The Strange Affair of Robert Siodmak
The Strange Affair of Robert Siodmak
A look at the life and career of Robert Siodmak, master of the neurotic noir.
Our series Robert Siodmak x8 plays Metrograph In Theatre and At Home through April 14.
Robert Siodmak was an uneven director. This unevenness has often been made part of the case against anointing him as a filmmaker of the top rank, but it could also be part the case for doing so, because Siodmak routinely orchestrated set pieces so stunning that they towered over the movie around them. This genius for flourish is perhaps a minor genius, but it tends to leave a lingering impression when irreproachable “tonal consistency” may leave none at all.
An example: the opening of 1945’s The Spiral Staircase, one of the 22 films directed by Siodmak during the German-born émigré’s busy tenure in Hollywood, which lasted from 1939 to 1952. A tracking shot on the street establishes the movie’s setting, a small town somewhere in the middle of the country, sometime in the years before the First World War. In a room adjacent to the lobby of the local hotel, an exhibition of “Motion Pictures—the wonder of the age” is being advertised. (The film playing is billed as The Kiss, but is in fact 1912’s The Sands of Dee, one of the multitude of shorts that D.W. Griffith turned out for the Biograph Company.) As a hand-cranked projector clatters through its motions and a stout townswoman—the local piano teacher, in all likelihood—doughtily pounds out accompaniment to the rude melodrama, Siodmak’s camera, suspect in its comparative sophistication, settles on a young woman, the film’s heroine (Dorothy McGuire), watching the romantic photoplay unfolding before her with rapt attention. On the floor above the screening, meanwhile, a blond girl in petticoats, sporting a pronounced limp, is crossing her rented room, fetching a dress from her closet. As she turns her back on her wardrobe, her evening’s outfit decided upon, anticipating who-knows-what from the night ahead, the eye of a concealed peeper is seen leering from her wardrobe. The frame presses closer and closer into the dark of the trespasser’s pupil, until the reflection of the victim-to-be appears in the intruder’s eye, echoing the function of the camera’s lens. She pulls on the dress she’s determined to be her most flattering and, helplessly bound in a heap of ruffles, ignorant to the close proximity of a lurking psychopath, begins to desperately claw at the air, struck a killing blow—a scene that Dario Argento would play a variation on in his Tenebrae some 40 years later, though with a plain white T-shirt as the constrictive garment. Back to the screening downstairs. The movie arrives at its soppy-tragic climax as the body of the girl upstairs is discovered in our movie, and the The Spiral Staicase’s first words of dialogue are spoken. (“It’s in there… Number Nine…”) Here, in a little under four minutes of pure cinema, Siodmak has distilled all of his film’s themes (scopophilia; small-town repression; the impotent voyeur’s substitution of violence for sex; the feminine impulse to self-display and the misogynist rancor inspired by it) and laid out his film’s key visual motifs (the mirror; the obfuscating subjective viewpoint). After you’ve put everything down with such succinct, surgical concision, where do you go from there?
People on Sunday (1930)
The same question—where do you go next?—might’ve been asked about Siodmak’s directorial debut, one of the most auspicious in cinema, 1930’s People on Sunday, though he shared the credit on that one. Born at the fin de siècle in either Leipzig, Dresden, or, according to a fib that he cooked up to expedite his flight from Nazi Germany, Memphis, Tennessee, Siodmak had moved from Dresden to Berlin to break into the picture business with his brother Kurt, two years his junior, in 1925. There they fell in with a group of conspicuously intelligent young men nibbling at the fringes of the movie industry who gathered at the city’s Romanisches Café, where Otto Dix and Berlin Alexanderplatz author Alfred Döblin were among the notable regulars. Once these ambitious young cinephiles decided to pool their talents and resources to make a movie of their own, the Siodmaks secured their grubstake from cousin Seymour Nebenzal, a producer at his father Heinrich’s Nero-Films, and the gang got to work.
This slapdash collective, who’d taken to calling themselves Filmstudio 29, couldn’t compete with the state-of-the-art Neubabelsberg studios of Universum Film AG (UFA), so they made the city of Berlin into their studio. The movie they cobbled together, 1930’s People on Sunday, was a watershed of European independent filmmaking: half-fiction, half-documentary, playful and anecdotal, a sweetly candid look at a city’s citizens at their louche leisure, built around a slip of a story describing a double date to the beach in Nikolassee. Five young Berliners, nonprofessional actors all, were cast to play “characters” whose day jobs (cab driver, record store clerk) were the same as the performers’ own.
None of the film’s leads would go on to noteworthy cinema careers, but the behind-the-scenes talent on the picture included some people who went on to do other things: you had Berlin-by-way-of-Vienna wiseacre journalist Samuel “Billie” Wilder; producer Edgar G. Ulmer, a gifted fabulist born in the present-day Czech Republic; and cameramen Alfred “Fred” Zinnemann and Eugen Schüfftan, the latter of whom had helped to create the visual effects for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). The film they made together is a document of working-class weekend mores that can hold its head up high alongside Paul Fejös’s Lonesome (1928) and Jean Renoir’s A Day in the Country (1936). Because People on Sunday was a popular and critical success, many fathers have taken credit for it throughout the years. Whether you consider it the work of a single emergent auteur (take your pick) or a spontaneous eruption of zeitgeist, it’s a startlingly modern film, offering a flâneur’s sense of the city as a place crackling with erotic possibility (and disappointment), and painful to watch precisely because its modernity renders then-contemporary Berlin and its people seem so proximate, and the easygoing playground that it depicts, soon to disappear, feel so palpably in danger.
The Siodmaks, like their Filmstudio 29 collaborators, were European Jews, which meant they’d be forced to conduct their careers through the ’30s as a rearguard action. Siodmak moved from Berlin to Paris, working along the way as he did. On August 31, 1939, he boarded the transatlantic steamship Champlain to visit his brother, who’d moved from England to California, changed his name to “Curt,” and begun eking out a living as a screenwriter. When the ship was just out to sea, Germany declared war on Poland, and Robert’s visit became indefinite.
Cobra Woman (1944)
The only person in Los Angeles who’d heard of Robert Siodmak when the Champlain docked was Preston Sturges, but Sturges was a golden boy at that moment, riding a hot streak at Paramount, and so Siodmak was soon back to work. He secured a contract with Universal, for whom he made 1943’s Son of Dracula (from a Curt script), featuring a less than debonair Lon Chaney Jr. as the mysterious Count Alucard (spell it backwards), and Cobra Woman (1944), a gaga piece of Technicolor exoticism with Maria Montez in a double role—later an inspiration for underground/avant-garde filmmakers Kenneth Anger and Jack Smith, and an unlikely, abiding favorite of Thom Andersen’s. Siodmak distinguished these assignments with accents of pure, potent style, as in the scene in Son of Dracula where a plantation owner’s daughter steals through a moonlit bayou to watch her undead lover rise from a Louisiana swamp, across which he seems to float towards her via a moving sidewalk effect—much like that which Cocteau used a couple of years later in his Beauty and the Beast (1946). Siodmak was already a filmmaker of moments here, but what moments!
Eventually Siodmak was deemed ready to handle more prestigious properties, such as Christmas Holiday (1944), an adaption of a W. Somerset Maugham novel by Herman J. Mankiewicz and a vehicle for Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly in (mostly) non-singing, non-dancing roles. Kelly plays Robert Manette, the irresponsible scion of a once mighty New Orleans family who, squirming under the burden of the family name and his mother’s expectations, gets wrapped up in murder. “A psychiatrist said that Robert’s relationship to his mother was pathological,” says Durbin’s character, playing the still-doting wife, and outlining a theme that begins to emerge in Siodmak’s work from this period: the rot that festers within the family unit, be it small-town gentry (The Spiral Staircase), New York Italians (Cry of the City, 1948), or South Seas royalty (Cobra Woman). It’s hard to say as to if Siodmak returned to the subject of familial imprisonment because his assignments began to follow a particular pattern after the success of Christmas Holiday, or because the subject was one that he himself had an affinity towards—on one hand, Curt and he had broken definitely with their wealthy father to pursue their artistic ambitions; on the other, Robert remained married to the same woman for 40 years, and outlived her by less than seven weeks.
Phantom Lady (1944)
Whatever the case, Siodmak, if faced with the maxim that opens Anna Karenina, seemed to prefer the peculiarities of unhappy families, and his third film released in 1944, The Phantom Lady, is no advertisement for connubial bliss. An archetypal patsy (Alan Curtis), trying to forget his crummy home life by way of double scotches and a random barroom pick-up, gets thrown in the slammer after his no-account wife turns up having been strangled with one of his neckties, leaving only our fall guy’s slinky secretary (Ella Raines) to clear his name. The Phantom Lady, highlighted by a feverish scene in which an undercover Raines gets pulled into an after-hours jazzbo jam by Elisha Cook Jr.’s hophead drummer, was Siodmak’s first film with the actress, a brunette of brooding pulchritude who’d been discovered by Howard Hawks, and who would become something like the Joan Bennett to Siodmak’s Fritz Lang.
The two worked together four times, last on 1947’s Time Out of Mind—characteristically, a story of family ties that bind until all circulation is cut off. In the Edwardian London-set The Suspect (1944), Raines is the winsome secretary who inadvertently inspires her boss (Charles Laughton, at his most gruesomely pitiable) to hurry his dreadful, shrewish wife down a flight of steps and into her grave. In The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry, released the following year and set in a fictitious New England factory town, Raines again provides the only breath of fresh air in an otherwise asphyxiating domestic arrangement. The customarily debonair George Sanders, playing against type as a nervous nebbish, is the last male heir of the formerly prominent local family gone to seed—and the fellow who Raines’s new-in-town career woman sets her sights on marrying, despite the machinations of his Munchausen syndrome-suffering sister (Geraldine Fitzgerald), using her brother’s inborn sense of duty to her as a rein to yank him away from pursuing his passions. (Here, as in The Spiral Staircase, we are in proto-giallo territory.) The two women’s first teatime meeting, punctiliously polite and shimmering with mutual contempt, is a standout. So deep does the film dredge into homicidal familial resentment that you wonder how it can ever pull back from the edge of abyss, and it only manages to do so through cheating—though the ‘it was only a dream’ cop-out fails to decant the acrimony that’s already been uncorked back into the bottle.
The two women’s first teatime meeting, punctiliously polite and shimmering with mutual contempt, is a standout. So deep does the film dredge into homicidal familial resentment that you wonder how it can ever pull back from the edge of abyss.
The thrillers that Siodmak made in Hollywood, by virtue of an obvious link to the German expressionist tradition, have been assigned to the category of ‘postwar film noir,’ but they’re more square-peg than that designation suggests. Only one of the Siodmak-Raines films is set in contemporary times and, standing out from a body of films that return to the subject of masculine combat-shock-related neurosis, Siodmak’s thrillers with the actress are films united by their unusual interest in both feminine neurosis and feminine resilience—Phantom Lady and The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry were, it should be noted, the first two films produced by Joan Harrison, a former Hitchcock scriptwriter and Universal’s first female executive. The noir label more comfortably fits Siodmak’s Hemingway adaptation The Killers (1946), which introduced the filmmaker to another key collaborator, soon to be known by moviegoers the world over: Burt Lancaster, in his first film. The basic narrative elements—“Boit” plays a sweet lummox who can’t get over a girl who’s not worth it, and lets her talk him into a caper that don’t work out—recur in Siodmak and Lancaster’s second collaboration, the stark, elegant Criss Cross (1949). In this film, for once in a Siodmak movie, an overprotective mother—that of the Lancaster character, who knows suddenly over-friendly ex-wife Yvonne De Carlo is bad news—is vindicated as absolutely correct in her misgivings… not that it does anybody any good.
By the time Siodmak was filming The Crimson Pirate (1952) in London’s Teddington Studios, Lancaster had become the superstar with the gruesome, Teddy Rooseveltian grin that we all know, and the power balance in the collaboration had decisively tilted in his favor. The finished movie—a cheeky piece of yowling Technicolor spectacle—is more a showcase for the boisterous acrobatics of Lancaster and his old tumbling partner Nick Cravat than for Siodmak’s dexterous mise en scène and morose worldview, and its unhappy production prompted the director to break with Hollywood for good. Siodmak unloaded his Beverly Hills address on James Mason, made his way back to Europe, and worked there for the remainder of his life, upon his return producing two of the bleakest mainstream, big-budget movies about wartime and postwar Germany (respectively, 1957’s The Devil Strikes at Night and 1955’s Die Ratten) that had been made up until that point. You can go home again, it turns out, but that’s no guarantee you’ll like what you find.
Perhaps Siodmak never really felt at ease in the United States—unlike Lang and Renoir, who ended their days in the comfort of Beverly Hills—but his best work had been done there, producing a run of movies that showed just how killing the familiar comforts of kith and kin could be. “There’s no place like home,” these movies say, “And thank God for that.”
Nick Pinkerton is a Cincinnati-born, Brooklyn-based writer focused on moving image-based art; his writing has appeared in Film Comment, Sight & Sound, Artforum, Frieze, Reverse Shot, The Guardian, 4Columns, The Baffler, Rhizome, Harper’s, and the Village Voice. He is the editor of Bombast magazine, editor-at-large of Metrograph Journal, and maintains a Substack, Employee Picks. Publications include monographs on Mondo movies (True/False) and the films of Ruth Beckermann (Austrian Film Museum), a book on Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Decadent Editions), and a forthcoming critical biography of Jean Eustache (The Film Desk).
The Devil Strikes at Night (1957)