is another of Siegel's long line of films about the police. These mix crime action, police procedure, and looks at the personal lives of cops. Siegel's films emerged after the main run of semi-documentary films had come to an end in the early 1950's. Siegel's police movies partly build on this tradition. But they are also lower key and less glamorized in their treatment of the police. Siegel's policemen tend to be more like ordinary human beings, and less like heroic members of elite crime fighting units, as in the semi-docs.

Siegel's films in turn seem to be a principal model for the American TV crime shows of the 1970's. Siegel's films are closer to such TV police dramas, than are any other Hollywood feature films. Their tone of macho but gritty cops coping with mean streets and tough conditions in the precinct police house seems directly ancestral to TV drama. Even the "look" of Madigan, with its deglamorized squad rooms and tough looking suits for the men, seems like a blueprint for later TV. The fact that Madigan came out of Universal Studios, the home of so much American TV, might also have something to do with this continuity of style.

There are few ordinary male characters in Madigan. Everyone is either a cop, crook, street informer, or some with at least some connection to the criminal underworld. The women are entirely wives or girlfriends of cops or crooks. This too will be imitated in TV police shows. They purport to show us "the street", a place where all the men are tough, and where everyone is either a cop or a crook. Whether such a place actually exists, or whether it is simply a fantasy of the filmmakers of the era, is an open question.

The film intersperses the police melodrama, with man-woman interactions, showing the cops relate to the key women in their lives. This plot structure also recalls such earlier Siegel films as Private Hell 36 (1954). The temptation for cops to go on the take in Madigan also recalls the earlier film.

Siegel's cop films tend to end tragically. The male cops' professional life overflows in bad ways, swamping the beneficial personal relationships they have established with women.

Boxes: rectangular Regions in the composition

Much of Madigan takes place against architectural backgrounds - both the interior and exterior shots. These backgrounds tend to be made up of rectilinear areas: they have the form of a series of boxes put together. The backgrounds tend to be highly complex, with a large amount of variation present within each shot's background. The backgrounds look like a piece of modernist sculpture. They remind one of the Constructivist works created in early 20th Century Russia, and of the sculpture of De Stijl in Holland, both also made up of rectilinear solids. The boxes create both the strong verticals and strong horizontals that Siegel loves in his shots.

The film's interiors are also chosen to provide elaborate rectilinear effects. The hotel corridors at the end have enormously complex valences and grids along their upper walls. They seem like a piece of complex sculpture. Siegel underscores them, by having his police jump up and unscrew the ceiling light bulbs, thus calling attention to the upper walls.

And the bar has an unusual inner wall blocking off the booths - another one of Siegel's corridors. The booth with the suspect also has a huge rectangular pillar. Both the pillar and wall add to the rectilinear effect. One suspects that Siegel chose this bar, precisely to get the wall and pillar.


The architecture emphasizes three dimensional effects. Siegel likes to make parts of the image deeper than other parts. This mixture of shallow and deep areas is pleasing in itself. It also gives a sense of 3D: the variety of depth underscores the three dimensional nature of the architecture. Siegel likes corridors in the midst of the background, stretching away from the viewer. These corridors include alleys outdoors, and passages within the walls inside. Such corridors add a sense of 3D to the image. They allow the viewer's eye to imagine paths taken from the front to back of the corridor.

The up-the-staircase shot at the film's beginning recalls film noir, only with an extra long and narrow stairway opening for the widescreen era. The staircase well can be seen as a variant on the "corridor" effect used elsewhere in the film.

Siegel likes to shoot down his corridors from both ends - views that are 180 degrees from each other. This can lead to striking explorations of the corridors. And occasionally a bit of confusion about which direction we are looking in the corridor.

Three corridors are especially beautiful:

The Bridge. Near the opening, we see the pedestrian bridge over the tracks from two directions, one pointing straight down the street towards the bridge entrance, and a shot 180 degrees in the opposite direction, from within the bridge itself.

The train scene at the beginning involves 3D effects. The train and streets are on two levels, with an outdoor staircase going down. And the train and street are perpendicular as well. This makes for a complex geometry extending along all three axes. The region is visually fascinating. The bridge forms another of the film's corridors.

The Alleys. At the end of the film, Siegel creates a major corridor area, of the outdoor alleys outside of the hotel, where the police stake out the villain.

Siegel shoots in both directions in the alley. It is often confusing to know which direction Siegel is pointing his camera, here. The confusion is mild - the viewer knows that Siegel is aiming either one way or the other, and the variety adds surprise, variety, and a pleasant intellectual puzzle for the viewer at each new shot. It definitely does not follow the "180 degree rule", which states that filmmakers should always photograph a set from one side of an imaginary line. Instead, Siegel is all over this alley, from all directions.

The outdoor alleys are enormously complex. They curve away from a central point, before straightening out, and forming long straight alleys at an obtuse angle to each other. Siegel uses the two alleyways' angle to form a series of striking panning shots and compositions.

The alleys include train tracks on the ground, making a series of lines on the ground, which Siegel photographs from a slightly elevated angle. These recall ground tracks in The Lineup.

The alley is sometimes shot with a series of horizontal zones that recall The Lineup, as well. We see a band of buildings in the upper part of the shot, a band of street in the lower part of the shot. (Siegel creates a similar horizontal-zoned effect, in the earlier scene outside the bar, where the cops think the bad guy might be hiding. We see buildings in a horizontal zone above, the wide empty street in a horizontal zone below.) As in The Lineup, Siegel likes to combine such zone effects with panning shots.

Interspersed with the alleys, are photographs of the upper sections of buildings overlooking the alleys. These show some of the most beautiful and complex architecture in the movie. They are a climax of Siegel's interest in three dimensional, rectilinear constructs.

The Hotel Corridor. Near the film's end, Siegel also shows the interior corridor of the hotel's top floor itself.

In the hotel corridor, Siegel first has one shot from one end of the corridor, then a second shot taken from the other end of the corridor, in a complete reversal of orientation. It adds a striking progression to the two shots.


Madigan is carefully designed in color. Each section of the film has some dominant colors, which occur in broad swathes of the background and the clothes. The colors range from the bright to the subtle. Each section has its own color harmony. The colors help outline different regions of the background architecture, and bring out its structural features:

One of the shots at the end shows various street signs, through one of Siegel's alleys. The signs are in shades of white. Siegel's view cuts off much of their lettering, converting them into an abstract pattern of white rectangles. It is a striking, Mondrian-like composition.

Camera Movement: Pans and Long Takes

Madigan is full of panning shots. It also mixes these in with more complex kinds of camera movement. A shot can consist of a fusion of an elaborate camera movement, and a pan. Siegel is flexible and inventive.

Siegel prefers to work within a longer, moving camera take, when possible. The big romantic encounter outdoors, between Inger Stevens and Warren Stevens, consists of just two long takes. One has the characters walking from the hotel to the car; the other shows the action within the car itself. Both involve complex camera movement. The first shot starts out as a track, moving forward with the characters. Then it turns into a pan. The second shot keeps adjusting itself, as the characters find new positions within the car. The steering wheel and the seat of the car also provide the sculpture-like, 3D geometric forms favored by Siegel in his staging.

Other car scenes in the film also have their characters adjusting their positions: Don Stroud lies down in the back seat to avoid being seen. Siegel is inventive with body postures throughout the film, also showing people in bed and in chairs.

There are some vertical pans in Madigan, usually linked to architectural backgrounds:

Both shots are more than vertical pans. The apartment house shot has some horizontal sweep over New York City before its downward pan. And the staircase shot looks as if it begins with an actual upward movement of the camera, although this is hard to tell for sure.

Costumes: Suits and Hats

The police are always in coats and ties. They might take off their jackets, revealing white dress shirts, but they rarely loosen their ties. It gives a very formal effect. They are intermixed with uniformed officers, who also tend to be formally dressed and immaculately groomed. We see a large variety of New York police uniforms in the film, always of the dressiest kinds.

The men in suits always wear hats, and the uniformed officers always wear huge police caps with gleaming black visors. By 1968, most American men had stopped wearing hats entirely - President John F. Kennedy had made hats for men obsolete during his term of office (1960-1963). Such hats would become a symbol of traditional policemen - men in other professions stopped wearing hats. By the 1970's, Karl Malden on the police TV show The Streets of San Francisco would always wear a hat, as part of his characterization of an old-fashioned, traditional cop. This led to a million jokes by TV host Johnny Carson, about Karl Malden's hat. There is one striking shot towards the end of Harry Guardino without his hat; he is surrounded by other cops, all either in suits with hats or uniforms with caps.

Please see my article on the private eye TV series Mannix (1967-1975), where the cops are always in suits and ties, or in dressy uniforms.

The informer played by Don Stroud shows his hippie like non-conformism by wearing his hair just a bit long, and by wearing dark turtlenecks with his gray suit rather than a white dress shirt and tie. This is as informal as fashion gets here! Siegel is careful to keep off-screen the real extremes of 60's fashion, which were in full flower by 1968. It creates a whole stylized world, very different from what men were really wearing in the era. In this, it recalls a bit the similarly well-suited men in the crime thriller Le Samouraï (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1967). And such early police semi-documentaries as He Walked by Night (Anthony Mann, 1948).