Robert Siodmak Retrospective at Film Forum
A HOLLYWOOD director once bracketed with Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak (1900-73) is credited by some scholars with developing the German-French-American synthesis known as film noir and dismissed by others as an impersonal technician whose greatest talent was successively adapting himself to three national movie industries and whose trademark on-set joke was “It stinks — print it!”
Cynical chameleon or rootless cosmopolite? Siodmak (pronounced See-ODD-mak) is, as the film historian Jean-Paul Coursodon put it, “one of the puzzling paradoxes of the American cinema.” He’s also the subject of a rare, nine-film retrospective as part of Film Forum’s celebration of Universal Pictures that starts Friday and runs through Aug. 9. Universal is where, having made movies in Weimar Berlin and pre-World War II Paris, Siodmak reinvented himself in the 1940s as an American director, and the retrospective includes films like “The Killers,” “Cobra Woman” and “Phantom Lady.”
Along with the other mainly Jewish, Central European émigrés who found refuge in Hollywood, Siodmak infused American crime thrillers with a mix of Expressionist brio and existential fatalism. The critic Andrew Sarris once joked that Siodmak’s “American films were more Germanic than his German ones.” It could also be said that the director’s low-budget debut, the insouciant plein-aire comedy “People on Sunday” (1930), made in Berlin’s public parks with a youthful group of future exiles (including Siodmak’s then flat-mate Billy Wilder and younger brother Curt) was more French than his French productions.
Looking to escape Paris for the United States, Siodmak would claim to have been born in Memphis and subsequently taken by his parents to Germany. The New York Times, which profiled the director at the height of his success, called him “the only native-born American with a foreign accent in Hollywood.” German sources give Siodmak’s actual birthplace as Leipzig or Dresden. In any case, it was Dresden where he grew up and defied his wealthy father to find work in the movies.
Universal’s main wartime attraction was the comedy team of Abbott and Costello, but the studio had a history of hiring German talent and a tradition of atmospheric horror films. Siodmak’s first Universal releases have a marked German subtext. The eponymous vampire in the grimly flavorsome “Son of Dracula” (1943), written by his brother Curt, brings a European contagion to America. More stylish than necessary, “Son of Dracula,” which is also part of the retrospective, secured Siodmak a seven-year contract. It also demonstrated that he could take fantasy seriously.
His next assignment, the flamboyantly Technicolor “Cobra Woman” (1944), with Maria Montez playing good and evil twins, gave this notoriously limited actress a surprisingly resonant vehicle. If there is a Siodmak touch, it is the sinister dance that the sarong-wrapped dictator of Cobra Island performs for her ecstatic subjects, who greet her writhing with an unmistakable version of the Nazi salute.
There’s another sort of reference to Hitler — and an equally delirious musical interlude — in Siodmak’s next movie. The killer in “Phantom Lady” (1944) is a megalomaniacal artist who links himself with the great criminals of history. Produced by the Hitchcock assistant Joan Harrison, “Phantom Lady” associated Siodmak with one of Hollywood’s leading filmmakers. “Something was bound to happen when a former Alfred Hitchcock protégée and a former director of German horror films were teamed on the Universal lot,” Bosley Crowther wrote in The New York Times, “something severe and unrelenting, drenched in creeping morbidity and gloom.”
And it did happen: “Phantom Lady,” in which spunky Ella Raines assigns herself to save a man framed for the murder of his wife, has a nightmarish quality and dreamlike flow that transcends the banality of its script. The movie’s chiaroscuro soundstage Manhattan often resembles the demonic Berlin of a Weimar silent film, but Siodmak was also alert to the possibilities of musical montage, most emphatically in the feverishly erotic jam session Raines attends in an after-hours jazz club.
“Christmas Holiday” (1944) — in which Siodmak was tasked with providing Universal’s stellar ingénue, Deanna Durbin, an adult role, namely a chanteuse in a New Orleans bordello — is a noir as odd as its title. It’s an intricately lighted gothic romance that casts Gene Kelly as a neurotic tough guy and makes near-surreal use of Wagner’s “Liebestod.” Siodmak was next given a pair of overly genteel films that, if not noir, were predicated on the noirish situation of a respectable man — Charles Laughton in “The Suspect” (1944) and George Sanders in “The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry” (1945) — driven by love to domestic homicide.
Then Siodmak was on loan to RKO for the lurid thriller “The Spiral Staircase” (1946). A week after this hit shocker opened, The New York Times reported that Siodmak was “disturbed by the many recently published references to him as ‘a second Alfred Hitchcock.’ ” His next Universal film, “The Dark Mirror” (1946), a doppelgänger mystery starring a twinned Olivia de Havilland, only reinforced that idea of Siodmak as a director of clever psychological thrillers. But Siodmak’s third release of 1946 was something else.
The luxuriantly bleak epitome of mid-’40s pessimism, “The Killers” confirmed the visual primacy of Siodmak’s style (particularly as realized by the cinematographer Elwood Bredell, who shot both “Christmas Holiday” and “Phantom Lady”) while revealing a new harshness of tone. Elaborating through flashbacks on the laconic Ernest Hemingway story of a doomed ex-boxer and the hit men sent to dispatch him, “The Killers” is a sort of deadly bolero in which the newcomer Burt Lancaster alternately awaits death and desperately pursues an elusive femme fatale (Ava Gardner in her first leading role).
Siodmak received an Oscar nomination for directing “The Killers,” which also garnered nominations for screenplay, score and editing — “The Spiral Staircase” and “The Dark Mirror” got nominations as well — and contemporary reviews of “The Killers” rarely fail to cite the director’s touch. The connoisseurs James Agee and Manny Farber were both impressed. Agee praised Siodmak’s “journalistic feeling for tension, noise, sentiment and jazzed-up realism.” Farber credited Siodmak with the movie’s “stolid documentary style” and “gaudy melodramatic flavor” while noting “the artiness (most noticeable in the way scenes are sculpted in dark and light).”
Siodmak was on loan to 20th Century Fox for “Cry of the City” (1948), then returned to Universal to surpass “The Killers” with an even more predetermined tale of a naïve chump, a faithless dame and a caper gone wrong. “Criss Cross” (1949), again starring Lancaster, now opposite Yvonne DeCarlo, includes several of the director’s great set pieces. The prolonged rumba in which the sultry DeCarlo dances with a pompadoured lounge lizard (an uncredited Tony Curtis, spotted by Siodmak among the extras) is as powerful as the jam session in “Phantom Lady”; an armored car heist pulled off in a miasma of tear gas appears as a battle of corpses; a hospital rub-out anticipates one of the most famous scenes in “The Godfather.”
With its quasi-documentary use of Bunker Hill in Los Angeles and the flat expanse of the San Fernando Valley, as well as the novelist Daniel Fuchs’s slangy script, “Criss Cross” is Siodmak’s most American film. It also signaled a thwarted shift in his interests. The director made an unsuccessful movie with Hollywood’s resident naturalist, the producer Louis De Rochemont, and worked with Budd Schulberg on what would become “On the Waterfront.” (Dumped from the project, Siodmak successfully sued the producer Sam Spiegel for $100,000.)
Having gone abroad to direct Lancaster in “The Crimson Pirate” (1952), Siodmak jumped ship to remain in Europe, making movies in Britain, West Germany and France. Cosmopolitan to the end, he capped his career with a pair of West German-Italian epics: “Pyramid of the Sun God” (1965), adapted from a novel by Karl May, and “The Last Roman” (1968). In between, he directed “Custer of the West” (1967) in Cinerama and Spain, from a script by two blacklisted Hollywood writers.
Severely re-edited for release in the United States, “Custer” appeared as the director’s final puzzlement. Reviewing it in The New York Times, Renata Adler saw signs that “somebody meant to try something fairly ambitious.” Custer appeared as “a thoroughly modern man who would have liked Camus” — an enigmatic fatalist, not unlike Siodmak.
The Killers (1946)
29 August 29, 1946
Back in the gangster-glutted Twenties, Ernest Hemingway wrote a morbid tale about two gunmen waiting in a lunchroom for a man they were hired to kill. And while they relentlessly waited, the victim lay sweating in his room, knowing the gunmen were after him but too weary and resigned to move. That's all the story told you—that a man was going to be killed. What for was deliberately unstated. Quite a fearful and fatalistic tale.
Now, in a film called "The Killers," which was the title of the Hemingway piece, Mark Hellinger and Anthony Veiller are filling out the plot. That is, they are cleverly explaining, through a flashback reconstruction of the life of that man who lay sweating in his bedroom, why the gunmen were after him. And although it may not be precisely what Hemingway had in mind, it makes a taut and absorbing explanation as unreeled on the Winter Garden's screen.
For the producer and writer have concocted a pretty cruel and complicated plot in which a youthful but broken-down prize-fighter treds a perilous path to ruin. Mobsters and big-time stick-up workers get a hold on him, and a siren of no mean proportions completely befouls his career. In the end, we perceive that the poor fellow—who is bumped off in the first reel, by the way—was the victim of love misdirected and a beautiful double-cross.
This doesn't prove very much, obviously, and it certainly does not enhance the literary distinction of Hemingway's classic bit. But, as mere movie melodrama, pieced out as a mystery which is patiently unfolded by a sleuthing insurance man, it makes a diverting picture—diverting, that is, if you enjoy the unraveling of crime enigmas involving pernicious folks.
With Robert Siodmak's restrained direction, a new actor, Burt Lancaster, gives a lanky and wistful imitation of a nice guy who's wooed to his ruin. And Ava Gardner is sultry and sardonic as the lady who crosses him up. Edmond O'Brien plays the shrewd investigator in the usual cool and clipped detective style, Sam Levene is very good as a policeman and Albert Dekker makes a thoroughly nasty thug. Several other characters are sharply and colorfully played. The tempo is slow and metronomic, which makes for less excitement than suspense.
The Killers review – Philip French on Robert Siodmak’s first-rate Hemingway adaptation
(Robert Siodmak, 1946; Arrow, PG)
Sunday 14 December 2014
Published in 1927, Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers is one of the great short stories of the 20th century. In a taut 3,000 words it recounts a visit to a small town outside Chicago by two laconic, wisecracking hit men, Max and Al, who take over a local diner one late afternoon to kill a regular patron, a down-and-out ex-boxer known as the Swede. When he doesn’t turn up they leave. Hemingway’s fictive alter ego, Nick Adams, is in the diner, and he goes to warn the Swede, who lies passive in his rooming house, making no effort to escape. Edward Hopper wrote to the publishers in 1927 to say he found it “refreshing to come upon such an honest piece of writing in an American magazine”, and it inspired his painting Nighthawks. The story’s influence ranges from Pinter’s The Birthday Party to Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, and there have been three film versions – this 1946 noir classic by Robert Siodmak, a 1956 film school exercise by Andrei Tarkovsky and a 1964 TV film by Don Siegel – which are compared in a visual essay accompanying this Blu-ray disc.
The original story never explains who wants the Swede killed or why he waits fatalistically for death, and the first 20 minutes of Siodmak’s film are a near perfect adaptation of the tale and Hemingway’s idea of grace under pressure. The screenplay (written by John Huston but credited to Anthony Veiller) cleverly weaves together a variety of familiar crime plots to answer the questions Hemingway left unanswered, most obviously how a decent man was lured from the straight and narrow by a femme fatale.
At the centre, in his first screen appearance, is Burt Lancaster as the Swede, a vulnerable, doomed loser of the sort he was often to play, with Ava Gardner in her first starring role as the alluring, duplicitous Kitty. Their chemistry is incendiary, and virtually everything round them is first-rate – Woody Bredell’s high contrast, low key black-and-white photography, a supporting cast led by Albert Dekker, Edmond O’Brien and Sam Levine, and music by the prolific Miklós Rózsa, who also composed the score for the Siodmak-Lancaster noir masterpiece Criss Cross (1949).