The Idiot Brother


I like the concept of the idiot brother — maybe I am one — and Curt Siodmak always seemed a good example, though not so much as Billy Wilder’s older sibling William Lee Wilder (their mom really liked that name. Billy’s pithy biography of W. Lee — “He was an idiot. He made pictures, each worse than the last. Then he died.”)

Robert Siodmak’s career contains only one COBRA WOMAN, whereas Curt’s is largely composed of such nonsense, only more badly executed. Weirdly, when he finally got to direct, he was actually quite imaginative, and it’s his silly scripts that let him down. One could understand Robert being a little embarrassed about him. But Curt was sensitive and intelligent when he wasn’t making dopey films, as is seen in the interview he gave in Screenwriter, Words Become Pictures by Lee Server, a fine tome I picked up in Toronto (full list here).

Curt Siodmak: Robert and me, we had a sibling rivalry. He loved me and when I needed something he was there, and we were the best of friends. But there should only be one Siodmak, not two Siodmaks. Like when you have two dogs, one bites the other dog. Robert was two years and two days older than me, and the story goes that father took Robert to the crib and said, “Here’s your new brother.” And Robert said, “I don’t want your new brother.” And that lasted until he died seventy-one years later.

Siodmak talks about his short time in England, which I knew nothing about. He was working at Gaumont-British, and tried to interest them in a remake of his brother’s film, DER MANN, DER SEINEN MORDER SUCHT (A MAN, LOOKING FOR HIS MURDERER) which he had co-scripted in 1931 with Billy Wilder and a couple of other guys. Warning: this story is grim.

Curt Siodmak: The story, actually, was stolen from a book by Jules Verne, The Trials of a Chinaman in China, or something. (See here for another theft of the same source. A depressed man hires a hitman to kill him, but when his luck changes, he can’t find the assassin to call off the hit.)

And there was a producer working at the same studio named Felner [sic]. He was a German, and he didn’t like any other Germans working at Gaumont-British. He hated the Germans. And I showed him my story. He said, “How can we do a picture about a man who commits suicide?” But he came back and asked me how people hanged themselves. I told him about that. And a day later he hanged himself. He had been waiting for his labor permit, to stay in England, and it was late–it didn’t come through. And some of them played a practical joke. They told him that he’d been rejected for his permit, that he’d be deported. It wasn’t true. A joke. But they didn’t tell him. He hanged himself.

Lee Server: Who did it?

Curt Siodmak: That Hitchcock crowd. One of those cold people.

Depressing. And Wikipedia at least confirms Hermann Fellner’s cause of death.

Here’s that cold person Hitch, trying to warm up, in the company of his dog, Mr. Jenkins. Image by Peter Stackpole, from a book of his amazing photographs loaned to me by the bountiful Nicola Hay.


Siodmak the younger’s most famous creation, Lawrence Talbot AKA The Wolf Man, is celebrated in verse over at Limerwrecks, by Hilary “Surly Hack” Barta and myself. Here.

The photo makes me think of another story in Server’s book, in his Charles Bennett interview.

Charles Bennett: I remember one occasion Brian Aherne gave a huge cocktail party at his house at the beach at Malibu. Hitch was there, and I talked with him about three-quarters of an hour, along with Charlies Brackett. And the three of us chatted by the fire for nearly an hour. The next day a case of gloriously expensive champagne turned up here at the house with a note from Hitch saying, “From that stupid man, Hitchcock.” So I called him up and said, “What’s this stupid man business?” He said, “That’s what you called me, isn’t it?” I said, “When did I say that? We were talking by the fire for an hour.” He said, “No, we didn’t talk. You didn’t say a word.” He didn’t remember any of it.

Server: You don’t think it was some sort of practical joke?

Bennett: He seemed to have no idea that we were talking the night before, or that I hadn’t called him “stupid.” But it was certainly some of the most beautiful champagne I ever drank in my life.

16 Responses to “The Idiot Brother”

  1. In the same year Robert Siodmak made Phantom Lady, Christmas Holiday and —

  2. Wow. The killer practical joke. And a German calling a Brit “cold.”

  3. Talk about cold all right. I found a German-language source about Fellner’s death, which was reported in the Pariser Tageblatt (a newspaper run by and for exiled Germans) in March 1936, two days after his suicide. The article says that according to his circle of friends, he was deeply concerned about the extension of his work permit though the writer also notes that in film circles at the time it appears to have been well-known that he was struggling with business difficulties.

  4. A depressed man hires a hitman to kill him, but when his luck changes, he can’t find the assassin to call off the hit? That’s the plot of William Castle’s THE WHISTLER (1944) with a brilliantly creepy, smarmy performance by J. Carrol Naish as the assassin.

  5. Also The Odd Job, a piss-poor British comedy directed by Peter Medak (not a natural funnyman) and scripted by Graham Chapman. It’s a popular idea, and outside of France everybody seems to think they thought of it first.

  6. Ah but ZORRO THE GAY BLADE almost gave me a hernia.

  7. What a grim practical joke. Re Medak & funny, I suppose bits of The Ruling Class would count. He’s been directing episodes of Hannibal recently, whose glassy, taxidermied brilliance is kryptonite to humour, so it’s right up his street maybe.

  8. The Ruling Class is pretty funny — he gets points for just training the camera on Alistair Sim and not saying “cut”.

    We’ve been watching Hannibal and it cracks us up. When the killers went from making angels from flayed corpses to assembling them in colossal totem poles, Fiona asked “What next?”

    “The entire population of South Africa murdered and assembled into a giant zebra,” I suggested, “With ebony and ivory in perfect harmony side by side like on a piano keyboard.” It was the best I could come up with on the spot.

  9. Ridley’s idiot brother was Tony

  10. As for the ladies. . .

  11. Forgive me if I misread, but you’re missing a real coincidence here. W. Lee Wilder’s best movie is THE PRETENDER with Albert Dekker. It’s yet another version of the Siodmak film about a man trying to call off a hit he’s ordered on himself. And unlike most of W. Lee’s pictures, it’s pretty good.

    Poor W. Lee is an easy target and too often dumped on as it is. The scant ‘research’ on him all comes from cruel remarks from his brother.

  12. Damn, you’re right about The Pretender. A direct link, staring me in the face! Although that one is actually an original twist on the hitman idea.

    I’d like to see a decent copy someday. W Lee always hired top-notch cinematographers (and lousy screenwriters). His crime films are a lot better than the sci-fi/horrors.

    Jim Knipfel is a big WLW booster:

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