Friday, 25 April 2014

Robert Siodmak

When Robert Siodmak is discussed it is almost always said that he only made film noirs. For some this is a good thing, because they think he perfected that form and was its true master, and for others it is a sign of weakness, that he was not an artist but just a director with a lack of integrity and personal vision. This inability to look beyond noir when it comes to Siodmak does him a disservice however. For one thing he did not just make noirs so the whole argumentation is moot, and second, the two filmmakers closest to Siodmak, Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock, are not referred to as only makers of noir even though their careers are rather similar to Siodmak's, and as varied. There is absolutely no reason why he should be treated differently from them.

He was born in Dresden, Germany, 1900, and made films there and then in France, like Pièges (1939), a thriller about a serial killer with Maurice Chevalier and Erich von Stroheim, before ending up in the US, having to escape the Nazis. He returned to Europe in the mid-1950s where he continued to make films until the late 1960s. (He said that he left Europe to escape the Nazis and the US to escape CinemaScope.) It is the string of films he made between 1944 and 1950, most of them at Universal Studios, that are considered his major achievement, and those are indeed fine films. Siodmak was a master of the unconscious, combining the everyday with surrealism and with his camera prowling around in long takes with great depth of field, looking for that unconscious, or becoming it even. The camera as id. It is typical for Siodmak that when he made Christmas Holiday (1944), a film with Gene Kelly, usually seen singing and dancing, Kelly's character turns out to be a murderer with mother issues. But although his films are filled with dread, always staring at the uncanny and with the ability to be really frightening, they are also full of dark comedy and a certain quirkiness that is reminiscent of Don Siegel. (Siegel was involved in the making of Siodmak's most famous film, The Killers (1946), inspired by Hemingway's short story, and would make his own version, equally good and even more quirky, in 1964. As it happens Andrei Tarkovsky has also made a version of it, in 1965.)

It is particularly appropriate to compare Siodmak with Fritz Lang, and to notice the differences. Lang's style is cleaner, clearer, more geometrical, whereas Siodmak's is more baroque. In Lang's films it is usually society as a whole that is the threat, with conspiracies and dark forces at work everywhere. With Siodmak the threat does not lie out there but within ourselves. We bring ourselves down, with our homicidal tendencies and our passions, as in the excellent The Killers and Criss Cross (1949).

The world is fractured and unstable. And look at that menacing cat. (From The Killers.)

Some other highlights among his 1940s films are The Suspect (1944), a drama set in England at the turn of the century where a nice old man murders his wife, and The Spiral Staircase (1945), a gothic horror film that also takes place at the turn of the century. (There is no point in calling either of them noir.) A good but lesser film is The Dark Mirror (1946), a psychological melodrama with the interesting twist that the unconscious has become embodied, as it is about twin sisters, one good and one evil, both played by Olivia de Havilland. The File on Thelma Jordon (1950) is uneven, but part of it is among Siodmak's best work, not least the opening sequence, and Barbara Stanwyck and Wendell Corey are great.

The Dark Mirror

I have seen very few of Siodmak's films before and after his time in Hollywood, they are not easy to come by, except People on Sunday (1930). It is a collaboration between him, Fred Zinnemann, Billy Wilder and Edgar G. Ulmer, and very good, a city symphony film and a documentary of how people in Berlin spend their weekends. But there is a lot more to discover. The bottom line though is that Siodmak was an artist with a very particular way of seeing the world, and he expressed that vision in a number of different films. 

Now, have a look at a sequence from Phantom Lady (1944), a quintessential Siodmak and one of his most bizarre. Maybe even his best.

and a still from the amazing stalking sequence


  1. I share your admiration for Siodmak. I attended an almost complete retrospective of his films in Paris in 2010 and saw many of his non-American films. I particularly recommend the brilliant serial killer film Nachts, wenn der Teufel Kam (1957). A great title, sounding even better in German. I did not take notes on the film afterwards, so my recollections of its specifics are hazy, but do try to look it up.