Robert Siodmak | People on Sunday | Phantom Lady | Cobra Woman | The Spiral Staircase | The Killers | Criss Cross | The Crimson Pirate

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Robert Siodmak

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.

Some common elements in the films of Robert Siodmak:

Architecture and Design: Geometry: Visual style: Color: Costumes and Color: Costumes:

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.

Women-Run Enterprises

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.

Garages

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.

Stairs

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.

Concentric Circles

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.

Spirals

A different geometric figure: the metal grill work on a rail in the Berlin street, is covered with beautiful spiral designs.

Phantom Lady

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.

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.

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.

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.

Women-Run Enterprises

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 female-run enterprises.

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.

Mirrors

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

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

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 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:

The Novel

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:

The Killers

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.

Women-Run Enterprises

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 detective work.

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, however.

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.

Staircases

The mansion at the end has a huge, complex staircase. It recalls the mansion in The Spiral Staircase, with its own massive main staircase.

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.

Constructions

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

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.

There is also deep focus shooting through the diner's windows:

Soon we see Nick running outside, through the window in the Swede's rooming house.

Nick's dynamic run leaping over neighborhood fences, anticipates the acrobatics in the swashbuckler The Crimson Pirate.

Costumes

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

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 (1948).

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.

Uniforms

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:

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.

Geometry

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.

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.