Robert Siodmak: The Brightest Shade of Noir
Robert Siodmak’s career is one of the more underrated and misunderstood in the history of Hollywood. The merit of Siodmak’s cinematic art is also one of the most controversial. Among fanatic cinephiles, particularly those with a penchant for film noir thrillers, Siodmak is considered the primary architect of the genre. No other director has produced more quality film noir thrillers than Siodmak. His canon is a viewing list for any authentic study of the genre. His most notable film noirs include Phantom Lady, The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry, The Spiral Staircase, The Killers, The Dark Mirror, Cry of the City, Criss Cross and The File on Thelma Jordan. However, among a small minority of film critics, he is considered a one-dimensional “yes” man who simply followed marching orders established by studio executives. These critics suggest Siodmak’s success was a direct product of the studio system and the cadre of filmmakers studios arranged for him. Lastly, Siodmak’s popularity among casual movie fans is virtually nonexistent. Many have never heard of him, and when they have, they rarely can even pronounce his name (see-odd-mak – emphasis on the “odd”). The latter two assessments of Siodmak’s career are inaccurate, because he was the primary auteur of one of America’s most important film genres.
Even the birthplace of Siodmak is disputed. Some argue that he was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1900 when his mother and father, the latter a banker, were vacationing in America. The Siodmaks soon returned home to the city of Dresden in Saxony, Germany. Other critics, most notably J. Greco in his analysis of Siodmak’s noir cycle, The File on Robert Siodmak in Hollywood: 1941–1951, suggest that Siodmak’s birthplace was Dresden and that his American birthplace was a myth used by the director to obtain a visa in Paris (1). If Greco is accurate, the fact remains that Siodmak was well aware of the importance in the 1940s of being a German director born in America. This dispute is a microcosm of the controversy surrounding Siodmak’s prolific directorial career.
There are two eerie coincidences surrounding Siodmak’s birth. First, the fact he was born in the first year of the new century suggests he is chronologically linked with modernism, one of the twentieth century’s primary aesthetic principles. However, while this may be a chronological coincidence, stylistically it is not. The fact that his films address many modern themes such as psychological trauma, domestic turmoil, criminology, gender conflicts, and professional gangsterism and violence is not coincidental. Neither is his cutting edge use of modernist cinematic techniques such as deep focusing, multiple flashbacks, mise-en-scène, and expressionistic lighting.
Second, film noir is an American style of filmmaking heavily influenced by European ideas. Existentialism, German Expressionism and the extensive exposure to European culture prompted by World War II created a new European sensibility that profoundly affected American culture. If film noir is considered a successful marriage of American and European aesthetic sensibilities, and if one believes birthplace inevitably shapes perspectives, no other Hollywood director upheld those vows better than Robert Siodmak. His disputed birthplace and his stature in the noir cycle make him a prophet at the crossroads of American and European cinematic styles.
Siodmak attended the University of Marburg and in the mid-1920s began working for the state funded German film company Universum Film A.G., or Ufa, founded by General Erich Ludendorff and supported by the Third Reich. His early work included translations of intertitles for American silent films. In 1929, Siodmak directed his first film, the quasi-documentary Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday), which featured an all-star lineup of prominent German filmmakers who all found success in Hollywood in the ensuing years. These filmmakers included Edgar G. Ulmer as codirector, Fred Zinnemann as the assistant cinematographer, and brother Curt Siodmak and Billy Wilder as the coscreenwriters. Siodmak’s steady directorial skills were inevitably shaped by the collaboration he exemplified during his early work with these talented men.
Siodmak’s modestly successful directorial career in Germany produced a total of 15 films. He moved to Paris in 1933 to escape the growing tides of Nazism in Hitler’s Germany, and in 1939 he sailed to America one day before the official start of World War II. Arriving in Hollywood, Siodmak signed his first contracts with Paramount in 1941. There he made three uninspiring B-films: West Point Window (1941), Fly-by-Night (1942) and My Heart Belongs to Daddy (1942). His hiring was mainly due to the encouragement of Preston Sturges, who reportedly was “amused by the gnomelike man with the German accent” (2). Although Siodmak was displeased with his growing reputation as a B-movie director, his hopes were raised when his brother, Curt, who immigrated to America in 1937 and found success as a horror film screenwriter, landed him a directorial spot with Universal. The brothers collaborated on Son of Dracula (1943) and in this film, the origins of the Siodmak “style” began to emerge.
The Siodmak brothers’ relationship was a good one. A mutual respect was maintained throughout their lives, although Curt, who died in 2000, believed Robert never fully reached his potential as a director. The Siodmak brothers used the popularity of horror films in the late 1930s and early 1940s to launch their Hollywood careers. While Robert only dabbled in the horror genre, Curt, whose career is arguably as notable as his brother’s, was immersed in it. Curt’s prolific career as a horror movie screenwriter includes such notable films as The Invisible Man Returns (Joe May, 1940), The Wolf Man (George Waggner, 1941), and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (Roy William Neill, 1943). Curt also wrote science fiction novels; his most popular was Donovan’s Brain.
After Son of Dracula, Siodmak experimented with Technicolor in Cobra Woman (1944). Although the film did little to boost Siodmak’s career, it did reveal his proclivity for experimenting with colour and visual aesthetics (3). Immediately after production ended for Cobra, Siodmak was hired to shoot Phantom Lady (1944), a film many consider to be the first truly trademark noir. Based on a Cornell Woolrich novel, Phantom established Siodmak as one of the high priests of the genre. Some have suggested Siodmak’s film noirs became the archetype. Others, such as David Shipman, have argued that Siodmak’s obsession with the genre “not only failed to enhance his reputation, but virtually ruined it” (4) because it made him a typecast and one-dimensional director.
Shipman’s comments highlight the paradoxical nature of Siodmak’s career. He directed several films many critics revere, yet his films rarely make any all-time lists. His career was unfortunately paralleled and subsequently overshadowed by Alfred Hitchcock’s, yet Siodmak claims a banner year unlike any of Hitchcock’s: 1946. In that year, three of Siodmak’s films were nominated for Academy Awards. They included Ethel Barrymore in The Spiral Staircase for Actress in a Supporting Role, Siodmak himself in The Killers for Directing, Vladimir Pozner in The Dark Mirror for Original Motion Picture Story, Anthony Veiller in The Killers for Screenplay, Miklos Rozsa in The Killers for Scoring of a Dramatic or Comic Picture, and Arthur Hilton in The Killers for Film Editing. As with everything related to Siodmak’s career, the question remains: was Siodmak the benefactor of good filmmaking teams, or were these teams the benefactors of Siodmak’s directorial skills?
The biggest criticism of Siodmak’s career is that his talents blossomed in only one genre. If he had directed a masterful film in at least one or two other genres, like, for example, his contemporary Fred Zinnemann, whose talents shone in the Western High Noon (1952), the film noir Act of Violence (1948), and the romantic drama From Here to Eternity (1953), no argument would exist against Siodmak’s place in cinematic history. But this is not the case. Siodmak’s career shines during a brief ten-year span, from 1943 to 1953, and it is not a coincidence that this span also marks the zenith of the noir cycle. Certainly, his career during this span was prolific, but his failure to extend beyond the parameters of film noir has forced many to question his talents. Conversely, full mastery of a style can only develop when one fully immerses themselves in their art. So, using Greco’s clever title, what is the file on Robert Siodmak?
If there is one characteristic of a Siodmak film, it lies in the richness of his cinematic vision. Like all great directors, he was a master at weaving many parts into a whole. Siodmak was never content to use a film as a vehicle for a singular cinematic motif or technique. His films reveal a plexus of converging directorial styles that creates a powerful feeling of mise-en-scène. Siodmak’s holistic vision often enabled him to manage several aesthetic impulses simultaneously. Like all classic films that serve as the high-water mark of a particular style, The Killers, for example, tackles virtually every major theme in the noir cycle, unlike many other noirs, which only focus on a particular subset of motifs. The Killers includes a haunting femme fatale in Ava Gardner as Kitty Collins, a seminal heist scene, psychiatric profiles of a network of professional gangsters, a devastating double cross, the spirit of heavy fatalism, and a hard-boiled protagonist doomed by existential fate in Burt Lancaster as Ole Andersen. Each motif is developed with precision and style. Secondly, Siodmak was also brilliant in inspiring stellar performances from minor characters. Reviews of his films often include references to these outstanding performances. Elisha Cook in Phantom Lady, Ethel Barrymore in The Spiral Staircase and Richard Long in The Dark Mirror are excellent examples. But while the whole is always the sum of its parts in a Siodmak film, those parts were always brilliant.
In many Siodmak films, domestic strife is a key staple. Marital decay, unresolved Oedipal tensions and sibling rivalries resonate in many of his films. The pervasiveness of these themes produce a general feeling of unease suggesting that the basic unit of human interaction is off kilter, has gone awry, or is changing at a disturbingly rapid pace. For example, in Criss Cross (1949), Steve Thompson and Anna Dundee, played by Burt Lancaster and Yvonne DeCarlo, struggle to resolve the paradoxical nature of their relationship. Already divorced, they cannot keep apart. Anna plays with Steve’s fatalistic desire for her, knowing that she can manipulate him for her own material gain. Their relationship is an impossible one, yet they know they must participate in its demise to fulfill their own selfish desires. For Steve, these desires are carnal; for Anna, they are financial. Furthermore, in Criss Cross and The Spiral Staircase, powerful mother figures warn the protagonists about impending dangers. In the former, the danger is Anna, and in the latter the danger is a stalking murderer, but in both cases the domineering presence of the maternal figures is ignored to satisfy either bodily (Steve’s passion for his ex-wife) or intellectual (Helen’s curiosity to investigate the murderer) desires. Additionally, the conflict between the two Warren stepbrothers in The Spiral Staircase heightens an already tense domestic setting. Finally, in the Phantom Lady, Scott Henderson, an unhappily married engineer, is accused of killing his wife and when he is unable to provide a satisfactory alibi, the domestic tensions are conjured in the minds of both the detectives and viewers. Here domestic strife is safely assumed. Throughout Siodmak’s films, domestic settings are not a place of refuge, but rather a source of additional psychological trauma.
Siodmak is also notorious for creating sets full of other psychological tensions. For example, in Phantom Lady, Inspector Burgess, played by Thomas Gomez, provides a relatively sophisticated explanation of the criminal mind. Burgess describes how the nascent field of psychology is “simply European” and how Jack Marlow, the murderer, is a “paranoiac” with an “incredible ego” and “contempt for life”. The detective’s reflections on the criminal mind form some of the basic principles of modern psychology. Tony Williams suggests that Marlow’s elaborately disturbed mind is a reflection of how German Expressionism influenced Siodmak’s style (5). Grotesquely abnormal characters, such as Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu, two of the Expressionists’ most famous creations, are direct ancestors to the insane Marlow. Also, in The Dark Mirror, the use of twins as murder suspects is a visual metaphor for the psychological dangers of schizophrenia and split personalities. Also in this film, a psychiatrist becomes a major character in the form of Lew Ayres as Dr. Scott Elliott.
Another trademark of the Siodmak film is his use of music, visual images and the expressionistic montage to convey sexual energy. Nowhere is this more powerful than in Phantom Lady. When the sexually charged Elisha Cook brings Ella Raines to a speakeasy to hear some jazz, Siodmak quickly cuts from the faces and body parts of the players to those of Raines to create a montage that, when accompanied by the climactic sounds of the jazz and ecstatic faces of the players, creates a visual orgasm unparalleled in cinematic history. A similar scene occurs in Criss Cross when Steve first sees Anna in The Round-Up. Here the quick cuts focus on the many dimensions and angles to Anna’s personality juxtaposed against the one-dimensional view Steve has of her in this scene. As Greco notes, “it is perhaps the most skillfully crafted seduction scene anywhere in film noir” (6). The expressionistic montage in this case represents the source of Steve’s sexual desire; his inability to grasp the “big picture” of Anna’s character is the impetus of his fall. Finally, the discordant rhythms at the Green Cat toward the end of The Killers also undermine the sexual act that Kitty is playing for Ole. Kitty has no intention of cooperating with Ole, and the discordance in the melodies at the club foreshadows that fact. Although Siodmak’s creativity was robust and can be found in these expressionistic montages, he was also indebted to the brotherhood of directors and often paid tribute to them in his films.
Fritz Lang was one of Siodmak’s idols. Although his influence is found in many of Siodmak’s films and those of any director successful in the 1930s, ’40s or ’50s, Siodmak’s obsessive use of mirrors is a particular tribute to Lang (7). Siodmak used mirrors to further emphasise the psychological richness of his films and their characters. Rarely can one experience 30 minutes of a Siodmak film without at least once being struck by a provocative mirror shot. Mirrors abound in his films because they visually amplify the psychology of his characters. Perhaps the greatest example occurs in Phantom Lady, when Marlow discusses the nature of the criminal acts with Burgess. As Burgess details his understanding of the criminal mind, Marlow is sitting at a performer’s table with a three-paned mirror. As Burgess’ theories mount, so do the reflections of Marlow’s profile. First, only Marlow is shown. Next, Marlow and his reflection are shown. Finally, Marlow and his two reflections are revealed, a beautiful manifestation of his multiple personalities. The mere presence of mirrors in virtually every room of a Siodmak set suggests that his characters live in a world where self-image is a complex and fractured network of influences.
Siomak’s use of deep-focus is also notable. With deep focus, Siodmak accomplished two important goals. First, he was able to visually explain this sense of a complex self by using deep-focus to create chaotic and layered sets that contain foregrounds, backgrounds, and middle-grounds full of activity, objects and sound. The disorder in a typical Siodmak set is usually one of the reasons why so many characters have a fractured self and thus suffer from some form of psychological stress. The setting of the mansion in The Spiral Staircase is full of Victorian ornaments that suggest a longing for not only the chronological past, but for something sensed but not altogether identifiable. Siodmak’s use of deep-focus also reveals his tribute to Orson Welles and Citizen Kane, the high priest of that directorial brotherhood. Siodmak clearly used Kane‘s influence to embellish his own films, and like most good directors during that era, did so in a creative manner that commemorated Welles without directly copying him. The Killers is film noir’s narrative response to Citizen Kane. The film’s use of at least eight flashbacks is a direct tribute to Welles’ use of that narrative technique. Siodmak followed a similar, albeit less sophisticated, approach in Christmas Holiday (1944).
If the heist scene is one of the standards of film noir, then Siodmak directed two of the most memorable. In Criss Cross, the haunting scenes of the heist perpetrators walking in gas masks through clouds of tear gas remind viewers of battlefield scenes directly pulled from World War II newsreels. The surreal images create a sense of alienation because the characters appear as ghosts of their former selves displaced from their previous intentions (8). The scene reminds the viewer that the characters, particularly Steve, are already dead and only their apparitions exist. J.P. Telotte takes this one step further in his analysis of Siodmak’s male characters. Telotte argues that “his (Siodmak’s) male characters…seem fluid, potentially phantoms, as if they, too, were infected by a contagious evaporation of the self” (9). Additionally, the heist scene in The Killers is easily one of the most provocative in all of noir. Shot in a single take with an elaborate crane shot, the scene is perfectly chaotic. Even Siodmak himself admitted that many mistakes were made during the scene, but the mistakes worked (10). The fluidity of this scene undermines the careful planning orchestrated to conduct it, and yet it further undermines the dangers looming ahead for the suspects. The use of a crane shot creates a sense of objective detachment as well, thus making the heist seem normal, mundane and impersonal. As Robert Porforio notes, “This detachment is enhanced by the objective persuasion of the crane-mounted camera…Such codes of expression combine to dissipate much of the tension implicit in the immediacy of the spatio-temporal order” (11). Once again, Siodmak masterfully directs yet another trademark of the noir cycle.
As with any noir director, Siodmak was a genius with evocative lighting techniques. His use of low- and high-key lighting and elaborate filler, back, and key lights are standards for the noir cycle. The examples are numerous, but one that resonates is found in the opening of The Killers. The film begins with a key light far in the background and the camera placed in the foreground. The distance between clarity and confusion or light and darkness is enlightening. This key-light is the only light in the scene, which is shot at night. The diner and two approaching “killers” searching for Ole are cast more in shadow than in reality. Their figures are overwhelmed by the looming presence of their shadows.
However, unusual for a noir director is Siodmak’s use of sunlight. He routinely used sunlight to offer a contrast to the stereotypical noir scenes. For example, in Criss Cross, the scenes of Steve walking to his parent’s neighbourhood home are illuminated by natural sunlight, suggesting that clarity for Steve can be found in domestic stability, as opposed to the dim lighting in the local bar. However, the domestic front offers little refuge for Steve in this film, thus making the sunlight part of the trap that engulfs him. In one Phantom Lady scene, Scott Henderson leans over a railing while being visited by his persistent secretary-saviour, Carol. The sunlight dispersed through the prison window radiates an almost cathedral-like atmosphere, suggesting that Carol represents some semblance of hope. However, the mixture of shadow and sunlight creates an unusual noir quality that suspends moral judgment and enhances the suspense by prolonging the ambiguous nature of Henderson’s fate.
Finally, Siodmak frequently has his male characters wearing uniforms (12). Uniforms help male characters reclaim their lost identity, which is a motif noir is famous for emphasising. In many noirs, male characters struggle to regain identities that they lost during their military tenures due to the gains women earned in many of society’s labour institutions. Tellote argues “Siodmak’s films appear almost classic texts for illustrating gender tensions that were surfacing in post-World War II America” (13). Placing many characters in uniforms visually allows men to regain their former identities or to cultivate new ones, even if they are false. In Criss Cross, Steve wears the uniform of an armoured car security guard. In The Killers, Swede is first seen wearing a gas attendant’s uniform. Clearly, male identity is a major theme in Siodmak’s work.
Once the noir cycle reached its zenith in the early 1950s, Siodmak’s stock in Hollywood waned. He collaborated with the novelist Budd Schulberg on a screenplay that later became On the Waterfront, but because Schulberg held Communist ties, the work ended abruptly. Siodmak later sued Sam Spiegel, who purchased the rights to the screenplay, for $100,000 and won, although he never received any screen credits for his contributions (14). After a tumultuous directorial experience during the making of The Crimson Pirate in 1952, he left California and returned to Europe, where he worked for 16 years. According to Siodmak, the majority of this tumult occurred in the egomaniacal attitudes of the actors, who had been given an unprecedented degree of control over production of the film. In particular, he was especially disappointed with Burt Lancaster’s off-camera antics and exaggerated demands, even though the two had worked successfully together in The Killers and Criss Cross. In many ways, The Crimson Pirate was Siodmak’s last stand. After 1952, Siodmak collaborated with a variety of filmmakers in Europe to make an additional 14 films, but each was met with modest success. For all intents and purposes, by the mid-1950s, the file on Siodmak was shut.
Siodmak’s career should be judged on the films he did make and not those he didn’t. If he never diversified the breadth of his directorial purview, he did generate a depth of directorial successes in the noir cycle that is unparalleled in Hollywood history. That is the record Siodmak should be remembered for. As the legendary American football coach, Bill Parcells, once quipped, “you’re only as good as your record”. Siodmak’s “record” or filmography speaks for itself.
Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday) (1929) codirected with Edgar J. Ulmer
Abschied (Farewell) (1930)
Der Mann, der seinen Mörder sucht (Looking for His Murderer) (1931)
Voruntersuchung (Inquest) (1931) also writer
Stürme der Leidenschaft (Storms of Passion) (1932)
Quick I and II (1932)
Brennendes Geheimnis (The Burning Secret) (1933)
Le Sexe faible (The Weaker Sex) (1933)
La Crise est finie (The Depression Is Over) (1935)
La Vie parisienne (The Parisian Life) (1935)
Mister Flow (1936)
Symphonie D’Amour (1946)
Cargaison Blanche (Woman Racket) (1937)
Mollenard (Hatred) (1938)
Pièges (Personal Column) (1939)
West Point Window (1941)
The Night Before the Divorce (1942)
My Heart Belongs to Daddy (1942)
Someone to Remember (1943)
Son of Dracula (1943)
Cobra Woman (1944)
Phantom Lady (1944)
Christmas Holiday (1944)
The Suspect (1945)
The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945)
The Spiral Staircase (1946)
The Killers (1946)
The Dark Mirror (1946)
Time Out of Mind (1947)
Cry of the City (1948)
Criss Cross (1949)
The Great Sinner (1949)
The File on Thelma Jordan (1950)
The Whistle at Eaton Falls (1951)
The Crimson Pirate (1952)
Card of Fate (1954)
The Rats (1955)
The Devil Came at Night (1957)
Dorothea Angermann (1958)
The Rough and The Smooth (1959)
Adorable Sinner (1960)
My School Chum (1960)
The Nina B. Affair (1961) also writer
Escape from East Berlin (1962)
The Shoot (1964) also writer
The Treasure of the Aztecs (1965)
Pyramid of the Sun God (1965)
Custer of the West (1967)
The Fight for Rome I and II (1968–1969)
Conflict (Curtis Bernhardt, 1945) cowriter
Deborah Lazaroff Alpi, Robert Siodmak: A Biography, With Critical Analyses of His Films Noirs and a Filmography of All His Works, McFarland & Company, 1998.
J. Greco, The File on Robert Siodmak in Hollywood: 1941-1951, United States, Dissertation.com, 1999.
Articles in Senses of Cinema
Phantom Lady by Joe McElhaney
The Dark Mirror by Darragh O’Donohue
Film Directors – Articles on the Internet
Several online articles can be found here.
Film Noir Directors: Robert Siodmak
Contains summaries, reviews and images for Phantom Lady, The Killers and Criss Cross.
Short analyses of The Killers and Criss Cross.
Click here to search for Robert Siodmak DVDs, videos and books at
- J. Greco, The File on Robert Siodmak in Hollywood: 1941-1951, United States, Dissertation.com, 1999, p. 9.
- Greco, p. 7.
- Michael Grost, The Films of Robert Siodmak, Classic Film and Television Page, 2003, http://members.aol.com/MG4273/siodmak.htm.
- David Shipman, The Story of Cinema, New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1982, p. 699.
- Tony Williams, “Phantom Lady, Cornell Woolrich, and the Masochistic Aesthetic” in Alain Silver and James Ursini (eds), Film Noir Reader, New York, Limelight Editions, 1996, p. 136.
- Greco, pp. 126–128.
- Grost, op cit.
- Lawrence Russell, Criss Cross, Film Court, 2000, http://www.culturecourt.com/F/Noir/CrissX.htm.
- J.P. Telotte, “Siodmak’s Phantom Women and Noir Narrative”, Film Criticism, 11.3, Spring, 1987, p. 9.
- Greco, p. 98.
- Robert G. Porfirio, “The Killers: Expressiveness of Sound and Image in Film Noir” in Alain Silver and James Ursini (eds), p. 179.
- Grost, op cit.
- Telotte, p. 2.
- Greco, p. 162.