Oscar Directors: Siodmak, Robert–The Killers (Exiles in Hollywood; Strangers in Paradise)

A German director who worked in Hollywood, Robert Siodmak is best remembered for stylish thrillers and films noirs in the 1940s, such as The Killers.

Siodmak was born August 8, 1900 in Dresden, Germany, the son of Rosa Philippine (née Blum) and Ignatz Siodmak and the brother of Curt, Verner and Roland. His parents were both from Jewish families in Leipzig; he fabricated his American birth in Memphis, Tennessee in order to obtain visa in Paris during World War II.

He worked as a stage director and a banker before becoming editor and scenarist for Curtis Bernhardt in 1925 (Bernhardt directed Siodmak’s story Conflict in 1945).

At 26, he was hired by his cousin, producer Seymour Nebenzal, to assemble silent movies from stock footage of old films.  Two years later, Nebenzal financed his first feature, the 1929 silent masterpiece Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday). The script was co-written by Billy Wilder and Siodmak’s brother Curt Siodmak, later the writer of The Wolf Man (1941). This last German silent also included such future Hollywood artists as Fred Zinnemann, Edgar G. Ulmer, and Eugen Schufftan.

His next film—the first at UFA to use sound—was the 1930 comedy Abschied for writers Emeric Pressburger and Irma von Cube, followed by Der Mann, der seinen Mörder sucht, another comedy.  His next film, the crime thriller Stürme der Leidenschaft, with Emil Jannings and Anna Sten, made stronger impression with its style.

With the rise of Nazism and after attack in the press by Hitler’s minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels in 1933 after viewing Brennendes Geheimnis (The Burning Secret), Siodmak left Germany for Paris.

He worked for the next six years in a variety of film genres, from comedy (Le sexe faible and La Vie Parisienne ) to musical (La crise est finie, with Danielle Darrieux) to drama (Mister Flow, Cargaison blanche, Mollenard—compare Gabrielle Dorziat’s shrewish wife with that of Rosalind Ivan in The Suspect— and Pièges, with Maurice Chevalier and Erich Von Stroheim).

While in France, Hitler again forced him out. Siodmak arrived in California in 1939, where he made 23 movies, including thrillers and crime melodramas, some of which classics of film noir.

In 1941, he turned out several B-films for various studios before gaining a seven-year contract with Universal Studios in 1943. The best of those early films are the thriller Fly by Night in 1942, with Richard Carlson and Nancy Kelly, and in 1943 Someone to Remember, with Mable Paige.

As studio director, he helped salvage troublesome productions. On Mark Hellinger’s Swell Guy (1946), Siodmak was brought in to replace Frank Tuttle only six days after completing The Killers.

At Universal, Siodmak made the B-film, Son of Dracula (1943), the third in the studio’s series of Dracula movies (based on his brother Curt’s story). His second feature was the Maria Montez/Jon Hall vehicle, Cobra Woman (1944), in Technicolor.

His first noir was Phantom Lady (1944), for producer Joan Harrison, Universal’s first female executive and Hitchcock’s former secretary and script assistant. It showcased Siodmak’s skill with camera and editing to dazzling effect.

Following the critical success of Phantom Lady, Siodmak directed Christmas Holiday (1944) with Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly (Hans J. Salter received an Oscar nomination for best music).

His work in Hollywood attained the stylistic and thematic characteristics that are evident in his later noirs. Christmas Holiday, adapted from a W. Somerset Maugham novel by Herman J. Mankiewicz, was Durbin’s most successful feature. Siodmak’s use of black-and-white cinematography and urban landscapes, and his light-and-shadow designs, followed the basic conventions of classic noir films.

He collaborated with some great cinematographers, such as Nicholas Musuraca, Elwood Bredell, and Franz Planer, achieving the Expressionist look he had shown at UFA.

The Killers

During his tenure, Universal made some film noirs, The Suspect, The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry, The Dark Mirror.  Best of all was The Killers, in 1946, which was Burt Lancaster’s debut and Ava Gardner’s first dramatic role. A critical and financial success, it earned Siodmak his only Best Director Oscar nomination.

Foreign Language Nominee

His German production, Nachts, wenn der Teufel kam, based on the true story of serial killer Bruno Lüdke, was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film in 1957.

Siodmak worked on loan out to RKO for producer Dore Schary in the thriller The Spiral Staircase, a masterful blend of suspense and horror, which Siodmak said he edited as he pleased, due to a strike in Hollywood in 1945 (the film earned Ethel Barrymore a supporting-Oscar nomination).

At 20th Century Fox and producer Darryl F. Zanuck, he directed, partly on location in New York, the crime noir Cry of the City in 1948, and in 1949 for MGM he tackled its lux production The Great Sinner, but the prolix script proved unmanageable for Siodmak who relinquished direction to Mervyn LeRoy. On loan out to Paramount in 1949, he made for producer Hal B. Wallis his penultimate American noir The File on Thelma Jordon, with Barbara Stanwyck at her most fatal—and sympathetic. Siodmak saw in this film a thematic link with The Suspect and The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry, with the failed lovers at the center and their tragic conclusions (he would address the same theme in The Rough and the Smooth).

His finest film is Criss Cross, which reunited him with Lancaster, and The Killers producer Mark Hellinger, who died suddenly before production began.  Working without Hellinger’s interferebce, Siodmak was able to have complete freedom. The triangle consists of Yvonne De Carlo, as a working-class femme fatal, caught between Lancaster and Dan Duryea. It is defined by doomed attraction, as in other Siodmak noirs, including its nihilistic ending.

Siodmak acquired reputation as actor’s director for his work with many future stars: Burt Lancaster, Ernest Borgnine, Tony Curtis, Debra Paget, Maria Schell, Mario Adorf, Ava Gardner, Olivia de Havilland, Dorothy McGuire, Yvonne de Carlo, Barbara Stanwyck, Geraldine Fitzgerald, and Ella Raines.

He directed Charles Laughton and George Sanders, who render natural and underacted performances. From Lon Chaney, Jr. he drew an uncharacteristically controlled and menacing performance for Son of Dracula. He managed with Lancaster to capture a youthful vulnerability in “The Killer”—despite the actor’s age (he was 33). He got a believable dramatic performance from Gene Kelly. He also helped raise Ava Gardner’s public profile.

Before leaving for Europe in 1952, after the problematic production of The Crimson Pirate for Warner Bros. and producer Harold Hecht, his third and last film with Burt Lancaster (Siodmak dubbed the chaotic experience “The Hecht Follies”).

Siodmak had directed some of the era’s best films noirs (twelve), more than  other directors who worked in that style. However, his identification with film noir, generally unpopular with American audiences, might have been a curse of typecasting.

He ended his Universal contract with the disappointing noir, Deported (1951), which he filmed partly abroad (Siodmak was among the first refugee directors to return to Europe). The story is loosely based on the deportation of gangster Charles “Lucky” Luciano. Siodmak had hoped Loretta Young would star, but settled for the Swedish actress Märta Torén.

He made The Great Sinner (1949) for MGM, Time Out of Mind (1947) for Universal (which Siodmak also produced), The Whistle at Eaton Falls (1951) for Columbia Pictures (Ernest Borgnine’s debut and Dorothy Gish’s return to the screen)—all proved ill-suited to his noir sensibilities.

The Crimson Pirate, despite the difficult production, was a surprising and pleasing departure—Lancaster believed it was inspiration for the tongue-in-cheek style of the James Bond films.

H spent five months, working with Budd Schulberg on a screenplay tentatively titled “A Stone in the River Hudson,” an early version of On the Waterfront. In 1954, he sued producer Sam Spiegel for copyright infringement, and was awarded $100,000, but no credit. His contribution to the script has never been acknowledged.

Siodmak’s return to Europe in 1954 for a remake of Jacques Feyder’s Le grand jeu was a misstep, despite its stars, Gina Lollobrigida and Arletty in the role originated by Françoise Rosay, Feyder’s wife.

In 1955, Siodmak returned to the Federal Republic of Germany to make Die Ratten, with Maria Schell and Curd Jurgens, winning the Golden Bear at the 1955 Berlin Film Fest.[

It was the first in a series of films critical of his homeland, during and after Hitler, which included Nachts, wenn der Teufel kam, both thriller and social artifact of Germany under Nazi rule, shot in documentary style reminiscent of Menschen am Sonntag and Whistle at Eaton Falls.

In 1960, he helmed Mein Schulfreund, an absurdist comedy with Heinz Ruhmann as a postal worker attempting to reunite with childhood friend Hermann Göring. Between these films, and Mein Vater, der Schauspieler in 1956, with O. W. Fischer, he made the sordid melodrama, Dorothea Angermann in 1959, featuring Germany’s star Ruth Leuwerik.

He left Germany for Great Britain to film The Rough and the Smooth, with Nadja Tiller and Tony Britton, yet another noir, but much gloomier than his American movies (Its downbeat ending differs from that of The File on Thelma Jordan).

He followed with Katia also in 1959, a tale of Czarist Russia, with the young Romy Schneider, mistakenly titled in America Magnificent Sinner, recalling Siodmak’s other costume melodrama.

In 1961, L’affaire Nina B, with Pierre Brasseur and Nadja Tiller, was a slick, black-and-white thriller about a pay-for-hire Nazi hunter.

In 1962, he made Escape from East Berlin, with Don Murray and Christine Kaufman, had all the characteristic style of a Siodmak thriller, but was one that he later dismissed as something he had made for “little kids in America.”

In Germany, he returned to programmers like those that had begun his career in Hollywood 23 years earlier.

In 1964-1965, he made a series of films with former Tarzan Lex Barker: The Shoot, The Treasure of the Aztecs, and The Pyramid of the Sun God, all based on the adventure novels of Karl May.

Siodmak returned to Hollywood in 1967 for the wide-screen western Custer of the West, which was an artistic disappointment, and failed at the box-office.

Siodmak ended his career with a six-hour, two-part toga and chariot epic, Kampf um Rom (1968), a more campy work than Cobra Woman. There was a brief and profitable foray into TV in Britain with the series O.S.S. (1957–58).

He died on March 10, 1973 in Locarno of a heart attack, seven weeks after his wife’s death.  He was 72.

Filmography

Germany
Menschen am Sonntag (1930)
Farewell (1930)
Der Kampf mit dem Drachen oder: Die Tragödie des Untermieters (1930)
Der Mann, der seinen Mörder sucht (Man in Search of His Murderer) (1931)
Voruntersuchung (Inquest) (1931)
About an Inquest (1931)
Stürme der Leidenschaft (Storms of Passion) (1932)
Quick (1932)
Brennendes Geheimnis (The Burning Secret) (1933)
Le Sexe faible (The Weaker Sex) (1933)
La crise est finie (The Crisis is Over) (1934)
La Vie parisienne (Parisian Life) (1936)
Mister Flow (Compliments of Mister Flow) (1936)
Cargaison blanche / Le Chemin de Rio (White Cargo) (1937)
Mollenard (1938)
Ultimatum (1938, co-directed with Robert Wiene, uncredited)
Pièges (Personal Column) (1939)

Hollywood
West Point Widow (1941)
Fly-by-Night (1942)
My Heart Belongs to Daddy (1942)
The Night Before the Divorce (1942)
Someone to Remember (1943)
Son of Dracula (1943)
Phantom Lady (1944)
Cobra Woman (1944)
Christmas Holiday (1944)
The Suspect (1944)
The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945)

The Spiral Staircase (1945)
The Killers (1946)
The Dark Mirror (1946)
Time Out of Mind (1947)
Cry of the City (1948)
Criss Cross (1948)
The Great Sinner (1949)
The File on Thelma Jordon (1949)
Deported (1950)
The Whistle at Eaton Falls (1951)
The Crimson Pirate (1952)

German
Le Grand Jeu (Flesh and the Woman) (1954)
Die Ratten (1955)
My Father, the Actor (1956)
Nachts, wenn der Teufel kam (1957)
Katia (Magnificent Sinner) (1959)
Dorothea Angermann (1959)
The Rough and the Smooth (1959)
My Schoolfriend (1960)
The Nina B. Affair (1961)
Escape from East Berlin (Tunnel 28) (1962)
The Shoot (1964)
The Treasure of the Aztecs (1965)
The Pyramid of the Sun God (1965)
Custer of the West (1967)

Kampf um Rom I (1968)
Kampf um Rom II (1969)

Share this:
Share this page via Email Share this page via Stumble Upon Share this page via Digg this Share this page via Facebook Share this page via Twitter