Wed
Oct 23 2013 2:30pm

Noir’s Greatest Director: Robert Siodmak

The classic era of film noir was notable for the incredible amount of talent behind the camera. Famous directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles produced notable work in the genre, while lesser known talents like Phil Karlson, Ida Lupino, Anthony Mann, Andre De Toth, Jules Dassin, and Robert Wise (just to name a few) got their chops directing moody, violent crime stories.

Perhaps the director with the finest list of noir credits, though, was Robert Siodmak. Originally from Dresden, he was born into money and a certain social privilege—with a successful father and an artistically inclined mother. At 18 he went to Berlin, which in those days was the swinging, cultural capital of Europe.  During the 1920s, Siodmak, along with his brother Curt (who would himself become an important force in filmmaking), worked his way into the bustling German film industry. It was an incredible time—the age of German Expressionism—and Siodmak worked alongside future film masters like Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann, Edgar G. Ulmer, and Fritz Lang. Not incidentally, all of these men would make important contributions to film noir.

Then came the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, and like so many other artists (especially the ones of Jewish descent) Siodmak fled the country and came to America. Here he developed an approach to crime films that was striking and distinctive. Though he was a master of suspense, Siodmak’s American noirs were not as nerve-rattling as Hitchcock’s, and they were not marked by the kind of rough-and-tumble violence that drew attention to Karlson or Mann. What Siodmak did—as well as, or perhaps, better than anyone else—was to create the noir mood, an atmosphere of doom, of anxiety giving way to destruction. His films are, almost without exception, beautifully visual. If you want to learn about noir style, Siodmak is probably the best place to start. His films take place in a world of shadow and light, of footsteps in the dark and smoky doorways in the night.

Here’s your beginner’s guide to Siodmak:

Best of the Best

Criss Cross
Armored truck driver Burt Lancaster meets sexy Yvonne De Carlo and she ruins his life. Almost a textbook example of film noir. It has a flawed antihero, a beautiful femme fatale, an interesting villain (Dan Duryea), a lively supporting cast, and gorgeous black and white cinematography. Of course, it takes more than a list of elements to make a great film, but Criss Cross also happens to be an excellent example of that rare magic that touches only a few movies. Siodmak’s feel for noir—the visual aesthetic of black and white, the existential fear and paranoia, the mixture of crime and melodrama—is simply unsurpassed.   A masterpiece.

The Killers
Ex-boxer Burt Lancaster meets sexy Ava Gardner and she ruins his life. More famous than Criss Cross and almost as good. Working with cinematographer Woody Bredell, Siodmak gives us a film of deep blacks and searing whites, a film visually constructed around the interplay between evocative shadows and brutal light. The director also gives us some of his justly famous long shots—there’s a heist here that ranks as one of the best of its kind. The film is composed entirely of smartly directed shots, really, but Siodmak never seems to be showing off. He advances his plot and deepens his characters, and he does it all with a maximum of style and a minimum of fuss. Another masterpiece.

Cry of the City
Richard Conte is a big time hood on the run, while Victor Mature is the cop from the old neighborhood who’s trying to hunt him down. The whole film is a tour de force, really. After some rather exposition-heavy opening scenes, Conte busts out of the joint and Cry of the City hits its stride and never looks back. As Conte makes his increasingly desperate way through the criminal underworld, he comes into contact with a series of oily grotesques (and great character actors) like Barry Kroeger and the amazing Hope Emerson. Yet another masterpiece.

Phantom Lady
Civil engineer Alan Curtis is framed for killing his wife. His only alibi is the mysterious woman he met the night of the murder. His plucky secretary Ella Raines sets out to find the woman and clear his name. Working again with cinematographer Woody Bredell, Siodmak creates the kind of film that operates as a functioning definition of noir style. As Raines searches for the killer, she’s led to a sleazy little drummer played by the great Elisha Cooke. The scene where he leads Raines to an afterhours jazz jam session—throwing open the door and leading her inside like he’s pulling her into an orgy—pushes the edges of the era’s decorum. Juxtaposed with that scene’s ferocious energy is the sequence where Raines follows a suspect through the city at night. This sequence utilizes silence, real sound, tilted angles, shadow, lights, slicked streets, drunks passed out on stoops—just about everything that constitutes noir. It culminates, wordlessly, with the man deciding to kill Raines at a train station. It’s an extraordinary piece of filmmaking, as suspenseful as anything the Hitchcock ever did. You could say much the same thing for the rest of the movie. It is a gem.

Best of the Rest

The Suspect
A miserably married Charles Laughton meets the beautiful and sweet Ella Raines. He decides to get rid of his wife. Though Raines’s character is underdeveloped, this is still a strong piece of work, with an excellent performance by Laughton.

The Dark Mirror
Olivia De Havilland plays twins sisters, one of whom might be a coldblooded murderer. Some goofy plotting here, but De Havilland shines.

Christmas Holiday
Here’s an oddity—a holiday themed noir starring…Gene Kelly and Deanna Durbin! The leads are miscast and the plot meanders but it’s a beautifully shot piece of work with a strong supporting cast including the creepy Gale Sondergaard.


Read more posts in our Film Noir Collection.


Jake Hinkson, the Night Editor, is the author of The Posthumous Man.

Read all posts by Jake Hinkson for Criminal Element.

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2 comments
Jake Hinkson
1. JakeHinkson
PS: I really should have included the terriffic thriller The Spiral Starwcase in that list. Great cast and beautiful cinematography by the incomparable Nicholas Musuraca.
Jake Hinkson
2. JakeHinkson
Oh, typos, you evil little bastards. I meant The Spiral Staircase, of course. Great flick. See it.
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