Siegel studied at Jesus College, Cambridge, and at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. After a brief stint as an actor, he joined Warner Brothers studios near Hollywood as an assistant film librarian. He later worked as an editor before joining the studio’s montage department, where he contributed to Now, Voyager (1942), Casablanca (1942), and Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), among other films.
Siegel’s first directorial efforts were the short films Star in the Night and Hitler Lives? (uncredited; both 1945); they both won Academy Awards and resulted in his graduating to features. His first was The Verdict (1946), a solid Scotland Yard period piece that was the eighth and last movie to feature the popular on-screen team of Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre. Night unto Night was shot in 1947 but not released until 1949. The romantic drama featured Ronald Reagan as an epileptic scientist and Viveca Lindfors as a widow haunted by her late husband; Siegel and Lindfors were married from 1949 to 1954. He next made The Big Steal (1949), a lighthearted crime yarn that reunited Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer, the stars of Jacques Tourneur’s noir classic Out of the Past (1947). Although not up to that level, The Big Steal showed Siegel’s facility with hard-boiled action, the genre in which he would eventually make his reputation.
First, however, Siegel struggled through The Duel at Silver Creek (1952), an uninspired Audie Murphy western; No Time for Flowers (1952), an unsatisfying rework of Ernst Lubitsch’s comedy classic Ninotchka (1939); and the fast-moving but far-fetched melodrama Count the Hours (1953), in which Macdonald Carey played an attorney defending a migrant worker (John Craven) who is wrongly convicted of murder. Siegel next made China Venture (1953), a middling World War II drama that pitted a U.S. Marine commando unit against Japanese soldiers.
In 1954 Siegel registered his first major critical and commercial success with Riot in Cell Block 11, a classic prison drama made for producer Walter Wanger, who