Dark Mirrors

The dual cinema of Robert Siodmak
by David Cairns  posted June 3, 2010
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If film noir had not somehow coalesced from a miasma of influences floating in the atmosphere of '40s America—postwar disillusion and anxiety, French poetic realism, German Expressionism, the gangster movie, and pulp fiction traditions—perhaps only Fritz Lang or Robert Siodmak could have invented it. Lang, because his work always carried a dark worldview, filtering sociopolitical tensions and focusing them into intense, ecstatic, tortured images. Siodmak, because his movies already followed two normally divergent paths—social realism and expressionist nightmare—which converge to make noir.

Unless we accept this, Siodmak's debut, People on Sunday (1930), may seem aberrant, a plot-free, actorless pseudo-documentary evocation of ordinary Berliner holiday-making, a very late silent film made by artists still somewhat on the fringes of the film industry (Siodmak's collaborators included Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann, and Edgar G. Ulmer, all of whom would make notable noir films in Hollywood). But the desire to get the life of the streets up there on the screen is a sublimated undercurrent of nearly all film noir, and the desire to address social issues through crime fiction animated the work of noir practitioners like Edward Dmytryk, Orson Welles, and Jules Dassin.

Two other factors make Siodmak's development toward his seemingly inevitable flowering as a noir practitioner less clear than it might be. First, his early German films after People on Sunday, and the French movies that followed them, are quite hard to see, especially with English translation. And second, some of the projects that point to Siodmak's social concerns from later in his career are equally obscure (Die Ratten, 1955) or else do not exist (his planned film of On the Waterfront, eventually made by Elia Kazan).

Siodmak's films of the '30s are a varied lot (even after he became typed as an American thriller director his movies roved all over the genre map), with several crime movies among them, but uncategorizable entries like The Burning Secret (1933) and Mr. Flow (1936) too. A few stylistic impulses do emerge with consistency: a love of fluid, sinuous tracking shots, sometimes simulating an imaginary point of view; an interest in dreams and psychology, sometimes expressed with sophistication, sometimes with comic-book naïveté; low-key, chiaroscuro lighting, marking out bold, expressive compositions; a passion for location shooting complemented by its alternative, the elaborate reconstruction of real-world locations in the studio.

The surprise success of People on Sunday brought Siodmak into the fold at UFA, where studio boss Erich Pommer encouraged him to experiment. The result was Abschied (Farewell, 1930), written by Emeric Pressburger and dealing with the varied inhabitants of a cheap boardinghouse. The film effectively transferred the daylight reality of Siodmak's debut into a shadowy interior world of the soundstage, while preserving the interest in ordinary people and their apparently undramatic lives. The mixing of reality and artifice is both persuasive and playful: even the music is played "live" by a character in the film, pianist Erwin Bootz, as himself, and Siodmak laid the foundation stones for his reputation as a starmaker by discovering Brigitte Horney, who became one of German cinema's most popular leading ladies.

Der Mann, der seinen Mörder sucht (Looking for His Murderer, 1931), co-scripted by Billy Wilder from a notion swiped from Jules Verne, is a deliberately grotesque comedy about a debt-ridden schlemiel (Heinz Rühmann) who hires an assassin to bump him off, then falls in love and changes his mind. So convincingly shadowy was Siodmak's evocation of the Berlin underworld that he may even have influenced Lang's M, made the same year, but the visuals, pure noir expressionism, are subverted by Franz Waxman's cabaret-style score, which also produces the film's sound effects, with a snare drum standing in for pistol shots.

Voruntersuchung (The Investigation, 1931) applies the grimmer aspects of black comedy to a true-crime scenario, following the progress of a criminal case from detection to conviction. Based on a politically controversial play exposing the faults in Weimar Germany's judicial system, Siodmak's film takes a forensic approach to storytelling—with due attention paid to street signs, addresses, name plates—coupled with a bawdy enthusiasm for the sleaze and decadence of the criminal world, observed with a relish for disgust that suggests a George Grosz cartoon.

The grime and darkness of this film were developed further in Stürme der Leidenschaft (Storms of Passion, 1932), a foreshadowing of Siodmak's Hollywood noirs, particularly The Killers (1946) and Criss Cross (1949). Here, all the elements are in place and fully developed: a doomed hero locked in a fatal romance with an unworthy woman; scenes of violence and criminality set in a chiaroscuro, stylized evocation of very specific real-world environment. Siodmak shot the film in two versions for the German and French markets, with Charles Boyer substituting for Emil Jannings in the French release, Tumultes.

After an odd divergence into musical comedy, Quick (1932), notable mainly for its crazy health spa sets, seemingly spoofing Lang's Metropolis, Siodmak made a noteworthy film of Stefan Zweig's Brennendes Geheimnis (Burning Secret) in 1933. A misty, moody tale of a boy who discovers his mother's infidelity and must decide whether to expose or protect her, it was to be his last German film, as political circumstances forced him to emigrate to France. The peripatetic nature of Siodmak's career has worked against his reputation, since so few of his films are readily available in any of the countries he worked in, and it also meant that he was continually trying to reestablish himself in fresh environments.

In Paris, Siodmak found himself employed on several romps in a lighter vein. La Crise est finie (1934) and La Vie parisienne (1935) are zestful musicals, employing Siodmak's intense visual imagination in flamboyant sequences that approach the delirium of Busby Berkeley. Siodmak eventually found his way back to a life of crime with Cargaison blanche (Woman Racket, 1937), which dealt with the white slave trade in a sensationalistic but dynamic way. Now on something of a roll, he followed this with Mollenard (1938), starring the great Harry Baur, a docklands melodrama reeking with atmosphere and vice, the photography by Eugen Schüfftan dripping with shadows. Strangely structured, with an adventure story in Shanghai sandwiched with a domestic drama in Dunkirk (spectacular views of the town before it was bombed flat in the war), the movie was a favorite of the French left, and its scathing view of a society riven by hypocrisy and vice seems a remarkably bold statement from a German Jewish filmmaker, a man potentially unpopular on both sides of the deeply polarized political scene. As with so many later Siodmak films, the unhappy couple at its center represent a divided self, ego and id, with the piratical sea captain, a crook and an arms dealer, closer to humanity than his outwardly respectable, embittered, and sadistic wife. When Baur falls sick (in a bravura display of finely detailed anguish), Siodmak manages to make us root for him to succeed in a suicide attempt rather than be nursed by his vile spouse.

With 1939's Pièges (remade by Douglas Sirk in Hollywood as Lured, 1947) Siodmak climaxed his French career with a fast-paced serial killer investigation story. Marie Déa, a quick-thinking taxi dancer, is recruited by the police to ensnare a murderer who contacts his victims through the personal ads. As with later noirs like Phantom Lady and The Killers, the strong story spine supports an episodic series of suspense sequences that involve various strange or tragic characters. The search for the pathological killer takes us from the underworld to the high-class nightclub run by chief suspect and romantic interest Maurice Chevalier, who always had a somewhat untrustworthy quality about him, here exploited to excellent effect.

Having scaled the heights of the French industry, Siodmak then had to start afresh in Hollywood, where he directed a series of B pictures at Paramount and Universal. Few of these have been easy to see, but Fly-by-Night (1942) is an amusing thriller, borrowing nearly all its tropes from Hitchcock's innocent-man-on-the-run spy stories and employing a small army of émigré actors as both Nazi spies and brilliant scientists. At low-rent Republic, Siodmak made a miniature masterpiece in Someone to Remember (1943), a sentimental tale about an elderly gentlewoman longing for the return of her prodigal son, playing fairy godmother to the young man she believes may be her grandson. Filmed in long, elegant takes suggested by Murnau and anticipating later Ophüls, the film is sweet, beautiful, and deeply touching—qualities rarely associated with Siodmak..

Siodmak was able to sell the story for Conflict (1945), a psychological thriller about a wife-murderer that encapsulates scores of his favorite themes, but did not have the clout to land the director's job, which went to fellow émigré Curtis Bernhardt. The marital discord, pop psychology, persecution mania and expressionistic atmosphere are all echoed in Siodmak's most personal films.

Son of Dracula (1943), from a story by Siodmak's brother Curt, which has strong atmospheric staging and some eerie special effects (Dracula glides over a lake like an undead Christ) but suffers from unspeakable dialogue. As the Count, Lon Chaney Jr. is just a threatening thug. Perhaps Dracula, who has no reflection, was a bad subject for a filmmaker as obsessed with mirror images and shadows as Siodmak. After Dracula slithered Cobra Woman (1944), with Chaney again, plus Sabu, Jon Hall and an arthritic chimpanzee, all of them blasted off the screen by the spangly Queen of Technicolor, Maria Montez. Cobra Woman probably represents the pinnacle of Montez's somewhat inexplicable career. A triumph of self-belief over talent, the movie raises the bar on camp to stratospheric levels, with tiki bar décor, Flash Gordon costumes, and two Marias, one good, one evil (about the only thing the film has in common with Metropolis). Somehow Siodmak, who coaxed startling performances from apparently miscast actors throughout his career (Deanna Durbin as a whore, George Sanders as a shy, virginal designer of wallpaper patterns), draws from Montez her most spectacularly inept work ever, hilarious in every detail. She can't even point convincingly.

Just when Siodmak's career looked set to follow the downward spiral of his brother's, he forged a productive alliance with Joan Harrison, former secretary to Alfred Hitchcock, who helped him make a series of thrillers exploiting the qualities that had already brought him to prominence in Germany and France. Phantom Lady (1944) captures the irrational nightmare feeling of Cornell Woolrich's source novel better than most adaptations, with Siodmak adding his own layer of dollar-book Freud. Cinematographer Woody Bredell was encouraged to study Rembrandt, and note how the viewer's eye was instinctively drawn to the most shadowy parts of the image. Turning a low budget to advantage, Siodmak moves his fine cast (Ella Raines, Franchot Tone, Thomas Gomez, Elisha Cook Jr.) in and out of pools of light in a world of devouring dark. Both the villain and heroine are schizoid, he assuming a respectable persona to hide his psychopathology, she transforming from secretary to slut to penetrate the underworld of hopped-up jazz musicians (Cook experiencing a musical orgasm at his drum kit is an expressionistic high point) and clear her man's name. When Raines stares in horror/recognition at her disguised face in a mirror whose glass vibrates with the rhythm of a wild jam session, it's a seminal Siodmak image.

Christmas Holiday (1944), which united Gene Kelly and Deanna Durbin in a far-from-heartwarming seasonal tale of a young woman who falls into prostitution after marrying a psychopath, was another stylistic triumph, with its New Orleans setting, bizarre flashback structure, and a soundtrack mixing Irving Berlin's Always with Richard Wagner. Like Chevalier before him, Gene Kelly displays a worrying intensity that seems always to have been part of his persona, waiting to be discovered. The Suspect (1944) fulfills the seemingly impossible task of making us believe Charles Laughton and Ella Raines are in love, while also turning the story of wife-killer Dr. Crippen into a sympathetic study of a man trying to escape the trap of his respectable existence. One of Siodmak's least-known crime thrillers, it deserves to be reappraised, both for Laughton's large yet nuanced performance, and for stylistic masterstrokes like the scene in which Siodmak's camera reenacts a murder we never saw, moving through empty spaces to observe the places where the crime occurred.

Perhaps even less known is The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945), a deeply perverse small-town drama in which George Sanders's incestuously obsessed sister (Geraldine Fitzgerald, slinkily psychotic) conspires to wreck his love life and drives him to murder. Great work from the players, especially in a scene where Sanders looks at the stars and wonders if any human action really matters in such an infinite univers—Siodmak's American thrillers nearly always feature either pop psychology or amateur stargazing.

The Spiral Staircase (1945), with its batty plot, encouraged Siodmak to cut loose with crazy visuals depicting a warped killer's point of view (the mute girl lacks a mouth, an image straight out of Buñuel's Un Chien andalou, whose conjunction of full moon and Wagner had already been appropriated in Christmas Holiday, as Glenn Kenny has pointed out), putting the film midway between an old dark house melodrama and a gialloThe Dark Mirror (1946) shows the filmmaker's obsession with duality at its most naked, reprising the schizoid-twins theme from Cobra Woman in an absurd, po-faced melodrama. Has any audience not secretly rooted for the evil Olivia de Havilland to defeat the sickly-sweet good one?

Yet all this would be seen as mere prelude when Siodmak made The Killers (1946) for producer Mark Hellinger, a movie that made the reputation of everyone connected with it, most notably Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner. Anthony Veiller and John Huston's script brilliantly deployed Hemingway's source story as a teaser to an investigation patterned on Citizen Kane's flashback structure, a device that allowed the writers to abandon Hemingway's florid-terse style after the opening, and to package an authentically doom-laden noir story of obsession and failure within a more upbeat tale of an insurance investigator (Edmond O'Brien) recovering stolen loot. The backstory leads Lancaster to that lonely boardinghouse bed, waiting for the titular bad men and their inevitable bullets, while the framing story ends the movie with O'Brien giving the camera and the audience a cheerful salute as "The End" appears. Cake is had and eaten in abundance. But the careful segregation of noir fatalism within can-do American heroics is not complete: the moment when the two stories decisively crash together, the entrance of the long-forgotten killers into O'Brien's world, accompanied by their four-note Miklos Rozsa leitmotif (appropriated wholesale by the TV show Dragnet), carries a chilling charge, and Gardner's eventual fall from power is desperately moving, despite her character's intense wickedness. A single-take heist sequence shows the director's ambitions, and the fact that he chose the first take of three, the one where everything went wrong, shows his commitment to the messiness of reality, even amid an intensely composed film.

Time Out of Mind (1947) is the one Hollywood Siodmak film so far seemingly impossible to get hold of, by legitimate or gray-market means, and it's a project he struggled to avoid making. But Cry of the City (1948) was a return to form, and sympathetic material, even if it followed the trend for location shooting, which Siodmak did not enjoy. The duality is provided by ruthless cop Victor Mature and desperate crook Richard Conte, friends since childhood but now on opposite sides of society. The tale of Conte's nocturnal pursuit is used to string together memorable cameos, from Berry Kroeger's oily mob lawyer to Hope Emerson's burly, back-snapping masseuse, a kind of osteo-psycho-path.

But it's Criss Cross (1949) that stands atop Siodmak's Hollywood career. Virtually a remake of the Lancaster parts of The Killers, it manages to improve on it, with even Yvonne De Carlo's vamp living up to the precedent set by the divine Ava. The flashback structure is even more strange and unsettling here, losing us in a narrative maze, the only certainty being the folly of the hero's actions. "I was married once. A man eats an apple. Gets a piece of the core stuck between his teeth. You know? He tries to work it out with some cellophane off a cigarette pack. What happens? The cellophane gets stuck in there too. Anna. What was the use? I knew somehow or another I'd wind up seeing her that night." Then, like a good fall guy, Lancaster heads straight to the one bar where he's bound to meet her.

Lancaster's puppy-dog devotion to an unworthy (but smokin' hot) object of desire is much as in The Killers, but the movie is more deeply felt, and the tragic ending is perhaps the most devastating in all noir. As a throwaway aside, the film grants an eye-catching cameo to an uncredited Tony Curtis, another performer set on the path to stardom by Siodmak's eye for talent.

The Great Sinner (1949), a glossy but garbled Dostoyevsky adaptation (The Gambler crossed with bits of Crime and Punishment and the author's life story!) was made to celebrate MGM's 25th anniversary, and so the production was packed with "class" and "quality," and Siodmak pursued perfectionism with countless takes, until star Gregory Peck fell asleep midscene. The movie's air of morbidity and obsession owes a lot more to Siodmak and the German cinema than to Hollywood's idea of a high-toned literary adaptation/biopic. Ava Gardner is as sumptuous as the production values, and the use of voiceover, profiling an array of degenerate gamblers and crooks, seems at times to anticipate Goodfellas (1990).

In 1950, Siodmak made his last U.S. noir, The File on Thelma Jordon, in which Barbara Stanwyck embodies another schizoid character, alternately luring respectable, married assistant DA Wendell Corey to destruction and striving to save him. Despite strong support from Paul Kelly in a Dan Duryea-style rat-bastard role, the movie catches fire only at the end. Deported, shot the same year in Italy, was a mediocre crime drama that did show Siodmak's desire to escape Hollywood, where he had never felt comfortable, and The Whistle at Eaton Falls (1951) was a melodrama about labor relations that was a poor substitute for A Stone in the River Hudson, the 1948 project that had escaped him and eventually became On the Waterfront, prompting a successful lawsuit by Siodmak against his former collaborators.

The Crimson Pirate (1952), again shot in Italy, was an unpleasant experience, with the director defied and undermined by Burt Lancaster, the man he had made into a star. To fully relaunch himself as a European filmmaker, Siodmak needed European money, European subjects, and European stars.

Le Grand jeu (1954) stars Gina Lollobrigida in another double role, one that seems to have inspired the authors of Vertigo, Boileau and Narcejac. Rich lawyer Pierre Martel is ruined and abandoned by his avaricious red-headed wife Sylvia (Lollobrigida) and joins the foreign legion to forget. There he meets prostitute Hélèna (also Lollobrigida), a brunette ringer for the femme fatale. Convinced she's the same woman with amnesia, he tries to remake her in his wife's image. Tying in almost too neatly to Siodmak's favorite themes of romantic obsession, ambiguous identity, and doubling, the movie struggles slightly with an uncomfortable mix of Algerian locations and studio reconstruction but it was a big hit in Europe and launched the final phase of Siodmak's career.

Die Ratten (The Rats, 1955) is a grim and gritty version of Gerhart Hauptmann's play, updated to war-ravaged '50s Berlin. While slightly softening the relentlessly downbeat drama, Siodmak performed one of his patented dramatic transformations upon star Maria Schell, previously known for her angelic heroines. Here she plays a poor Polish immigrant who gives up her baby to a woman who has invented a fake pregnancy to keep her husband faithful. The film's central image, a vast attic overflowing with antique furniture, mannequins in evening dress, statuary, and ornate mirrors, yet overrun with rats, encapsulates Siodmak's entire view of human society. Combining the criminal melodrama and the social realism of Siodmak's best noirs, the film pointed the way to a productive and triumphant new European career that was unfortunately achieved only sporadically. The follow-up Hauptman adaptation, Dorothea Angermann (1959), was resolutely dated, and a lone British picture, The Rough and the Smooth, the same year, added sexual frankness and extra kink to the classic Siodmak psychopathology, without resolving the ideas dramatically.

Nachts, Wenn der Teufel Kam (1957), about a serial killer in Nazi Germany, asks the same question George Sanders had pondered in Uncle Harry: Can a small evil have any meaning set against something vast? Avoiding the pop-psych simplicities of the Hollywood thrillers, the movie instead dissects the madness of the philosophy underpinning National Socialism, which cannot face the reality of an Aryan maniac on the loose.

After the high productivity of his Hollywood period (two or three films a year), Siodmak's movies got bigger, longer, slower, and less personal, with the unmade films (an Abraham Polonsky script, a project about the Reichstag fire, another Woolrich adaptation, Rendezvous in Black) always sounding more exciting than the ones that got filmed (a Karl May western, an epic about Colonel Custer shot in Spain). While Custer of the West (1967) was the first movie to partially deconstruct the myth of Custer's heroism, it didn't go far enough in portraying him as a genocidal psychopath to approach the truth. Kampf um Rom (1968/9), a two-part ancient epic/Euro-pudding, with a mishmash of international stars dubbed into German, was an inglorious swan song for the elderly and ailing director. Asked the standard interviewer's question, "Why did you choose to make this film?" he replied, with typical wit but surprising frankness, "That's a question I ask myself every morning."

The best book-length study on Siodmak in English remains Deborah Lazaroff Alpi's Robert Siodmak: A Biography, with Critical Analyses of His Film Noirs and a Filmography of All His Works, sadly out of print. Yet even Alpi was unable to see everything. Scattered across nations and languages, Siodmak's films resist research, but are often immensely rewarding when uncovered, revealing both a profound visual imagination, and astonishing consistency in terms of thematic obsessions and the stylistic tropes that elucidate them. More than just a maker of slick thrillers, he portrayed an irrational world hypnotized by its own reflection, where people chase illusions as fleeting as images on a screen. 

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Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner in The Killers, directed by Robert Siodmak
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Robert Siodmak  |  film noir  |  Retrospective  |  Hollywood

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THE AUTHOR

David Cairns is a writer, director, and blogger. His short film Cry For Bobo (2001) has won 24 awards around the world. He has written for several UK TV series including Intergalactic Kitchen and Twisted Tales. His articles have appeared in The Village Voice, The Believer, and Senses of Cinema.

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Author's Website: Shadowplay