Few people, apart from film buffs, recognize the name Donald Siegel, but since the 1940’s Mr. Siegel had directed some of the best American films ever made. Critics either hated or despised him both for pandering to popular tastes and for refusing to pander to the political prejudices of the intellectuals. The original Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (1956) was widely interpreted as a McCarthyist film, which it was, but it was also much more: a film horrifying enough to make sleep itself an object of terror, it warned us (like Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinocéros) that already in the 1950’s Americans were losing that individualism which was our primary virtue. All of Siegel’s best heroes were men who accepted responsibility and did what they had to do in an America run by bureaucrats and zombies: Kevin McCarthy, holding onto his humanity and screaming “They’re Coming,” Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry, sacrificing his career in order to protect the public, and John Wayne as the aging gunman John B. Book in The Shootist (1976), the last good Western and a film tribute to John Ford.

Almost a reprise of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Siegel’s last major film cast Wayne as a rugged and honorable Westerner dying of cancer and Jimmy Stewart as the doctor who treats him. Something has happened to the West since men like Book had roamed free, and it is now dominated by cowardly businessmen and unprincipled punks whose violence earns the admiration of young men with no better models to turn to. Book cleans up the town and dies honorably in one grand gesture that teaches a young Ron Howard how to be a man without being drawn into the cult of violence.

At the end of Dirty Harry, Eastwood throws away his badge, and at the end of The Shootist Ron Howard throws away his gun. Siegel was no pacifist, but he recognized in all his films that neither politics nor even law can solve the problems spawned by a corrupt and decadent society. Rumor has it that Siegel quit Magnum Force because Eastwood insisted on twisting the picture into a statement against police vigilantes. Under Siegel’s tutelage, Eastwood became one of the most consistently interesting directors in Hollywood, but the real Dirty Harry—the man who would rather quit than compromise—was Don Siegel.