The Visionary Difference of Robert Siodmak’s Film Noir

In the 1940s the German émigré forged a style of thriller that helped define what is now called film noir.
Christina Newland

Robert Siodmak's Phantom Lady (1944) and The Killers (1946) are showing in March and April, 2019 on MUBI in many countries around the world.

The Killers

There’s a long-told apocryphal story about German-born silent film star Emil Jannings. He was the first-ever winner of the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1929. After his career had waned, he would return to his homeland and form close ties with Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda. His stardom was renewed within the Third Reich’s film industry. When Berlin was reduced to rubble and Allied troops advanced on Jannings’ home, the story goes that he held his golden statuette aloft and shouted some placating words to the soldiers: “Don’t shoot, I won an Oscar!”

True or not, Jannings’ tale is a cruel sort of reversal of the reality faced by artists who were forced to escape Europe during the Nazis’ reign. Throughout the thirties, Jannings’ patron Goebbels would intimidate and publicly shame artists unaligned to the Nazi cause, particularly those of Jewish descent. After getting his start in filmmaking at the beginning of the decade, Robert Siodmak became one of those artists, born to a Jewish family in Leipzig. He had carved out a burgeoning career for himself in talking pictures at German studio UFA, alongside colleagues like Billy Wilder and Fred Zinnemann. But when his adaptation of Stefan Zweig novella The Burning Secret premiered in 1933, Goebbels openly criticized the film for its themes of adultery in the German press.

Siodmak was no fool; he knew it was time to get out. In Paris, he found a foothold and made a half-dozen feature films of all genres. But his success in France was also short-lived; like fellow German-Jewish filmmaker Max Ophüls, he would be forced to flee the Nazis a second time and head to America in 1940. After jobbing around at a few different studios, making what he later referred to as “shit,” he was signed in 1943 to a seven-year contract with Universal Studios, one of the major-minors.  

From 1944 onward—a year that would include two stand-out crime dramas from the director, Phantom Lady and Christmas Holiday—Siodmak was both hugely prolific and having something like a hot hand, though maybe this was only clear in retrospect. In his time under contract to Universal, some of the noirs he made would include: The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945), The Killers (1946), The Spiral Staircase (1946), Cry of the City (1948), and Criss Cross (1949). Of these, The Killers would earn Siodmak his only Oscar nomination and his reputation for introducing both Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner to the screen in their first major roles.  

Universal maintained a relatively low budget for these thrillers, shot on tight shooting schedules of under a month and rarely costing more than $500,000. Siodmak never worked consistently with the same set of cinematographers in his time at the studio, which does further the case for his unique German influence on the appearance of his films. Several film critics of the era could be found specifically crediting Siodmak for his “specialty” in thrillers, praising him for his “smart shifts of camera emphasis” (Variety)  and “the way his scenes are sculpted in dark and light” (Manny Farber). His primary talent, even beyond his taut plotting and taste for suspense, was as a stylist. Directorial influence and visual style was not always a priority for the wartime film reviewer; often, with genre pictures like these, mention of the star power of a cast or the involvement of a big-name producer would suffice. Even still, it was virtually impossible not to appreciate Siodmak’s visual flair, and it went remarked upon by many. This unspoken language, leaning back into German Expressionism and the symbolism of silent cinema, would be a vital maker of meaning in Siodmak’s most famous film noirs. The way he lit amoral gangsters’ molls could turn them into avenging angels; his use of deep focus could reveal fractures in the psyche of sympathetic local street cops; de rigeur heist scenes were ghostly and surreal.

The Killers remains what is among the most exemplary film noirs ever made, scripted partly by John Huston from a story by Ernest Hemingway. Without any verbal cues, it’s all in the frame: Burt Lancaster's masculine health and vigor is drawn in sharp relief against Gardner's black widow spider, with her slow, poised movements and cold elegance. Gardner is pure villainess: the woman who is deceitful because she can be, because it delights her to toy with men. She woos the vulnerable Swede (Lancaster) and spellbinds him so completely that her warning—“I'm poison, Swede, to myself and everyone around me”—goes unheeded. And she is: so black-hearted that she not only cons Swede into betraying his partners, but cons her way back to her husband, the ringleader of the gang. Like so many femme fatales, Gardner undergoes ritual punishment by the conclusion. But it’s her defiance that’s most memorable: her attitude and appearance fly in the face of domesticated mid-century femininity, and it’s largely down to how Siodmak frames and films her.

In the clipped, high-modernist stylings of the jazz club scene in Phantom Lady, the jagged angles and exaggerated close-ups Siodmak employs are striking. Much has been made of Elisha Cook Jr.’s furious drumming sequence and its blatant parallels to sexual climax, but the moment that lingers most is one just before that. Ella Raines is there to trick her jazz-loving date into giving her information on a frame-up. In one Dutch tilt close-up of Raines’ face as she surveys the cramped little hangout, her beautiful features are fraught with a mixture of trepidation and steel-spined tenacity. Bursting into the corner of the frame behind her, in a pocket left by the angular composition, comes the sweaty, amorous visage of Elisha Cook Jr. attempting to lean into her soft neck. It’s a literal invasion of her space, but also an interruption into her moment of reverie.

A lustful man breaking into the interiority of a female protagonist, visualized as the pest that he is, is a remarkable moment and a real signifier of Phantom Lady’s difference. This is not your ordinary film noir, where the eroticized woman welcomes the stares of both viewer and male screen inhabitant; here the viewer’s own look at Raines is disrupted by an interloper. The simple directive of “girl walks into a tiny jazz club” is inflected here with lively sensuality, insidious suggestion, and even a little bit of progressive intent where its women are concerned.

After all, the only person in Phantom Lady who dares to tell Ella Raines’ sleuth that she’s doing “a job for a man” is the psychotic killer played by Franchot Tone. Given that she’s investigating his crimes, it’s a point we can feel free to ignore. But Phantom Lady also distinguishes itself by its women who were behind the scenes; Joan Harrison, a former screenwriter for Hitchcock, worked as executive producer for the first time on the film. Harrison and Siodmak presumably collaborated well together, for they would reunite the following year, 1945, for The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry. In a 1946 interview with Harrison in Screenland magazine, she talked through the process of carefully casting the film alongside Siodmak—and even ultimately having final cut over him. It was well-known that he was a director who worked well within the studio system, with a reputation for reliability and the ability to gently coax producers into making the adjustments he craved. Still, by the early 1950s, film noir was on its way out, and Siodmak, who was known first and foremost for that style, struggled to make the work he wanted to. He left California for Europe in 1952, fed up with poor material and bratty movie stars.

“I got out of Germany just ahead of Hitler and out of Hollywood just ahead of CinemaScope,” Siodmak used to joke. He could afford to be blasé about it like few could. In that decade between 1941 and 1951, along with his émigré fellows, he would create work that was inevitably influenced by the darkness of the recent past. Jewish-German filmmakers like Siodmak had survived, compromised, and been made to fear for their livelihoods and lives by the encroaching German Reich. This would come to bear on the style and mood of the films he would make in Hollywood, and in Siodmak’s case, would help to reinvent the visual vocabulary of the American crime thriller.

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