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February 09, 2005

Robert Siodmak

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Robert Siodmak

These days, my appetite for blow-the-roof-off, one-of-a-kind works of filmmaking stupendiosity is occasional at best. What I'm more often in the mood for is storytelling done with crispness and economy. (All due acknowledgment paid to the fact that, if you're going to be a longterm filmgoer, you have to be grateful for whatever of worth happens to come along.) I haven't watched a Welles in years, for instance. Good god but many of his movies look like an awful lot of unnecessary carrying-on to me now. Yet I'm happily exploring the work of Robert Siodmak.

Do you know Siodmak's movies? An amazing talent: one of the guys who was reponsible for establishing and developing the film noir style of the 1940s, one of Hollywood's greatest achievements. Born into a banking family, Siodmak was a German Jew who found his way into the moviebiz, where he began as an editor and a writer of title cards for silent movies. He worked with the likes of Edgar Ulmer, Fred Zinneman, and Billy Wilder; fled Germany in 1933; and wound up in Hollywood in 1940. Robert's brother Curt Siodmak landed in Hollywood too, where he made a name for himself as a screenwriter, with "The Wolf Man" and "I Walked With a Zombie" among his credits. Don't laugh: both are first-rate movies.

Three of the Siodmak movies I've seen from the '40s -- "Phantom Lady," "The Killers," and "Criss Cross" -- are real gems. Siodmak was one of the exiled filmmakers who brought the style and mood of German Expressionism to bear on Hollywood genre stories, one of movie history's happier merging of elements.

"Phantom Lady"

"Phantom Lady," from a Cornell Woolrich story, is a small, early film noir about a man convicted of murder and the woman who tries to prove him innocent. The film's narrative is as compact and elegantly-turned as "Laura"'s, but the film's visual style (which is comparable to Fritz Lang's) is something else entirely. It's a knockout combo.

"The Killers" (from a Hemingway short story) and "Criss Cross" -- both of which star the charismatic young Burt Lancaster -- are intense and enjoyable crime pictures. Both are legendary for their pacing, their moodiness, and their spectacular action sequences. But they're remarkable as well for blending a focus on psychology with extraverted action stories.

We often imagine a psychological story to be one thing and an action story to be another. ("About Schmidt" is all psychology with very little action; "Die Hard 3" has mucho action but its psychological dimension is minimal, to be kind.) And often attempts at joining the two leave viewers feeling that the two sides are at war with each other. "Criss Cross" and "The Killers" show that that doesn't have to be the case. Both films are fast-moving yet moody; suspenseful yet full of depth -- shadows, geometry, and ambiguity.

And, like "Phantom Lady," they also have a sophisticated erotic awareness that's unusual in American pictures not just of that era but in American movies generally. One of the pleasures of watching these films, in fact, is in seeing how avidly and expertly the American actors respond to the challenge of bringing to the surface the sexual sides of their characters. Who knew that Grandma and Grandpa had this kind of funky, lowdown canniness in them?

Siodmak worked in other genres as well. His 1944 Maria Montez jungle vehicle "Cobra Woman" is a hoot -- a camp classic much beloved by Theater of the Ridiculous types. And 1945's "The Spiral Staircase" is a classy horror movie that's so atmospheric it might be called Gothic noir.

Siodmak didn't last long in Hollywood. He made the enjoyable satirical musical "The Crimson Pirate" with Burt Lancaster in 1952. But by then he'd had it with the business -- with the egos, the battles, the big money -- and he moved back to Europe. I haven't seen any of his later European pictures; they aren't easy to find, and they aren't very well-regarded. Siodmak died in Germany 1973.

"Criss Cross"

I find it odd that Siodmak isn't a bigger hero to film nerds than he is. Sorry to say I've got absolutely no theories about why this might be so. But the main reason he's cherished by a few filmbuffs is his "choreography." Let me venture an explanation. Imagine the various elements of a movie scene: light, dialog, movement, sound, narrative, performances, gestures, design. The question for a director is: how to blend, mix, stir, and present these elements so that they make sense; so they create the needed effect; and so that the results take a profitable place in the larger pattern that is the movie more generally?

That's what's meant by "the choreography" -- the director's attempts to make the elements of his film dance with each other. (The feeling you sometimes get that a scene has snapped into place shows that you're registering the film's choreography.) Siodmak shows choreographic brilliance in "Phantom Lady," "The Killers," and "Criss Cross." A hand emerges in closeup; the camera pans to reveal a silhouette in the distance; a curtain opens to throw light on someone making a confession; the film shifts into silent-movie mode in order to track the progress of a heist. And it all enhances the story.

One of the big challenges a stage director has is moving his characters on and offstage; as a film director, Siodmak is a master of moving characters on and offscreen. And watch the way he layers the action; he'll draw you into the act of looking from side to side, then surprise you by introducing dramatic depth. When this kind of play with logic and geometry is combined with an emphasis on dark/light contrasts, you get Expressionism, a style many people associate with dreams of being chased and hunted. It's a feeling of fatality, of psychological paranoia -- of bewildered individuals running for their lives through social and mental labyrinths. Inject this tone (which on its own can get juvenile very fast) into well-constructed (ie., adult) crime stories, make the whole thing crackle, and the result may well be noir poetry.

"Phantom Lady" isn't available on DVD, darn it, but it does show up regularly on Turner Classic Movies. "Criss Cross" is buyable here and Netflixable here. "The Spiral Staircase" can be bought here; oddly, it isn't available at Netflix. "The Killers" can be obtained as part of a Criterion twofer (the other disc is a Don Siegel version of the story from the 1960s); the package can be bought here and Netflixed here. Here's a good discussion of some of Siodmak's movies by Michael Grost. Chris Justice has written an informative essay about Siodmak for Senses of Cinema.



posted by Michael at February 9, 2005


I saw Siodmak's Son of Dracula the other day for the first time. Really good it was, too, much better than a Universal horror film from 1943 (in other words, a decade after Universal's horror films peaked) has any right to be and a considerable improvement on Tod Browning's original. Goes to show, I suppose, what a genre movie can do when a really good director is put in charge of it...

Posted by: James Russell on February 9, 2005 11:35 PM

Nothing original in this observation, but the essence of film noir is putting the nightmare on screen. There's something hypnotic about watching a nightmare (not having one).

The cameramen played a big part in film noir: that chiarascuro lighting; those tilted camera angles.

It's interesting that Lancaster, who is such an All American type, had something hidden in him that clicked with noir.

Posted by: ricpic on February 10, 2005 1:50 PM

I've really got to see some Siodmak...I've been promising myself to do so for decades now.

A note to Mr. Russell: I understand Tod Browning, who was an assistant to D.W. Griffith on "Intolerance" (!) made some amazing silent horror movies with Lon Chaney. Sort of astonishing to contemplate that he may have been past his prime when he made "Dracula."

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 14, 2005 5:08 AM

Well in the case of Dracula there's some debate over who exactly directed what. There are those—including one of the film's stars, David Manners, who apparently got paid about four times what Bela Lugosi got for playing the title role—who say Browning's involvement was, shall we say, less than total. Indeed, Manners claimed that all of his scenes were, in fact, directed by Browning's cinematographer Karl Freund. Which may well have been the case; I gather than even contemporary reviews of the film puzzled over the disparity in quality between the first part of the film and the rest of it, as if two different men had helmed the film.

Browning had wanted Lon Chaney to do the film, but the latter's death obviously scuttled that plan. Probably the best of their surviving joint efforts is an amazing film called The Unknown. When a film made in 1927 leaves me squealing with horror at its climax, it's got to have something going for it.

Anyway, Michael, I just popped in to note that one of Siodmak's later German films is going to be shown on TV here in a few weeks' time. If you're interested I'll report back with an observation of it...

Posted by: James Russell on February 16, 2005 8:49 AM

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