Monday, March 20, 2006

A Siegel Film: The Verdict (1946)

The first in a series of appreciations of the work of director Don Siegel, courtesy of the current retrospective of his work at New York's Film Forum.

1946's The Verdict marks the feature directorial debut of Don Siegel. If we're a long way off from the man who became powerful and influential enough to attach the flamboyant "A Siegel Film" credit to his work, we're already witnessing a director of generous talent with a keen eye for simple but effective visual style.

Like much of Siegel's work, the story is dark but the tone is light: the enormous Sydney Greenstreet plays a disgraced police inspector in London of the 1890s, forced out of his job by a young buck (Citizen Kane's George Coulouris) after he sends an innocent man to his death. Soon after, Greenstreet's character finds himself neighbor to a rather unsolvable murder, and he delights in watching Coulouris' character fumble about as he conducts an investigation of his own, with the aid of his friend Victor, played with boundless insouciance by a never-better Peter Lorre.

Lorre and Greenstreet appeared together many times — in Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon and in lesser known films like Three Strangers and The Mask of Dimitrios — and The Verdict is, if IMDb is to be believed, their final pairing. Their on-screen chemistry benefited from the frequent teamings: by this stage in their partnership they have an utterly believable rapport as two long-time drinking buddies who chuckle in the face of death and chortle in the face of liver failure. They make for such an odd visual pair: the diminutive Lorre and the enormous Greenstreet, but the caliber of their back-and-forth banter levels the playing field and makes it clear they are, at least intellectually speaking, equals.

Siegel's visual prowess would only grow with time, but his talent for comedy, mystery, and bubbling undercurrents of repressed sexuality is already remarkably assured. Frequent Siegel motifs — the blurry line between cop and criminal, the moral implications of revenge, the great man facing a world that no longer needs him — all make appearances, and I was reminded more than once of Dirty Harry and The Shootist in particular.

His camera movement in particular is exquisite: in the most dynamic example, Siegel puts us in the center of the film's courtroom climax through the use of a dizzying and impossible pan, which whips from the judge to the jury to the accussed to the real murder and the other major characters in the span of about five seconds. In one shot, the fate of the entire cast is sealed. It's an unforgettable image.

Soon to come, Emmet on the equally entertaining The Big Steal, and we are just getting started. Our "A Siegel Film" spotlight will soldier on with looks at lots of other great Siegel obscurities including (we hope) Crime in the Streets, Hell is For Heroes, The Beguiled and more. Be reading, people. Be reading.


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