Robert Siodmak | Subjects | Visual Style
Films: People on Sunday | Phantom Lady
| Cobra Woman | The Spiral Staircase
| The Killers | Criss Cross
| The Crimson Pirate
Classic Film and Television Home Page
| Mathematics and Visual Style | Color in the Arts
Robert Siodmak directed films in Germany, France and the United States. He is known for
lavishly styled works, including black-and-white film noir, and lush color swashbuckling adventures.
Robert Siodmak: Subjects
Some common elements in the films of Robert Siodmak:
- Garages (garages maintaining cars in Berlin: People on Sunday, cabby has cab up on hoist: Phantom Lady,
dispatcher's office: Criss Cross)
- Theaters (theater: Phantom Lady, early silent film show: The Spiral Staircase)
- Jazz music with drumming (Elisha Cook as drummer: Phantom Lady,
night club dance with Rumba players: Criss Cross)
- Night driving (opening: The Killers, finale: Criss Cross)
- Protagonists escape from armed guards (crooks after plant robbery: The Killers,
heroes escape from palace: The Crimson Pirate) related (crook escapes from hospital: Criss Cross)
- Mute characters (Cobra Woman, The Spiral Staircase, The Crimson Pirate)
- Bowls of fruit (slum apartment: Cry of the City, ship at start: The Crimson Pirate)
- Groups of men carrying objects (box with cobra: Cobra Woman, boats: The Crimson Pirate)
- Female-run enterprises (music store, lunch stand, wine retailer: People on Sunday,
heroine, psychiatrist, milliner and designer, delicatessen, actress: Phantom Lady,
Barrymore's mansion with cook, nurse, maid: The Spiral Staircase,
hotel: The Killers, hospital: Cry of the City)
- Women using telephone as symbol of competence (woman sells phone service: People on Sunday,
heroine as secretary and detective: Phantom Lady,
heroine tries to speak into phone: The Spiral Staircase,
insurance investigator's secretary does research: The Killers)
- Twin sisters (Cobra Woman, The Dark Mirror)
- Underwater sequences (Cobra Woman, The Crimson Pirate)
- Water vessels with technology (paddle boats run by feet: People on Sunday,
submarine: The Crimson Pirate)
Robert Siodmak: Visual Style
Architecture and Design:
- Victorian decor (heroine's apartment, Elisha Cook's apartment: Phantom Lady,
home: The Suspect,
mansion: The Spiral Staircase)
- Staircases (station: People on Sunday,
prison, asylum, outdoor stairs to elevated: Phantom Lady,
steps leading to throne: Cobra Woman,
home: The Suspect,
hotel, three staircases at mansion: The Spiral Staircase,
Swede's, entrance to room with shallow steps, mansion: The Killers,
nightclub with descending levels, sloping exit of armored car company, staircase at Lancaster's, Angel's Flight: Criss Cross,
shallow steps of hero's office building: The File on Thelma Jordon)
- Windows used for spaces in frame (window overlooking throne room: Cobra Woman,
diner window into kitchen: The Killers, police car window in last shot: Cry of the City,
window into van of truck: Criss Cross, window behind painting: The Crimson Pirate)
- Constructions (railing in Berlin: People on Sunday, boxing ring poles and ropes: The Killers,
hospital equipment at end: Criss Cross)
- Counters (lunch stand: People on Sunday, Anselmo's bar: Phantom Lady, diner: The Killers)
- Glass walled rooms (gas station: The Killers, hospital ward: Cry of the City)
- Sliding doors (diner window into kitchen: The Killers, slum apartment, elevator: Cry of the City,
sliding painting: The Crimson Pirate)
- Light flickering outside windows (lightning: The Spiral Staircase,
car lights from city streets: Cry of the City)
- Mirrors (mirror behind bar, Franchot Tone's dressing room: Phantom Lady,
large circular mirror in dressing area: Cobra Woman,
mansion staircase: The Spiral Staircase,
over diner window at start, tilted mirror in restaurant finale: The Killers,
hospital: Criss Cross)
- Concentric circles (car wheels at garage: People on Sunday,
snake container on round platform, throne seat, gong: Cobra Woman,
window and arch on stair landing: The Suspect,
shot down spiral staircase: The Spiral Staircase,
attorney's window: Cry of the City,
door from below deck, ship's wheel: The Crimson Pirate)
related (round arches in church, circle in key store window: Cry of the City)
- Triangles (gas station logos: The Killers)
- Spirals (grill work railing in Berlin: People on Sunday, spiral staircase: The Spiral Staircase)
- Deep focus with characters in foreground and background
(bartender with heroine: Phantom Lady, Nick with killers in diner: The Killers,
detective at end of tenement hallway, view down rooms of slum apartment,
through prison door, from elevator: Cry of the City,
entrance of hero to office at start, party at start, hero watches Stanwyck leave office: The File on Thelma Jordon)
- Deep focus shooting through windows (from outside and inside diner, through rooming house window: The Killers)
- Angled looks down on ground (shots of Berlin: People on Sunday,
stalking bartender: Phantom Lady,
above cobra throne room: Cobra Woman,
heroine runs to house through rain: The Spiral Staircase,
Nick goes over fences: The Killers, start of robbery: Criss Cross)
- Upside down imagery (Conte's head in hospital bed: Cry of the City,
armored car at factory: Criss Cross)
related (upside down pirate spying through window: The Crimson Pirate)
- Path / reverse path camera movement (up and down bar: Phantom Lady,
diner to gas station and back, plant robbery, Gardner leaves and killers enter club: The Killers,
detective enters, leaves cigar store: Cry of the City, Carlo fetches Lancaster across dance floor: Criss Cross)
Costumes and Color:
- Purple and yellow color schemes (yellow palace with purple roofs: Cobra Woman,
Lancaster's magenta coat with gold trim: The Crimson Pirate)
- Red and blue color schemes (sailors in blue and sailor in scarlet and flag: The Crimson Pirate)
- White work clothes (bartender: Phantom Lady, chef, diner owner: The Killers,
lab coat: The Dark Mirror, hospital workers: Cry of the City)
- Women dancers in identical clothes (blue: Cobra Woman,
green with red flowers: The Crimson Pirate)
- Working class uniforms (gas station: The Killers,
armored car guard, milkman: Criss Cross)
- Men in perfect dark suits, coats and ties as intruders
(killers: The Killers, detectives: Cry of the City)
- Poorer men dressed up in fancy clothes for parties (wine salesman: People on Sunday,
doctor in wedding fantasy: The Spiral Staircase,
pirate Lancaster at fete: The Crimson Pirate)
- Young men in leather jackets (Nick: The Killers, slum kid: Cry of the City)
related (taxi driver in leather coat for work: People on Sunday)
- Masks (handkerchiefs in robbery: The Killers, gas masks: Criss Cross,
heads hidden by boats: The Crimson Pirate)
- Women's fans (fantasy dance scene: The Spiral Staircase, used by Nick Cravat: The Crimson Pirate)
People on Sunday
People on Sunday (1930) is a mix of a documentary film about Berlin,
with a light story about a group of young Berliners and their Sunday excursion to a country resort.
The silent film was co-directed by Edgar G. Ulmer.
It was the two men's only collaboration: most of each man's later projects would be solo directorial efforts.
Siodmak and Ulmer share a number of subjects, that run through both directors' films.
This common set of themes will get explored in this article.
A subject of both Siodmak's and Ulmer's works are "woman-run enterprises".
The record shop in People on Sunday has a woman music seller;
she is a main character in the film. We briefly see a female co-worker of hers,
adjusting a display window. We don't see any men associated with the store.
At the resort, a woman runs a sort of small lunch stand.
More elaborate counters will return in later Siodmak films, such as the
bar in Phantom Lady and the diner in The Killers.
Lunch counters in Ulmer include Tomorrow We Live and Detour.
The lunch-stand woman also sells the use of her phone. Siodmak sometimes employed images of
"women using telephones as a symbol of their competence".
The woman retailer at the finale to whom the salesman has sold wine,
is another of the film's female business persons.
Siodmak films include garages; Ulmer likes gas stations. Early in People on Sunday,
we see cars at what is both a garage and gas station, in Berlin.
The cabby is maintaining his car there. In Phantom Lady,
a cabby will have his cab up on a hoist.
The garage scene is one of the most visually striking in People on Sunday.
Boats with Technology
Siodmak in The Crimson Pirate will show boats and other sea vessels, equipped with high technology.
This is played for laughs, and often borders on science fiction. Ulmer has a vessel with
high tech in Isle of Forgotten Sins.
In People on Sunday we get a simple, small scale example of a "boat with technology",
in the paddle boats. We see various ways people operate these with their feet.
These look charming and fun, and add sparkle to the later scenes.
Both Siodmak and Ulmer like underwater sequences in their films.
Siodmak loves stairs, including some outdoors staircases.
Ulmer sometimes likes long-take camera movement shots on stairs:
The Black Cat, Carnegie Hall.
People on Sunday shows stairs at the train station, with people hurrying along them.
Poorer Men, Dressed Up
In Siodmak, poorer men sometimes get the opportunity to dress up splendidly in the clothes of the rich.
For example, pirate Burt Lancaster gets into a spectacular dress outfit in The Crimson Pirate.
In Ulmer, men often look for ways to get dressed up. These include poorer men, who try to find such opportunities:
the evening clothes worn by working class characters in My Son, the Hero,
the poor hero with his stolen classy suit in Detour,
lumberjack George Sanders after his promotion in The Strange Woman,
the poverty stricken hero becomes a prominent popular musician and gets dressed up in Carnegie Hall.
In People on Sunday the wine salesman is probably just getting by financially.
But he is dressed to the teeth first in a golfing outfit, then the next day in a good suit.
He looks terrific, and quite upper crust, in fashions that would be worn by wealthy members of the elite.
He is movie-star handsome, too.
The taxi driver seems like a straightforward member of the working class.
But the wine salesman's social status is harder to determine.
The title card that introduces him has a long list of professions: he's a rolling stone,
and probably something of a ne'er-do-well. The list begins with "officer": a mark
of high social standing in the military-obsessed Germany. But other jobs are quite
downhill. They include "taxi-dancer", which the summary on IMDB suggests is just a polite term
for gigolo. The wine salesman looks upper crust and smooth in his good clothes.
The salesman seem to be a man who sells wine wholesale to retailers:
late in the film, we see what looks like him concluding such a sale to a retailer in Berlin.
The "handsome, charming salesman in a good suit" is a standard sociological type in
the modern day USA; it seems already to be present in 1930 Germany, with the wine salesman being an example.
Siodmak likes "concentric circles": one circle inside another, with a common center.
Some of the car wheels in the early garage sequence are good examples in People on Sunday.
As usual, Siodmak uses such circles to build striking compositions.
A different geometric figure: the metal grill work on a rail in the Berlin street,
is covered with beautiful spiral designs.
Novel to Film
Phantom Lady (1944) is a faithful adaptation of the 1942
novel by Cornell Woolrich. It is a
much more enjoyable experience than the book. For one thing, the
story seems much faster paced in the film version. After all,
the movie unreels in an hour and a half, while the book is over
two hundred pages. What seems to drag interminably in the novel,
zips right along on screen. The same plot that seems padded in
the book, seems fascinating and full of interest in the film.
Jazz, Performance and the Theater
One of the most famous scenes in this film is the drumming scene.
This is one of a number of spectacular scenes in Siodmak's films
using jazz music. It is related to the nightclub scene in Criss Cross
where Yvonne De Carlo dances with a very young Tony
Curtis (in his film debut). In these scenes the jazz music is
literally overwhelming. It is loud, furiously rhythmic, and so
intense that one can hardly think. Listening to it, the characters
are literally swept up into it, and their thoughts and feelings
are taken over by the music. These scenes show Siodmak's great
skills as a stylist.
We always see the percussionists playing
in these scenes, the steady and frenzied beat of their arms producing
the beat of the music. In Phantom Lady it is Elisha Cook
doing his drum solo; in Criss Cross Siodmak frequently
cuts to the Rumba players, with a focus on the percussionist.
The theater scenes at the start recall the silent-film show that
begins The Spiral Staircase. Both pay as close attention
to the audience, as they do anything shown on stage. The courtroom
scenes focus entirely on the audience in the courtroom, in an
unusual figure of style.
Working women are everywhere in this film: the heroine, the psychiatrist,
the milliner and her designer, the delicatessen owner, the actress.
We repeatedly see women running businesses, and working as skilled
professionals. This might reflect the influence of Joan Harrison,
the Alfred Hitchcock protégé who was one of Hollywood's
few women producers. It also reflects the fact that women took
over many jobs during World War II.
By contrast, three sinister
organizations, the police, the cab drivers and the musicians,
are all-male. They contrast with the far more open and constructive
The heroine is repeatedly shown using the phone. Both the telephone
and the Dictaphone seem to be her high tech tools, used for both
business and crime detection. They often link her to unresponsive
men, however: her boss, the police. The heroine of The Spiral
Staircase also has trouble using the phone.
Both the heroine's apartment, and Elisha Cook's, are full of the
heavy Victorian design and bric-a-brac that will later dominate
The Spiral Staircase. The city streets, and even the elevated
station, are also full of an oppressive sense of past architecture
looming over the lives of the characters. However, when we finally
do get into a modernist design world, in the killer's apartment
at the end, there is no sense of relief.
The hero is a civil engineer, who has a vision of building better cities for people,
full of light and air. This change of environment would liberate people
from their oppressive architectural surroundings. It recalls the
Bauhaus of the 1920's, back in Siodmak's native Germany.
The scene where the cabby has his cab up on a hoist for maintenance,
anticipates the dispatcher's office in Criss Cross.
Both are set in large garages, dedicated to the storage of fleets of vehicles.
Mirrors are throughout the film. They reach their greatest complexity
in the dressing room, with Franchot Tone's killer reflected endlessly
in the three way dressing room mirror. The heavy light bulbs at
every angle of the mirrors adds to the baroque visual style.
Staircases tend to be in oppressive institutions: the prison,
the asylum. They open right down into the rooms.
Siodmak shoots down the staircase at the elevated train station.
This recalls the "down the staircase" shots at the Swede's rooming house,
at the start of The Killers. Both of these tilted angle, baroque
staircase shots are quintessentially noir.
Cobra Woman (1944) is most notable for its beautiful Technicolor
photography, sets and costumes. Like most color films of the early
1940's, it emphasizes soft pastels. The colors are even richer
and brighter than in most color films of the period; they are
just plain jaw dropping. The plot is a cornball but harmless adventure
story, remote from Siodmak's film noirs. But its color does show
another side of his gift for visual style.
Siodmak has an interest in circular and curved forms:
- The platform in front of the cobra throne is round, with a band around its
perimeter emphasizing this. The cobra box that is placed on this is square,
with a round compartment inside for the cobra.
- The throne seat itself is made up of numerous concentric circles
of a snake's tail.
- A gong has concentric circular regions.
The Spiral Staircase
The Spiral Staircase (1945) is one of Siodmak's most richly
styled works. Like some other of his films, it is a period piece.
Its over stuffed Victorian furniture and ornate décor positively
scream that the characters are probably repressed and emotionally
disturbed. Such period films were fairly rare among noir creators,
although one recalls Jacques Tourneur's
Experiment Perilous (1944).
An early scene takes place in a nickelodeon. We see a film projected.
Such projections within a picture were a favorite Lang device,
and we see them in Siodmak here too. The late 1940's was a time
in which Hollywood wanted to both recreate and caricature its
silent past: see George Marshall's
The Perils of Pauline (1947) and Billy Wilder's Sunset
Boulevard (1950). This early silent film production looks
both enthusiastic and campy. The nickelodeon scenes show a rapt
if naïve audience. It is a vividly filmed but somewhat condescending
look at the silent film era. Siodmak's composition during the
nickelodeon scenes is superb.
Film Noir Imagery
The sets in this film explore every possible noir approach. There
is not just one grand staircase in this film, but three, including
the spiral staircase of the title. One of the stairs has a huge
mirror on it, allowing Siodmak to combine staircase shots with
mirror shots, all in one image. The hallway of the house is full
of windows, allowing for framed "windows within the shot"
that noir film makers love. All of these concepts show the influence
of Fritz Lang.
The Marriage Fantasy
The marriage fantasy is deliberately different from the film around it.
In some ways it resembles episodes from Siodmak's swashbucklers,
such as the throne room scene in Cobra Woman or the party in The Crimson Pirate:
- It shows a public ritual or festival.
- The action takes place in a lavish set, full of visual display.
- There is a crowd of on-lookers.
- It contains dancing.
- The hardworking doctor is dressed in elaborate clothes of the rich,
white tie and tails, the way poor pirate Burt Lancaster in The Crimson Pirate
gets into upper class finery.
The Spiral Staircase is based on Ethel Lina White's
novel, Some Must Watch (1933), a book that has been frequently
reissued as The Spiral Staircase. In many ways, the film
is a faithful version of the book. Some key differences:
- White's novel is set in contemporary Britain; the film is historical.
- And the heroine can speak in the novel.
The Killers (1946) has one of the best opening sequences
of any film noir movie. This is the scene in which the hired killers
of the title show up at the diner, looking to kill the character
played by Burt Lancaster. The initial night driving shot is very
effective; such scenes will return in Siodmak's Criss Cross
and Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly.
The diner is often shot along its lunch counter; the counter and
the walls of the diner form a classic Renaissance perspective
shot that is quite striking.
The Killers is best in its crime scenes, weakest in its
personal stories. The crime scenes are great set pieces: the opening
at the diner, the flashback to the robbery, the finale with the
killers at the club. The personal scenes are pretty hard to take,
however. Lancaster's character is masochistic to the point of
idiocy. It is hard to see how any man could be such a patsy as
to let this film's femme fatale walk all over him in such a manner.
Films like this have always bugged me. Similarly, I have never
enjoyed Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz),
in which Joan Crawford lets her evil daughter treat her like a doormat.
The film emphasizes the competence at research of the secretary
at the insurance company. Her investigative reports on suspects' backgrounds,
go far beyond the duties of a typical secretary. They are full-fledged
The hotel, with its woman manager in her office, and proactive maid,
recalls the mansion in The Spiral Staircase. Both are run by
working class women, friendly and highly competent.
The two women Lancaster is involved with are a study in contrasts.
One is traditionally "feminine": helpless, dependent, glamorous, and refusing to see
his prize fights: the bad woman. The other is competent, less "feminine",
and who goes to all his fights: the good woman. One suspects this is a
negative commentary on traditional concepts of feminine behavior.
Path / Reverse Path Camera Movement
The robbery is famous for its complex, long take camera movement.
The first third and second third of the shot are linked. The camera follows the
same bath in the second third, as it did in the first third, but in reverse:
the camera moves from the gate through the alley up to the window in the first third,
back from the window down the alley to the gate in the second third.
Such path / reverse path camera movements have a long history,
going back at least to Murnau's Sunrise (1927).
The first shot after the credits is also loosely in this mode.
The camera follows the killers from the diner to the gas station, then
back to the diner. The two paths the camera follows are not exactly the same,
When Gardner leaves the Green Cat bar near the end, the camera moves with her
to the left. Without a cut, the killers then enter, and the camera then
moves back with them to the right. It does not go all the way right,
however, or follows exactly the same path.
The mansion at the end has a huge, complex staircase. It recalls
the mansion in The Spiral Staircase, with its own massive
At the Swede's, we get striking camera angles down his rooming house staircase.
A room has a strange entrance way, with a few shallow steps.
The boxing scenes are visually striking. They emphasize 3D constructs
of the corner poles and ropes of the ring. These look like abstract sculpture.
I don't recall such constructs in the boxing films of other directors.
The diner at the start, recalls Anselmo's bar in Phantom Lady:
Siodmak gets dramatic mileage out of the opening and closing
sliding window to the kitchen. Sliding doors also appear in Cry of the City.
- Both have similar shaped counters.
- Both have a white clad man working behind the counter.
- Both have mirrors behind the counter.
- Both have intimidating visitors, who disrupt the life of the establishment:
the heroine in Phantom Lady, the killers in The Killers.
- Siodmak uses deep focus staging in both. In Phantom Lady,
we see deep focus shots of the heroine, down the length of the bar.
Sometimes these have the bartender in the foreground. In The Killers,
deep focus shots down the counter show Nick in the foreground, the killers in the background.
There is also deep focus shooting through the diner's windows:
Soon we see Nick running outside, through the window in the Swede's
- From outside the diner looking in, various characters are framed through
a window and the glass door.
- From inside the diner looking out, we see the gas pumps across the street
through a window.
Nick's dynamic run leaping over neighborhood fences, anticipates the
acrobatics in the swashbuckler The Crimson Pirate.
The gas station uniforms are notable for the large triangle logos
on their chests. This links their wearers to geometry.
The guard at the robbery is in a spiffy black leather police jacket.
This makes him conspicuous during the long shot, which takes in a
large number of characters and settings.
Earlier, young Nick at the diner is in a brown leather jacket. This is a
common garment for "young men" of the era, signifying that they are
not quite old enough to want to wear suits all the time. The cafe workers
are more of Siodmak's men in white work clothes, like the bartender in
Phantom Lady, the psychiatrist's white lab coat in The Dark Mirror.
The cafe owner's white apron looks wimpy.
Nick and the workers makes a contrast to the killers, who are perfectly turned out
in "grown up man" clothes: dark suits, coats, hats. The killers look
intimidating. They seem to come from a higher social plane.
The contrast between people in white clothes, and men perfectly attired in
dark suits, coats and hats, will return in the opening of Cry of the City.
In that film it is the good guys (the police detectives) in the dark suits
and hats, and the bad guy in hospital whites, along with the nurses and orderlies.
These detectives seem to be just as much out-of-place intruders in the hospital,
as the killers in the diner in The Killers.
Criss Cross (1949) is noted for its spectacular visual
style. This style is partly a matter of composition and lighting,
both of which are rich in the film. But it is also a matter of
sheer ingenuity of staging.
Influence of Alexander Rodchenko
Some of the staging in the film recalls that of the great Russian
photographer Alexander Rodchenko. For example:
A shot during the events leading up to the robbery, showing events
through the circular side mirror of the armored car. Rodchenko
made a well known photograph, Chauffeur (1933), showing
both the driver of a car, and himself photographing the driver,
reflected in such a mirror. The sheer circularity of the mirror
also embodies Rodchenko's love of circular geometric patterns.
Siodmak's shot is different from Rodchenko's, however. The mirror
reflects not a few objects, as in Rodchenko, but the whole receding
road behind the car. In the same shot, the part outside the mirror
shows the forward path of the road. It is very ingenious and visually
striking. Siodmak has been careful to select a road full of telephone
poles and wires, which emphasizes the perspective effect of the
road receding to infinity.
Rodchenko was best known for his shots straight down on a scene,
taken from above. Such shots often converted their subject into
a pure geometrical pattern. They also revealed a completely new
way of looking at familiar things. This steep vertical angle is
so associated with the photographer that it is known as the "Rodchenko
angle" today. Siodmak uses such a point of view when the
armored car arrives at the factory. There is a spectacular overhead
shot. Siodmak goes beyond Rodchenko here as well. He introduces
a small pan into the shot: it starts from one steep but not purely
vertical angle, slightly titled to the right, sweeps down into
a purely vertical shot, then slightly tilts to the left to reach
another angle slightly off from the vertical. This pan allows
Siodmak to follow the movement of the car through the factory.
But it also allows him to introduce even more visual complexity
into the shot. Such tilted backwards vertical angles, such as
the one that begins the pan, are utterly unfamiliar visual experiences
to most people. They allow Siodmak to shoot a scene that is visually
new and original. They also perhaps induce a feeling of disorientation
in the viewer.
In all cases, Siodmak takes Rodchenko's ideas and builds on them.
He introduces new angles and concepts. He also takes advantage
of the kinetic possibilities of the film medium, to introduce
motion into the photography. This motion includes the pan overhead,
and the camera movement that results from the camera being placed
inside the moving armored car.
Influence of Fritz Lang
There are also shots in Criss Cross that recall the work
of Siodmak's great German contemporary, Fritz Lang.
The influence of Lang on film noir in general is very strong.
In fact, one hypothesis is that film noir consists of "films
in imitation of Fritz Lang", or of "films in the style
of Fritz Lang". Both Siodmak and Lang emphasize composition:
elaborate visual patterns made up by the geometry of the image
they are displaying. Like Lang, Siodmak is a heavily architectural
director. Many of Siodmak's compositions depend heavily on the
use of architectural backgrounds for their structure.
Criss Cross has numerous scenes shot on staircases, and
sloping locations that are staircase like. There is the nightclub,
with its descending levels; the sloping exit of the armored car
company; the staircase in Lancaster's house, and the hilly Angel's
Flight neighborhood of Los Angeles, with its many outdoor staircases
and sloping sidewalks. The use of staircases is very Lang like.
However, Lang's stairs tend to go steeply up and down, whereas
those of Criss Cross tend to form large sloping surfaces
at 45 degree angles. This gives Criss Cross a unique feel.
It is if much of the film takes place on sloping ground. There
is an unstable quality. It is also as if the characters were constantly
under the influence of powerful forces dragging them off in uncertain
directions: gravity, due to the slopes they stand on, and the
forces of fate and crime, due to the plots they are engaged in.
Siodmak also uses that favorite Lang device, the mirror shot.
Here the scenes in the hospital are especially ingenious and elaborate.
There is also a striking nocturnal drive to the beach house towards
the end of Criss Cross. It echoes similar nocturnal drives
in Lang's The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933). Both films
also look forward to similar drives at the opening of Robert Aldrich's
classic Kiss Me Deadly (1955).
The armored car robbery is conducted with the use of tear gas;
the crooks use gas masks to protect themselves. Both of the features
are familiar from the German films of Fritz Lang. The gas masks
are a visually striking figure of style. They introduce as disorienting,
surrealist look to the film. Lang liked masks in general. He collected
primitive masks, and they show up in both his German films, and
his American film noirs, such as The Secret Beyond the Door
Near the beginning of the robbery, Siodmak cuts to an overhead
shot. This is not purely vertical, like the Rodchenko angle. Instead,
it is at perhaps forty degrees, and is much closer to the ground.
This is precisely the angle used by Fritz Lang in M (1931),
when he shows Peter Lorre being trapped on the street by the mob.
Lang returned to this angle at the start of The Testament of
Dr. Mabuse (1933), for another street suspense scene. Both
Lang and Siodmak shoot from about the same height, much lower
than in Siodmak's Rodchenko angle shot. This lower height is perfect
for revealing the geometry of the situation below, and letting
the audience see the vehicle and various pedestrians around it
clearly. Just as in Lang, Siodmak films the scene so the camera
is not only above, but off at a slight angle to events down below.
Criss Cross includes a shot where another guard talks to
Lancaster, through a window into the van of the truck. This sort
of "window within a scene" recalls the diner in The
Killers, and its window into the kitchen. Siodmak shoots the
scene, so that the window is at an angle to the plane of the shot.
This adds an extra twist to the visually striking qualities of
the scene. Lang also often used "windows within the shot"
as part of his style: see Spies.
Lang films emphasized men in uniform. Siodmak does, too. As in
The Killers (1946), Siodmak has his hero in uniform. There
it was a gas station attendant, here it is an armored car guard.
Neither of these uniforms is of high social status or authority,
and they emphasize the hero's lowly position in society, and his
easy manipulability. The hero is played by Burt Lancaster in both
films; his youth and naive appearance also underline his social
lack of power.
Siodmak also includes a scene where one of the criminals goes
"undercover" in a milk man's uniform. These uniforms were
a familiar sight in the 1940's; they, and the milk men who wore
them, hardly exist today. The previous year, the Anthony Mann
He Walked By Night (1948) had its policeman hero go undercover
in a similar milk man's uniform. These uniforms clearly exerted
a fascination on the film noir generation. They are very neat,
militaristic and cool looking; at the same time, their pure whiteness
suggests a virginal quality. Neither of these films introduce
a real milk man as a character; instead they depict someone going
undercover in a milk man's uniform, whether a crook or a cop.
Path / Reverse Path Camera Movement
When Yvonne De Carlo fetches Lancaster from across the dance floor, we get
path / reverse path camera movements. First the camera follows her to the right,
moving through the swirling dancers. Then after she gets Lancaster,
the camera follows them back to the left through the dancers.
Criss Cross and Other Film Noir
Many film noirs showed scenes where light was broken up into many
bands from a venetian blind. Siodmak goes these scenes one better.
He shows the armored car driving through a bridge, made up of
many steel girders. As it passes under the shadow of the girders,
we see the complex bands of light rake across the moving surface
of the car. This combines both the grids of light, and movement:
clearly a complex visual effect. Siodmak is an astonishing generator
of such effects. He is a virtual factory of visual ideas.
Criss Cross ends at a beach house on the ocean, where the
heroine reveals her mercenary nature and abandons the hero, just
before the violent ending. It anticipates in all these aspects,
the beach house finale of Robert Aldrich's
Kiss Me Deadly (1955).
The final shot of the film shows the seated Burt Lancaster, holding
the dead heroine spread out across his lap. This shot recalls
the Pietà (1497 - 1499) of Michelangelo. The postures
are almost exactly the same. Siodmak is trying to convey a similar
sense of tragedy, as in Michelangelo's sculpture.
The Crimson Pirate
The Crimson Pirate (1952) is a swashbuckling comedy adventure,
about pirates. Its star is Burt Lancaster, who displays his mighty chest,
impressive acrobatic ability, and lots of really good hair. The whole affair
is tongue in cheek, and refreshingly non-serious, compared to many
of the other pirate movies of the 1950 era.
Like The Pirates of Capri (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1949),
The Crimson Pirate glorifies left-of-center revolutionaries
who revolt against an oppressive aristocratic regime. In both films,
these are democratic revolutionaries whose politics are linked to
such Enlightenment era movements as the American Revolution of 1776.
The Crimson Pirate recalls Cobra Woman among Siodmak's films. Both feature:
- Light hearted, corny adventure in exotic lands.
- Brilliantly colored sets and costumes.
- Athletic heroes who perform acrobatics, swinging from ropes and climbing walls.
- Narrow escapes by the heroes from crowds of bad guys.
- Armed guards in fancy uniforms who run around a lot, and who are none too bright.
- Identically clad troupes of dancing women, whose genial dances offer brief breaks from the action.
- Large crowds of unhappy, poverty stricken locals who are victims of sinister governments.
- Boat scenes at sea.
- Underwater photography.
Links to The Killers
Links between the swashbuckling side of Siodmak and film noir are not obvious.
But the escape of the crooks after the plant robbery in The Killers
recalls the escape of good guys from armed guards in The Crimson Pirate.
In both films:
A Siodmak noir film has some flamboyant male costumes, just like his swashbucklers:
Criss Cross has the Rumba band in the night club in fancy jackets.
- Armed, uniform guards attack the protagonists and try to prevent their escape.
- The plant in The Killers has big gates, just like palace the heroes
escape from in The Crimson Pirate.
- The protagonists make their escape in a vehicle: a car in The Killers,
a carriage in The Crimson Pirate.
- The escape is made in dynamic, chaotic crowd scenes.
The first scene after the credits shows sailor emerging from a door leading below deck.
The top of the door is a semi-circle, recalling the lawyer's office windows in
Cry of the City. Such semi-circles also recall the overhead view of the staircase
in The Spiral Staircase.
Soon, we see the round steering wheel.
Color and Costumes
The coat Lancaster wears to the fete is magenta and gold. Purple and yellow
are complementary colors, and hence considered highly effective with each other.
The combination is often associated in real life with athletic men, such as prizefighters.
In the films of color specialist Vincente Minnelli,
purple and yellow is used sparingly, largely to underscore virile men.
The combination in The Crimson Pirate is especially vivid,
with a rich, warm magenta forming the purple.
Please see my list of purple-and-yellow costumes in film and comic books.
The early scene of the sailors in blue, with another sailor entering in a scarlet coat,
is especially appealing. It looks like a fantasy version of the era, in bright colors.
The brilliant matching-colored flag flapping hugely over everything adds to the color spectacle.
Blue-and-red often vibrate together; they are a combination sit a child-like appeal,
and the scene has child-like fantasy elements of an idealized sailing crew.
The scene is deliberately "ruined" by the entrance of the evil Baron. His brown outfit
immediately clashes, and destroys the scene's idealized appeal. In Minnelli,
brown is associated with villains, and Siodmak seems to be following similar conventions.
In the early scenes, hero Lancaster is often in red or red-and-white. He is living up
to his name of the Crimson Pirate.