Dark Chambers

Deceit and obsession in Robert Siodmak's Universal noirs
by Imogen Sara Smith  posted July 13, 2012
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Mirrors, like movie screens, give the illusion of depth. Mimicking windows, they hold false promises of escape but only frame the inescapable. Robert Siodmak was far from the only director with a fondness for mirrors, but he made them more than a visual trademark; they represent the gleaming, fragmented, deceitful world of his films. A master of chamber noir, Siodmak traps audiences in dark rooms, in stifling relationships, and in one-track minds. Obsession, the theme of his best films, functions like a close-up: narrowing the field of vision to a single object.

Born into a cultured Jewish family in Dresden in 1900, Siodmak got his first taste of cinema while writing German intertitles for Mack Sennett comedies. His career as a director began with People on Sunday (Mennschen am Sonntag, 1930), a film alive with sunlight, fresh air, motion, and freedom, shadowed by a fleeting twinge of pain. Each of the film’s soon-to-be-illustrious collaborators (Edgar G. Ulmer, Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann, Eugene Schufftan) would make his mark on noir, but none would be more intimately linked with it than Siodmak. His films turned dark early on, and his last German movie, Burning Secret (1933), was accused of “sick sultriness and airless muddle-headedness” by the Nazi propaganda mouthpiece Der Angriff, which advocated “clean, decent” films for the fatherland. Siodmak left Germany that year, and fled France six years later at the outbreak of the Second World War.

As part of a centennial tribute to Universal Pictures (July 13-August 9), Film Forum will screen nine films Siodmak made under contract there. He worked comfortably within the studio system, but he was hardly a functionary or a hack. Rather, he seems to have had a subtle talent for getting his way without demanding it, skillfully managing difficult actors and infusing his films with a distinctive style and set of preoccupations. He frequently contributed to scripts, favoring complex, elliptical structures with multiple flashbacks. His psychological dramas dig beneath the hard-boiled mask of 1940s crime movies. Their cruelest violence is not physical. It is words that lacerate, silence that strangles. People can die long before their hearts stop beating.

Despite the success of his German and French films, when he arrived in Hollywood in 1939 Siodmak had to prove himself, first at Paramount and then at Universal, directing B programmers that he dismissed even at the time, declining to claim credit for them. (Frustrated by Americans’ inability to pronounce his name, around the lot he sometimes wore a jacket emblazoned: “SEE-ODD-MACK.”) His breakthrough came with Phantom Lady (1944), adapted from a Cornell Woolrich novel about a woman trying to clear her boss of a murder rap by tracking down a witness who can confirm his alibi. The script shrugs off credibility and flirts with silliness, but Siodmak made the film a showcase for his style, which stayed true to his roots in the flamboyant camerawork, gothic lighting, and heightened moods of Weimar cinema. As James Harvey suggests in his chapter on Siodmak in Movie Love in the Fifties, film noir “licensed…stylization in Hollywood movies,” boldly challenging the standard of “invisible” directing enshrined in America. Stylization suits film noir, is even necessary to it, because noir is about subjective, interior states. Expressionism literally brings the inside to the surface; as in dreams, people in film noir move through worlds distorted by their own fears and desires.

Phantom Lady

Ella Raines in Phantom Lady

In Phantom Lady, the heroine is sane and normal; it’s her world that is off-kilter, violent, crazy. The film is best known for two inspired set pieces. No one ever forgets the scene in which Carol “Kansas” Richman (Ella Raines) disguises herself as a gum-chewing floozy and picks up a lecherous jazz drummer (Elisha Cook, Jr.) who takes her to an after-hours jam session. Amid a flurry of rapid cutting, tilted shots, sweaty and shadowy close-ups, Siodmak got away with what must be the most sexually suggestive sequence of the Production Code era, abetted by the graphic performances of Cook and Raines. Even better is the scene where Kansas stalks a bartender, trying to unnerve him into changing his false testimony. It’s an odd plan, but somehow the table-turning works, with the beautiful young woman becoming the menacer instead of the menaced on a walk through deserted city streets. Siodmak floods the studio backlot with palpable atmosphere. It’s a hot night just after rain, the streets glistening with pools of water, the air fogged with humidity. The sounds of heels on pavement, elevated trains, coins in turnstiles are intensified, as if by heat or fear. With the detail and feverish vividness of these scenes, Siodmak upstages Franchot Tone’s showy, paper-thin performance as a twitching, insane killer. He commits the crime of drawing attention to himself as a director, and makes it pay.

Lurking in the background of Phantom Lady is a wretched marriage, a motif that haunts Siodmak’s films. The painful intensity he brought to scenes of domestic misery presumably owes something to his firsthand experience of his parents’ unhappy union. “When two people are shut up together and they don’t love each other, everything they do becomes hateful just because they do it,” Phillip Marshall (Charles Laughton) explains in The Suspect (1944), a period thriller that makes an airtight case for killing your wife. Though played with great sensitivity and restraint by Laughton, the film suffers from a script that stacks the deck. The characters are black or white, and Marshall’s two victims are both so hateful that you root for him to kill them and get away with it. Marshall himself is a man of such charm and kindness that it’s almost plausible that the gorgeous young shopgirl played by Ella Raines would fall in love with him despite his age and homeliness. His wife is a shrill harpy who lives only to torment the man who supports her. His neighbor Simmons (snob specialist Henry Daniell) is a drunken, idle wife-beater who tries to blackmail Marshall. Before succumbing to drugged whiskey Simmons declares his philosophy, which the film tacitly confirms: “It’s hurt or be hurt in this world.”

Given the rules of the Production Code you know Marshall will pay for his crimes. The result is less suspense than an oppressive feeling of inevitable doom. Despite his reputation as a maker of thrillers, Siodmak was not primarily concerned with making audiences sit on the edges of their seats and bite their nails. In the '40s he was often compared to Hitchcock, but aside from a shared preference for shooting on sets, the two differ widely in their sensibilities. Siodmak was interested above all in character, and believed that the best way to make a crime movie was to “let [the] audience in on the secret,” to focus not on the who or the how, but on the why of crime.

The flashback structures Siodmak favored also undermine suspense; instead of focusing on the uncertain future—what’s going to happen?—they delve into the reasons for foregone outcomes. Christmas Holiday (1944) is a film about remembering, listening, watching, waiting. The kernel of the plot is a woman’s discovery that her adored husband is a murderer, but the film is not about that crime so much as the way it ripples outward through time. The woman, Abigail, tells her story to a near-stranger, a young army lieutenant stranded in New Orleans on his way home for Christmas. Preoccupied with his fiancée’s betrayal, he meets Abigail while waiting out a storm that has grounded his plane. Her own life has become a limbo of hopeless waiting while her husband serves a life sentence in prison.

Christmas Holiday

Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly in Christmas Holiday, directed by Robert Siodmak

Long scenes are given over to music, as we watch characters attend midnight mass in a cathedral, or a recital of Wagner in a concert hall. A wonderfully languid sequence takes us into the Maison Lafitte (the kind of hostess club that in Code-era Hollywood movies always stood in for brothels), where a jazz band doles out sultry, bluesy swing. We first see Abigail when she gets up to sing; she stands rigid, giving a remote, unemotional performance of the wistful Frank Loesser ballad “Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year.” Contemporary audiences were shocked at the sight of Deanna Durbin, Universal’s teen musical sweetheart, in a sexy black gown as a jaded, heartsore nightclub singer. Durbin is marvelous, with her dry, understated delivery and mature self-possession. As her husband, Gene Kelly makes brilliant use of his flat voice and shallow, calculating charm; his character is either a clever, callous psychopath or a weak, impulsive man warped by the obsessive devotion of his domineering mother. The script by Herman Mankiewicz (using his trademark out-of-order flashbacks) loses its clarity at the end, and the denouement is both rushed and bombastic, though it’s a tour de force of imprisoning shadows and harsh, slicing lights. The sharpest parts of the film are agonizingly awkward domestic scenes, like the one where a starry-eyed Abigail serenades her husband with Irving Berlin’s “Always” while his creepy mother sits nearby knitting: a portrait of unhealthy intimacy that wickedly parodies sugarcoated Hollywood musicals.

The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945) depicts oppressive family life with an accumulation of minute detail that builds an unbearable atmosphere of irritable tension. George Sanders gives his most sensitive and subtle performance in the against-type role of a mild-mannered, celibate bachelor who lives with his two sisters in their old family home. Sanders brings out the enervation of Harry Melville Quincy, suggesting sardonic intelligence and a hunger for change thwarted by a lack of will. In the somber house cluttered with heavy antique furniture, Harry sits mute and smothered as his sisters and their cook fuss over him, bickering and whining over petty grievances, competing to pamper “poor Harry.”

His younger sister, Lettie (Geraldine Fitzgerald), is a self-proclaimed invalid who spends her time lounging around in filmy negligees in a hot, dim, airless greenhouse. Her incestuous attachment to her brother is so glaring that his refusal to recognize it demonstrates at best a deliberate blindness, an unwillingness to face unpleasant realities. Though Lettie’s flaunted sexuality is disturbing in the confines of the siblings’ household, the real danger she represents is the lure of retreat into an enclosed world of childhood and home. Her indolent selfishness and nostalgia for a secret, shared world of the imagination embody all that paralyzes Harry, but she is also an iron-willed schemer who effortlessly dominates her ineffectual brother.

The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry

George Sanders in The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry, directed by Robert Siodmak

Again, Ella Raines plays a confident professional who gallantly offers rescue to the trapped protagonist. Here she’s Deborah Brown, a New York fashion designer who swaggers around in masculine tailored suits while she challenges Harry to get out of his rut. During a ghastly tea party, Lettie and Deborah recognize each other as rivals, but the straightforward city girl can’t compete with the devious small-town sister who uses weakness as a weapon, feigning illness to stop Harry from leaving to get married. As in Phantom Lady and The Suspect, it’s the independent working girl who helps the hero, and the domestic woman, tethered to the home, who is fatal to him. But Harry is also doomed by his spinelessness, and Sanders’s contained, ambivalent performance never shies away from this truth. The camera creeps ever so slowly toward his face as Harry makes a long speech to Deborah about how she has changed his life, his voice hushed and almost breaking, his eyes pricked with tears. But rather than falling into his arms, she moves slowly away with a troubled look, realizing how deep his weakness goes.

Uncle Harry, is the fullest exploration of a major Siodmak theme: family members as intimate enemies. The domestic setting feels malevolent in this adaptation of a stage play by Thomas Job. Siodmak makes vivid use of off-screen sound (Harry listens to his sisters violently arguing as he sits listlessly at his desk) and of silence, as when Harry breathlessly waits for Lettie to die after putting poison in her cocoa. Through a mix-up with the cups, it’s his older sister Hester who dies, and Lettie is convicted of murdering her. Finally unable to bear the guilt, Harry tries to confess, but can’t get anyone to believe him. In one of Siodmak’s nastiest scenes of emotional violence, cruel joy lights up Lettie’s taut face as she consigns her brother to a lifetime of self-punishment, sarcastically throwing his own words back at him: "I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is." This is where the film should end, but the studio insisted on a last-minute twist, resulting in one of the most unconvincing happy endings ever tacked onto a film. Producer Joan Harrison left Universal in protest, and the epilogue is written, filmed and acted with a cynical lack of conviction.

A similar superficiality afflicts The Dark Mirror (1946), a slick melodrama about identical twins, both played by Olivia De Havilland. The script treads predictable paths (good and evil twins, the dual alibi, the “gaslight” routine) and overlays them with psychoanalytic clichés, such as the stale canard that “all women are rivals, fundamentally.” The glossy surface makes the film go down almost too easily. The process photography is flawless, and De Havilland does a good job of initially confusing expectations, gradually creating more and more distinct identities for the sisters. Mirrors double the doubles and illustrate the theme of deceptive likeness. The disturbing relationship between the sisters Terry and Ruth—who wear matching outfits, share a bedroom, and often switch places—is clinically parsed by a genial psychiatrist (Lew Ayres) who gives some basis to Terry’s paranoid jealousy when he falls in love with the “normal” Ruth. The poisonous bond of inseparable siblings remains potent, perhaps for personal reasons; screenwriter Curt Siodmak, the director’s younger brother, said that there was an intense sibling rivalry between them despite their closeness. But beneath its dark, velvety look, the film recoils from the abnormal and explains away nameless terrors with a soothing bedside manner. Siodmak’s next film would abandon any pat consolation.

The passive, fatalistic anti-hero was a noir staple, breaking the rules of Hollywood drama. There is no more iconic example than Burt Lancaster’s introduction in The Killers (1946), his film debut. He lies on the bed in a darkened room, his face blotted out by shadows, and when he’s told that hit men are coming to kill him, he replies quietly, “There’s nothing I can do about it.” Nowhere but in a postwar film noir would an actor with Lancaster’s massively sculpted body, flashing teeth, and leonine head be introduced to audiences as a helpless victim undone by romantic illusions. Here and in Criss Cross (1949) Lancaster has a soft, open gaze; a gaze wounded and enslaved by the sight of a woman. His fatalism (“It was in the cards,” he keeps saying in the later film) shades into a willingness to take punishment, a dazzled embrace of what destroys him.

The Killers

Ava Gardner and Burt Lancaster in The Killers, directed by Robert Siodmak

“I did something wrong, once,” he says in The Killers, when asked why the men want to kill him. The little pause before “once” makes the line unforgettable. With this and Criss Cross Siodmak produced two definitive examples of film noir. By The Killers, his artistry was at its peak. Woody Bredell’s cinematography throws low-angle lighting into scenes, casting long shadows that loom on the walls or spill toward the camera. The jolting, staccato score (swiped for Dragnet) alternates with scenes in which sounds—the ticking of a clock, birdsong, the squeak of a rag on a windshield—are loud in the silence of dread.

Though the full title is Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers, only the first 10 minutes of the film follow Hemingway’s terse tale of a pair of hit men waiting in a small-town diner to kill a victim known as Swede. Hemingway’s deliberate opacity and artfully mundane, repetitive dialogue (delivered in rat-a-tat deadpan by Charles McGraw and William Conrad) give way to a convoluted tale of double-crosses. The script by Richard Brooks and John Huston (credited to Anthony Veiller) owes much to Citizen Kane: an insurance detective (a subdued Edmond O’Brien) investigates Swede’s death, prompting a series of flashbacks out of chronological order, which gradually piece together the essence of a life. Disorienting shifts give the feeling of moving through a maze, but Siodmak had a gift for making episodic, disjointed films flow. We first see Swede passive and defeated, but in our next sight of him he’s savagely smashing up his hotel room. Then he’s grinning and cocky in a loud tie; then pensive in a jail cell, talking about the stars. We’re always seeing him through other people’s eyes, but a consistent mood of regret makes the character hang together as the film cuts from rainy funeral to seedy pool hall, bloody boxing match to swank party, tawdry cafe to baroque mansion.

Though fragmented, the film is shaped by Siodmak’s patient interest in character, and full of his trademark chamber ensembles: the first encounter of Swede and Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner) at a party, ruefully seen through the eyes of his abandoned girlfriend; the nervous bickering of a heist gang in their dingy hideout, all sick of each other and ready to explode. The Killers is a hard, unsentimental film, without the warmth or ambivalent sympathies of Siodmak’s earlier works. This is a world where truth matters—“Don’t ask a dying man to lie his soul into hell,” Sam Levene reproaches in his gravelly, sorrowful voice—but where it always disappoints.

In Criss Cross, his masterpiece, Siodmak employs a sinuous and engrossing style of long takes, which sometimes shatter into frenetic outbursts of quick cuts. The way they draw the viewer into the scene, so that you’re in the middle of something before you’re sure what it is, mirrors the way Steve (Burt Lancaster) is drawn into a fatal entanglement with his ex-wife, Anna (Yvonne DeCarlo). Again the film unfurls in flashback, after an assured, propulsive opening that plunges straight into the anxious preparations of the night before a heist. It grabs you by the throat, but gracefully, as though pulling you into a dance. When we first see Anna she is spinning and dipping and gliding through a rumba (partnered by a very young Tony Curtis). Tight, rhythmic close-ups of the seething dance floor are cut together with close-ups of Steve, still and rapt amid all the jittering motion.

Criss Cross

Yvonne De Carlo and Burt Lancaster in Criss Cross

The knot of relationships at the heart of the film is snarled with spite, regret, and bad choices. Steve and Anna’s attraction to each other is as persistent as their inability to live together. Steve’s cop friend (Stephen McNally) hates Anna and abuses his legal power to keep them apart. He drives Anna to marry the sleekly vicious gangster Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea), with the result that Steve ends up involved in an armored-car robbery. Everyone acts badly, but no one is simply evil. Despite the beauty of the stars, the characters are, to a striking degree, ordinary people—she sulky, he needling, neither very bright—whose spectacular mutual destruction hits all the harder because they seem so real.

Siodmak’s elegant, European style is wedded to low-rent settings—greasy bars, drug stores, wood-frame houses, garages, and parking lots. The film was shot on location in Los Angeles (the pungent, electric Cry of the City [1947], a Fox film not in the Forum series, was largely shot on location in New York), and though Siodmak preferred the greater control of sets, in these films he achieved thrilling fusions of expressionism and gritty naturalism, the two components of noir’s rebellion against Hollywood classicism. Criss Cross climaxes in a magnificent heist sequence. Instead of the painstaking expositions made popular by The Asphalt Jungle, it uses broad, swift strokes, laying out the elements of the elaborate plan and then engulfing them in chaos and clouds of tear gas. With scenes fading out as the injured Steve loses and regains consciousness, the film finds the ideal blend of documentary realism and subjectivity, the meeting point of the vulnerable psyche and the hard, merciless world. Siodmak would never top Criss Cross; he made only one more strong American noir (The File on Thelma Jordan, for Paramount), and returned to Europe in 1950, where he spent most of the rest of his career, disdaining the messy, star-dominated Hollywood of the post-studio era.

Great noir endings are rarer than great noir films, since the strictures of the Code and the studios’ philosophy of pleasing audiences often resulted in last-minute lurches into moralizing optimism. Criss Cross has one of the few perfect endings in noir, combining bleak irony with transcendent disillusionment. Luminous clouds drift past the windows of a beach house and silver waves crawl silently across the water; in this romantic setting Anna dismisses the whole idea of love. “You always have to do what’s best for yourself,” she snaps defensively. She bustles around packing her suitcase, preparing to save herself and leave her lover to die. That’s just the way it is, she rants on (echoing Lettie’s words); she can’t help it if people get hurt, if they don’t know how to take care of themselves. Steve listens to her with a dazed half-smile as she bares the small, mean, selfish core of her identity. He looks strangely fulfilled by the knowledge: this is the consummation of his fatalism, and of Siodmak’s. The satisfaction of knowing the worst—one reason for the enduring popularity of noir—infuses his last words, as he murmurs with wry futility, “Well, I guess I’ll know better next time." 


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MCA/Universal Home Video
Yvonne De Carlo and Burt Lancaster in Criss Cross
Photo Gallery: Dark Chambers


July 13–August 9, 2012 Universal 100


Robert Siodmak  |  Hollywood  |  film noir  |  studio system  |  Retrospective  |  domesticity


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Imogen Sara Smith is a writer living in Brooklyn. She is the author of two books, In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City and Buster Keaton: the Persistence of Comedy

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