How to get into... film noir master Robert Siodmak

German-born director Robert Siodmak has more A-grade film noirs to his name than just about anyone else, but where to start with a career that spanned four decades and as many countries?

The File on Thelma Jordon (1950)
Robert Siodmak

Robert Siodmak was a man of contradictions. Some were of his own devising, others were thrust upon him. They start at birth, with some sources claiming his birthplace as Memphis, Tennessee, while others give Leipzig or Dresden. Critic Andrew Sarris reckoned that his American films were more Germanic than his German ones, while others feud over whether he was an auteur who helped define film noir or a studio hack whose work was decidedly mediocre when not abetted by quality craftsmen. Moreover, while Siodmak was feted in some quarters as the new Fritz Lang or Alfred Hitchcock, he was appreciated in others as a master of kitsch.

So, how do you start to fathom such a self-effacing enigma? Some of the answers lie in an eventful life history that saw his Jewish banking family endure the hardships of the Depression before Siodmak left Berlin for Paris and then France for the United States, as the Nazis rolled across Europe. There are also clues in the films he made before he reached Hollywood, as the optimistic naturalism of People on Sunday (1929) – which he produced with his writer brother Curt, roommate Billy Wilder and friends Fred Zinnemann, Edgar G. Ulmer and Eugen Schüfftan – was first replaced by the claustrophobic expressionism that characterised UFA pictures like the Emeric Pressburger-scripted Abschied (1930) and the 1933 adultery saga, The Burning Secret (which led to Joseph Goebbels branding Siodmak “a corrupter of the German family”) and then by the nascent noir morbidity that pervaded Gallic outings like Mollenard (1937) and Pièges (1939). But the true Siodmak style only started to emerge in Hollywood towards the end of the Second World War. 

Where to start

Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner in The Killers (1946)

Siodmak didn’t patent the noir formula, but he showed how to blend German expressionism and French existentialism with American angst and, in the process, he directed more canonical landmarks than anyone else in the new genre’s heyday. Dismayed by the world around him, Siodmak examined societal injustice, domestic turmoil, gender conflict, sexual repression, psychological trauma and the rise of the career criminal. Preferring to shoot on controllable studio sets rather than on location, he used deep-focus photography, precise camera moves, meticulously designed mises-en-scène and sculpted lighting effects to create milieux beset by paranoia, greed, lust, obsession and violence. Multiple flashbacks, rapid cuts, mirrored images and unsettling scores reinforced the sense of urban alienation, moral decay and nightmarish paranoia.

These formal and thematic concerns dominate the loose crime trilogy that Siodmak produced in the immediate postwar period. Adapted uncredited by John Huston from an Ernest Hemingway story, The Killers (1946) became known as the ‘Citizen Kane of noir’ on account of the intricate network of flashbacks that allow insurance investigator Edmond O’Brien to discover the role that Ava Gardner played in the duping of both mobster Albert Dekker and ex-boxer Burt Lancaster. Elwood Bredell’s cinematography is grimly atmospheric, with the heist sequence filmed in a single take from a swooping crane being justly celebrated. But, while the performances are exceptional, it’s the baroque bleakness of Siodmak’s Oscar-nominated direction that ensures this reeks of abject pessimism and hard-boiled doom.

Although the visuals are less stylised, there is still plenty of pitiless villainy in Cry of the City (1948), which follows cop Victor Mature’s bid to prevent childhood pal Richard Conte from leading his kid brother into a life of crime. Making evocative use of locations in New York’s Little Italy, Siodmak creates realist poetry from the rain-soaked tarmac and uses his formulaic story to expose the squalor, corruption and treachery of the mean streets. Franz Planer’s views of the Bunker Hill area of Los Angeles are equally atmospheric in Criss Cross (1948), which sees femme fatale Yvonne De Carlo lure ex-husband Burt Lancaster into robbing his armoured car with her new gangster beau, Dan Duryea. Establishing the template for the heist caper, this has been described as Siodmak’s most American film and its twisting fatalism captures the mood of a nation ill-at-ease with itself.

Cry of the City (1948)

What to see next

The Spiral Staircase (1946)

“I have done little that has pleased me,” Siodmak complained in his later years. “Perhaps one scene, five minutes, no more, in each picture.” But few explored the psychological flaws of their characters with such forensic lyricism and such was his stylistic mastery that he was able to overcome narrative shortcomings to produce cogent and compelling thrillers like Phantom Lady (1944), which was somewhat pulpily adapted by Bernard C. Schoenfeld from one of Cornell Woolrich’s William Irish novels.

This was Siodmak’s first noir and he conspired with cinematographer Elwood Bredell to wreathe Manhattan and Long Island in Universal’s trademark expressionist shadows to convey the mistrust, venality and duplicity that secretary Ella Raines discovers as she endures a heatwave to prove that boss Alan Curtis didn’t murder his wife. In the first of her four collaborations with Siodmak, Raines defined the plucky noir heroine, while he used the jazz soundtrack to reinforce the mood and the seedy settings to offer a little social critique.

The emphasis was more on disconcerting entertainment in The Spiral Staircase (1945), which teamed Siodmak with Val Lewton’s regular cinematographer and composer, Nicholas Musuraca and Roy Webb. Adapted from a novel by Ethel Lina White, this was acme ‘old dark house’ fare, in which mute Dorothy McGuire and widowed invalid Ethel Barrymore are stalked by a serial killer of women with physical handicaps. Every cliché of the Gothic chiller is exploited and enhanced by canted angles, subjective perspectives and reflective surfaces so that the prowling, deep-focus visuals and jarring sound effects keep the audience in a state of seat-edge dread.

Anticipating giallo, Siodmak himself provided the killer’s hands and eyes in the unnerving close-ups. He had landed the assignment when Fritz Lang proved unavailable and he took on The File on Thelma Jordon (1950) when Otto Preminger passed on it. Echoing Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), this was Siodmak’s final Hollywood noir and he instils a little humanity in Barbara Stanwyck’s femme fatale, as she develops feelings for Assistant DA Wendell Corey after involving him in the nefarious goings on at her wealthy aunt’s estate. Cynicism seeps through Ketti Frings’ screenplay, as Siodmak and cinematographer George Barnes deftly contrast light and shade to ruminate upon Stanwyck’s conflicted character.

Delving deeper…

Siodmak maintained a remarkably high level of consistency during his seven years at Universal. However, not every picture met with critical approval and it’s only recently that the merits of a quartet of melodramas involving spouses and siblings have been appreciated. Casting is crucial in all four features, but especially in the W. Somerset Maugham adaptation, Christmas Holiday (1944). Who else would have thought of Gene Kelly as the psychotic mommy’s boy tracking singer wife Deanna Durbin to New Orleans after escaping from prison?

Christmas Holiday (1944)

Charles Laughton is more perfectly suited to the role of the Edwardian London shopkeeper in The Suspect (1945), who is driven to kill shrewish wife Rosalind Ivan because of his crush on stenographer Ella Raines. This take on James Ronald’s novel The Way Out was a rare period departure for Siodmak, but he still concocts a gripping psychological thriller that finds a companion in The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945), a reworking of Thomas Job’s Broadway play that has New Hampshire fabric designer George Sanders poison the wrong sister when hectoring  hypochondriac Geraldine Fitzgerald expresses her disapproval of his relationship with visiting New York colleague Ella Raines.

Siodmak was furious when Universal bowed to Breen Office pressure to change the ending, but he was given a freer hand in chronicling psychologist Lew Ayres’s bid to discover which Olivia De Havilland is the evil twin in The Dark Mirror (1946). Nunnally Johnson’s interpretation of Vladimir Pozner’s novel is stuffed with cod-Freudian jargon. But, even though the plot creaks in places, the performances are splendidly committed and Siodmak and cinematographer Milton Krasner make ingenious use of split screens and reflective surfaces to sustain the suspense.

Wild cards and guilty pleasures

Notwithstanding his reputation for sombre cityscapes and psychological disturbance, Siodmak also had a playful side. Following the five forgettable Bs he made at Paramount after arriving in Hollywood, he was hired by Universal to bring some expressionist menace to Son of Dracula (1943). Lon Chaney Jr plays Count Alucard in his sole vampiric outing and has the distinction of being the first to transform into a bat on screen, as he seeks to seduce southern belle Louise Allbritton by exploiting her interest in the occult.

Cobra Woman (1944)

Maria Montez also changes form after Chaney’s mute abducts her in Cobra Woman (1944) and transports her to the South Sea island where her wicked twin is conducting a reign of terror. Siodmak conceded that the ‘Caribbean Cyclone’ “couldn’t act from here to there”. But her exoticism in the wondrously frenetic trance dance sequence gave Siodmak’s Technicolor debut an irresistible camp appeal that made it a firm favourite of avant-gardists Kenneth Anger and Jack Smith.

And just to prove that this sly wartime allegory wasn’t a swashbuckling fluke, Siodmak put Burt Lancaster through his acrobatic paces in The Crimson Pirate (1952), a widescreen Technicolor homage to the derring-do of Douglas Fairbanks that made little attempt to hide its contempt for the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. Filmed on the Italian island of Ischia and on soundstages at Teddington Studios, this rousing romp proved an unhappy experience and Siodmak was content to see out the remainder of his career in Europe, although he did return Stateside for a last hurrah with Custer of the West (1967), which he took on after Fred Zinnemann, Lindsay Anderson and Akira Kurosawa had declined.

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