Saturday, June 19, 2010

#21: Robert Siodmak

In case my counting down my 100 favorite films noir did not give it away, I’ll reiterate the fact that I am a film noir junkie. I try and see anything and everything resembling a noir that I possibly can. I have seen a lot in the short amount of time that I have been obsessed and feel like I have a pretty good handle on the greatest stylists in the genre/style. A number of the finest directors to ever work in United States at some point dabbled in noir – Wilder, Lang, Hawks, Tourneur, Ray, Huston, Welles, the list could go on. Some of these names will be, and already have been, featured in this favorite directors series. And even with such giants of cinema, if exclusively considering true noirs produced by such directors, I don’t think that I would choose any of them as my personal favorite handlers of noir. If forced to make such a selection, I’d actually have to go with this man: Robert Siodmak. He made two of the finest noirs of all time, a handful of others of high quality, and was instrumental in developing the template that others followed throughout the classic noir period.

Born to Polish Jewish parents in Germany at the turn of the century, Siodmak was successful in German cinema in the 1920s before the Nazi rise to power. For obvious reasons, he was not a favorite of the Party. Unfortunately, I have not seen any of the work he produced in his native country, but when Universal Studios signed Siodmak to a seven-year contract in 1943, he quickly developed the distinctive style that he has come to be identified with. The horror picture Son of Dracula features expressionistic lighting and visual style that Siodmak would perfect a few years later, allowing him to take a rather standard B-movie storyline and give it a noir feeling. By 1944, Siodmak would embark on a string of noirs and noirish thrillers that matches up favorably with any of his contemporaries – The Suspect, The Spiral Staircase, The Killers, The Dark Mirror, Cry of the City, Criss Cross, and The File on Thelma Jordan all in a five-year period.

Clearly, he did not _only_ make noirs. The Spiral Staircase, The Suspect, Son of Dracula, even The Dark Mirror all contain elements similar to noir, but are not fully enmeshed in the style/genre. So to call him a one-trick pony would be an overstatement. His horror work is just as superlative, with a masterwork like The Spiral Staircase arguably being an even greater visual achievement than his best noirs. Just thinking of the movie the word “black” comes to mind. Dark, dark black. Black to the point of zero visibility. The kind of shadowy, dark black sets that only could be achieved on a sound stage in the classic studio system. It really has to be seen to be appreciated.

Even so, there is a reason that the zenith of Siodmak’s days in Hollywood came at the height of the classic noir cycle. By the mid-1950s, his career was already on a downward path. But watching the movies produced during the decade-long burst of creativity that contains Siodmak’s finest work, it should be quite obvious why I think so highly of him. His use of lighting and shadows is like a textbook in noir. His depiction of anguished characters, carrying baggage from past lives or relationships, is always compelling. Siodmak is certainly not underrated by those that have any familiarity with his work, but his name remains one that deserves to be more well-known. I rank him a master director.

1. Criss Cross (1949)
2. The Killers (1946)
3. Cry of the City (1948)
4. The Spiral Staircase (1945)
5. The Suspect (1945)
6. The File on Thelma Jordan (1950)
7. Phantom Lady (1944)
8. Christmas Holiday (1944)
9. The Dark Mirror (1946)
10. Son of Dracula (1943)
11. Custer of the West (1967)

Next in the countdown is a contemporary of Siodmak's and another man with multiple great noirs (among others) to credit: John Huston.


  1. Dave, I haven't seen nearly enough of Siodmak, but as you'll recall from the noir countdown we agree on the top of the list. All I can muster this time out is a top five.

    1.Criss Cross
    2.The Killers
    3.Son of Dracula
    4.Christmas Holiday
    5.The Crimson Pirate.

    I especially like to promote Son of Dracula as a noir in horror clothing -- an opera cape if you like -- with an ultimate femme fatale and a beautifully tragic finish. But Son really only sets the stage for the great run to come.

  2. I have seen 2 of his movies, the 2 which are arguably his best works, as certifies by your list as well.

    The Killers happen to be one of my favourite films and not just one of my favourite film noirs. And in Ava Gardner's Kitty Collins we have, in my opinion, one of the most lethal as well as lethally beautiful femme fatales, along with perhaps Jane Greer's Kathie Moffat in Out of the Past.

    The other movie is of course Criss Cross. Though you've placed Criss Cross above The Killers, they would rank the other way round for me though. Even though a fine film noir it certainly was, Criss Cross remains, because the 2 films had so many structural, stylistic & plot similarities (and not to mention Burt Lancaster's presence in both as tragic anti-heroes), at best a shadow of The Killers in my humble opinion.

  3. I agree with what Shubhajit says above in relation to the two noirs he has seen. I watched both back to back about a month ago and came away with the same feeling. The Killers feels like an absolute masterpiece while Criss Cross is somewhat of a accomplished retread. In the past I considered them equals but this last viewing had me change my opinion. I have massive gaps on Siodmak's filmography.....M.Roca

    1. The Killers
    2. The Spiral Staircase
    3. Criss Cross
    4. Cry Of The City
    5. The File On Thelma Jordan
    6. Son Of Dracula (This one brings up fond memories of my childhood)
    7. The Phantom Lady
    8. The Crimson Pirate (terrible movie)

  4. Dave:

    If I might:

    1. Criss Cross
    2. The Spiral Staircase
    3. Phantom Lady
    4. The Killers
    5. The File on Thelma Jordon
    6. Cry of the City
    7. The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry
    8. Christmas Holiday
    9. The Whistle at Eaton Falls
    10. Cobra Woman (I could not resist)

    This is the most personal fun I have had since your Woody Allen posting. I grew up with Siodmak also. When film noir came into full flower (a black orchid likely) I was about ten years old and we had no idea it was a genre. It was that which was playing at the movies. Because the years encroach, I have seen many of these in theatres when first issued and then endless times on television, VCR, DVD – or at MOMA or at New York’s retro houses. (But dark theatres will always be the natural habitat of film noir.)

    Criss Cross and Spiral Staircase stand alone at my top. Ages ago, I had a rather heated discussion with a lecturer at The New School while attending a film noir course. One of the scheduled films was not available so she substituted The Spiral Staircase. After the viewing I insisted it was not a film noir. She did her best professorial dismissive routine. Your discussing whether it belongs in film noir proper reminded me of that time. In retrospect, it does not really matter. Whatever its classification, it is a fine film, beautiful looking, and of course it has Ethel Barrymore.

    We basically disagree mostly on Phantom Lady, which I would place higher. But I cannot assess that with any objectivity. The work of Woolrich (Irish) has been a lifelong interest. He created a world of fear, shadows, melancholy and retribution. Light is absent; darkness reigns. And I fell in love with Ella Raines at early age, a malady which still lingers. (I can even overlook Alan Curtis.) Many rate The Killers higher than I, and the opening scene alone merits its place on anyone’s list.

    Rank means little in my five through seven. Eight and nine might be higher but I have not seen them in years. (I suspect Christmas Holiday would be higher.)

    Number 10 had to be included. My New School adversary of the past might dismiss it after a thorough Marxist-Leninist analysis but I could not leave out Cobra Woman. It stands on its own. I saw it in a dark hall as a boy, remember when it became a major example of high camp, and I am still enthralled, when on You Tube, I watch the evil Maria (Naja) pick out those who are to be sacrificed.

    And I left out The Dark Mirror. (I could never quite cotton to Mark Stevens.) I probably should reconsider Son of Dracula. Alucard?

    Siodmak is excellent. I wish you had him a bit higher but you have done him good service. I realize you have a long road to go. Thank you.


  5. Siodmak directed several films many critics revere, yet his films rarely make any all-time lists. His career was unfortunately paralleled and subsequently overshadowed by Alfred Hitchcock's, yet Siodmak claims a banner year unlike any of Hitchcock's: 1946. In that year, three of Siodmak's films were nominated for Academy Awards. They included Ethel Barrymore in The Spiral Staircase for Actress in a Supporting Role, Siodmak himself in The Killers for Directing, Vladimir Pozner in The Dark Mirror for Original Motion Picture Story, Anthony Veiller in The Killers for Screenplay, Miklos Rozsa in The Killers for Scoring of a Dramatic or Comic Picture, and Arthur Hilton in The Killers for Film Editing. As with everything related to Siodmak's career, the question remains: was Siodmak the benefactor of good filmmaking teams, or were these teams the benefactors of Siodmak's directorial skills?

    The biggest criticism of Siodmak's career is that his talents blossomed in only one genre. If he had directed a masterful film in at least one or two other genres, like, for example, his contemporary Fred Zinnemann, whose talents shone in the Western High Noon (1952), the film noir Act of Violence (1948), and the romantic drama From Here to Eternity (1953), no argument would exist against Siodmak's place in cinematic history. But this is not the case. Siodmak's career shines during a brief ten-year span, from 1943 to 1953, and it is not a coincidence that this span also marks the zenith of the noir cycle. Certainly, his career during this span was prolific, but his failure to extend beyond the parameters of film noir has forced many to question his talents. But full mastery of a style is certainly enough to validate a filmmaker's greatness, as we've seen in the cases of James Whale (yeah he directed SHOWBOAT too, but his mark is in one genre) John Ford, Woody Allen and so many others. Would I myself place Siodmak this high, ahead of Dreyer, Ford and Kubrick, as Dave has done? Not remotely. But Dave admits at the outset that he's a film noir junkie, and Siodmak is one of the greatest directors within this parameters. It's a bold decision, and one I nonetheless applaud.

    1. The Spiral Staircase
    2. Criss Cross
    3. The Killers
    4. Phantom Lady
    6. Son of Dracula
    7. Christmas Holiday
    8. The File on Thelma Jordan
    9. The Dark Mirror
    10. Custer of the West

    Sadly, I still haven't watched CRY OF THE CITY.

  6. The first three on the list are interchangeable in their hierarchy. They easily rank above the rest of his output which still contains many impressive works. I was disappointed with Christmas Holiday however, finding Gene Kelly totally miscast, and The Crimson Pirate was a B flick dressed up in Burt Lancaster acrobatics (yet at IMDB this film gets a 7.3 rating! Maybe it's me). Still need to see The Dark Mirror, Custer of the West and a few others.

    Criss Cross
    The Spiral Staircase
    The Killers
    Cry of the City
    The Suspect
    Phantom Lady
    The File on Thelma Jordan
    Son of Dracula
    Christmas Holiday
    The Crimson Pirate

  7. Just loving your blog!
    Watched Criss Cross and On Dangerous Ground late into last night and of course, I was floored.


    Announcing the subject of your next entry -
    I like it. It gives the reader a chance to bone up on what's coming and scout about for related films.

    Thanks again.

  8. Samuel - Yes, I remember that you were a big fan of Son of Dracula and I need to see that one again... it's been a little while and I have only seen it once. Those top two really are towering, in my opinion, and if he did absolutely nothing else I would still think highly of him.

    Shubhajit - I can't really argue placing The Killers over Criss Cross as they are really like 1a and 1b. I love them both, just with a slight preference toward Criss Cross. Perhaps it is that tragic finish and that lasting image that closes the film. But you point out the strong case that The Killers makes as his best film. I can't dispute anything you say. They're both great!

    M.Roca - I echo everything I said in the response to Shubhajit... but I think "accomplished retread" is a bit of an overstatement. Even so, I can't argue against The Killers placing so high.

    Gerald - Another outstanding comment here. Seriously... great stuff you have added to these posts! I love hearing that you enjoy these posts as well and also love having another huge Siodmak fan. Your list is outstanding as well, even if we slightly disagree in spots. My top two - actually top three now that I think about Cry of the City - are firmly entrenched. But you make strong cases for your selections as well. As for the noir vs. not noir debate, I stand by the notion that The Spiral Staircase contains many of the noirish visual elements, but ultimately is not a noir. Nothing wrong with that, but I definitely think it is more of a horror or Gothic horror film than a noir. Either way, though, it's a great movie. Christmas Holiday is not a great film, but it has a certain charm that I actually like. Once again... great response and please keep checking in with your insightful comments!

    Sam - Also a Hall of Fame caliber comment here and you raise many interesting points... many of which, surprisingly enough, I agree with. As I say in my piece here, it is no coincidence that Siodmak's career is contained in a decade-long frame that is in the classic noir cycle. Even his films that are out-and-out noirs are very much related to that style (particularly visually speaking). So, yes, this is most definitely a personal choice, although one that has some agreement from others as evidenced by Gerald's response just above yours. I would never argue placing him above Dreyer, Kubrick, Ford, etc. in terms of greatness or historical significance. But in sheer enjoyment I receive from films, Siodmak definitely places ahead of them for me. I think you would like Cry of the City, Sam. And I'm also intrigued to see that you agree with me, Samuel and Gerald in placing Criss Cross above The Killers.

    John - There is some charm of Christmas Holiday that appeals to me, so I actually like it. Gene Kelly might be miscast, but the novelty of it all I find charming.

    Giveitaname - Thanks for the input and kind words! Yes, Criss Cross and On Dangerous Ground are two great noirs, so they make a heck of a double bill.

  9. I love to see surprise picks like these on lists. I was going to embarassingly say I had never seen a Sidomak, but then I remembered that I caught The Spiral Staircase on TCM a few years back. I don't think mastery of a single genre should be held against a director; after all, though Hitch dabbled in melodrama he was generally, and rightly, seen as primarily a director of thrillers. Though this was held against him at the time, it hasn't been - and shouldn't be - since, I think.

  10. I love Yvonne de Carlo and Burt Lancaster, in Criss Cross.

  11. Actually Criss Cross is the most incredible movie I've ever seen in my whole life.