There are some directors – not that many, but happily there are enough of them – who knock you for six the first time you encounter one of their films, with the result that you not only remember that particular epiphany for years to come but immediately want to see more of their work.
When this occurs, you feel as if you’ve seen something fresh and exciting: something which in one respect or another is quite unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. Very often, of course, when this happens, the director in question is one of the established greats: an Orson Welles, an Ingmar Bergman, a Yasujiro Ozu or a Satyajit Ray. Or it may be someone contemporary who appears to be pioneering new ways of looking at or depicting the world: a Claire Denis or an Abbas Kiarostami, a Jane Campion or a Jia Zhangke. Or it might be someone whose trademark is their very eccentricity, a Werner Herzog or a David Lynch. In most such cases, it’s usually the entire film you remember.
Sometimes, however, you get knocked for six by someone who’s neither up there at the very top of the cinematic pantheon, nor one of today’s innovators, nor remotely bizarre. Someone who’s just a very fine filmmaker possessed of the very welcome capacity to surprise. In these instances, it’s often a particular scene or sequence that works the revelatory magic, rather than the whole movie. Not that it makes much difference: it still sticks in your memory, and you still want to check out further works by the filmmaker in question.
One such epiphany for me was Phantom Lady, one of several movies directed in 1944 by Robert Siodmak; the scene, set in a dark, cramped dive where a jazz jam session is taking place, depicted a woman’s attempt to seduce a drummer she suspects knows a thing or two about a murder case she’s investigating. I first saw the film in the late 1970s, when I was beginning to dive deep into jazz; I was immediately struck by its authentic atmosphere, its brazen conflation of near-ecstatic musical and sexual excitement, its perfectly paced editing and its sharp, shadowy, angled visuals. And I was also struck by the way form expertly complemented content.
I enjoyed the rest of the film hugely, but this scene especially aroused both admiration and curiosity. What else had this Siodmak made? Watching his films whenever I could at the Electric Cinema Club (where I then worked) or on television – at that time very few people had their own home video – I caught up with gems like The Suspect (1944), The Killers (1946), The Dark Mirror (1946) and Criss Cross (1949): every one a winner.
I also discovered that Siodmak, because he’d been a successful German director who went into exile because of the rise of the Nazis, and who eventually washed up in Hollywood where he became one of the finest exponents of what later became known as film noir, was often likened to his better known compatriot Fritz Lang. But that point of reference – perhaps inevitable under the circumstances – worked against Siodmak, and needlessly so. Certainly Lang was the greater artist – indeed, he remains a towering figure in the history of film – and ranged rather more widely in terms of genre, story and style than Siodmak. Still, as a purveyor of intelligent, classy crime films notable both for their astute psychological insights and a highly expressive visual style, Siodmak was without doubt an important and influential director.
One of the things that makes much of Siodmak’s work so satisfying is this: while it is in many ways the embodiment of film noir, it also transcends noir, in that it delivers rather more than one has come to expect from strictly generic fare. The characters seldom feel like types, but are vividly realised as individuals. The stories are related deftly and economically, yet leave enough space for good conversation, expertly staged action and those bits of seemingly insignificant, incidental but subtly telling business that give the impression of the world on view being pretty much the same as the one we live in.
An exemplary case in point is Cry of the City, selected by the BFI for a special rerelease to tie in with BFI Southbank’s Siodmak season. Made in 1948, the film chronicles the efforts of a New York detective, Candella (Victor Mature), to nail a gangster, Martin Rome (Richard Conte), whom he’s known since childhood. So far, so familiar. But this is considerably more than just another formulaic noir flick about two guys from the same neighbourhood who went their different ways. For one thing, there’s the characterisation: Rome, as played by Conte, is never glamorised – we see his cruel side, and see the effects his life of crime has had on his family – yet he’s in many respects more charismatic than the dependable but dull, perhaps unhealthily driven Candella.
Moreover, subsidiary characters are so carefully portrayed – a shyster lawyer, a massive, menacing masseuse, a European immigrant doctor driven to desperate measures – that they too remain indelibly etched in the memory. Then there are the meticulously created settings – a hospital, a prison, a subway station, the Rome family’s cluttered home in Little Italy – which lend the film a rare whiff of authenticity.
Stylised the film may be, but subtly, so that the plotting, places and people all feel real, and not merely movie tropes. This mixture of atmospheric authenticity and assured cinematic style can be compared to what is found in some of the early films of Scorsese – Mean Streets (1973) is probably the title that springs to mind. I shouldn’t like to make too much of any resemblance, but as with the best of Scorsese, one does get the impression that Siodmak, here as in his marvellous debut People on Sunday (1930), displayed an unusually keen understanding of the world he was depicting. It lives…
Oh yes; and you want an epiphany? Watch out for the initial appearance on screen of Hope Emerson as the masseuse. Noir rarely came any better.
A Robert Siodmak season played at BFI Southbank from April-May 2015.
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