Bright Lights Film Journal

Happy Birthday, Robert Siodmak (And Sorry for all the Misconceptions)


Director Robert Siodmak was born on August 8, 1900, in Dresden, Germany. If alive today, he would be 110.

In 1994, in an article entitled Beyond the Golden Age: Film Noir Since the ’50s, I wrote:

It is almost (but not quite) a rule of thumb that the more personal a director’s vision, the less comfortably his or her work will fit into the noir canon. Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, for example, although it has many characteristics of a noir, is first and foremost a film that sets forth the vision of its director. The same can be said of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane or Hitchcock’s Psycho. The opposite also holds true — many of the best and most characteristic film noirs, e.g., Robert Siodmak’s The Killers, Phantom Lady, and Criss Cross — were made by directors (channelers of the collective vision) whose work outside noir is relatively undistinguished.

BOY, WAS I WRONG!  On two counts.

First – Siodmak is considerably more than a “channeler” of the collective noir vision. I now see him – along with Fritz Lang, Orson Welles, and Val Lewton – as one of the primary originators of the noir style.  That style is fully formed in Phantom Lady (1944), his first true American noir.  “Film noir,” as I wrote in 1994, “arose from the collision of German Expressionism with documentary realism, paralleling the emergence of ‘the city’ as a character.”  The Killers (1946), though not the greatest noir (I would count it among the top 10) is arguably the most definitive example of the form.  It has – in spades – all the characteristics that we associate with noir: a complex flashback-driven narrative structure, an archetypal femme fatale gloriously played by Ava Gardner, the dark visual style, the emphasis on the City as a corrupting force, “the divided – often obsessed – protagonist, the morbid fascination with sex and death, the sense of malignant Fate, and the lurking threat of the unseen.”

We can see the beginnings of Siodmak’s noir style as it evolved from German Expressionism in this dream sequence from The Burning Secret (1933), which compares interestingly to the even more Freudian dream sequence in G.W. Pabst’s Secrets of a Soul (1926) and reminds us again of how earthbound and prosaic the dream sequences in Inception seem when compared to their cinematic predecessors.  The image of the pianist at his keyboard accompanied by three extra hands looks forward to the Childrens’ Expressionism of The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953, written and designed by Dr. Seuss), in which the main character dreams of being held captive along with 499 other piano-playing little boys (5,000 fingers total) by a mad music teacher (Hans Conreid).  [Thanks to David Cairns for the clip and for his ground-breaking research on Siodmak’s career.]

Second – Siodmak’s work outside noir is far from “undistinguished.”  The Spiral Staircase (1945) is a stylishly directed gothic thriller featuring, in what may be a cinematic first, prowling camera shots from the point of view of an unidentified serial killer.  This has since become something of a cinematic cliche, thanks to John Carpenter’s Halloween, Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, and other subsequent serial killer films.

Then, there are Siodmak’s two muted period melodramas, The Suspect (1944) and The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945).  In The Suspect, Charles Laughton is trapped in a loveless marriage until he finds new life in the form of a young woman played by Ella Raines.  In The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry, George Sanders (superbly playing against type) is similarly trapped as a man forced to spend his life caring for a neurotic invalid sister (Geraldine Fitzgerald).

Like many of the Germanic directors, Siodmak also had a taste for exotic Orientalist fantasies. Fritz Lang had his Indian Epic in two parts, The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb (1959). William Dieterle had his Kismet (1944). And Siodmak had his colorful camp classic, Cobra Woman (also 1944), in which Maria Montez plays good and evil twins. In 1952, he directed the Burt Lancaster swashbuckler, The Crimson Pirate.

I have only scratched the surface of Siodmak’s extraordinary career.  So many of his films, especially the European ones made before and after his American phase, are near impossible to see.  High on the list of Siodmak films that I still need to view are Christmas Holiday (1944) in which Deanna Durbin plays a prostitute married to a murderer played by Gene Kelly (!), The Dark Mirror (1946) with Olivia de Havilland as a pair of good and evil twins, Nachts, wenn der Teufel kam/Nights When the Devil Came (1957), a German-made film about a serial killer operating under the nose of the Nazis, and Someone to Remember (1943), made at Republic, which Cairns intriguingly describes as something like McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow as if filmed with the sinuous camera movements of a Max Ophuls.  (He also posts an amazing clip from the film here.)