Archive for Robert Siodmak

Adorf, Mario: My Part in His Downfall

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , on June 8, 2019 by dcairns

I just re-read my original piece on NACHTS, WENN DER TEUFEL KAMM (1957) (NIGHTS, WHEN THE DEVIL CAME; or THE DEVIL COMES AT NIGHT), directed by Robert Siodmak, and I’m pleased to discover it’s both extremely short and quite inaccurate, which gives me a good opportunity to write some more.

The film deals with the subject of a serial killer on the loose in Nazi Germany, and beautifully brings out the horror and the irony of that situation, contrasting — without overtly doing anything — the depredations of the individual with the much worse acts of the state. Adolfo Celi Mario Adorf turns in a convincing and detailed performance as the killer, concentrating on making it a compelling portrayal of a man with learning difficulties.

What I didn’t know last time was that Adorf’s real-life subject was, in all probability, innocent — a hapless soul tortured by the German police into confessing to a bunch of killings, thereby helping them to take scores of unsolved cases off the books. By this light, Siodmak’s well-meaning, liberal film turns into an unfortunate whitewash of the Reich’s police force, who were — OF COURSE — in it up to their ears.

So my feelings about the film — maybe Siodmak’s best post-Hollywood production — are complicated. It gets at some poetic truths, but defames an innocent, murdered man. It has its own cinematic truth, like Truffaut’s L’ENFANT SAUVAGE, and like that film, it can’t quite escape an obligation to history, which it chooses to ignore.

But here’s why I think it’s a brilliant piece of film-making:

Adorf, having been captured, is taken to visit one of his old crime scenes. He starts to re-enact what happened for the benefit of police. The camera follows his invisible victim — present only in his imagination, but unseen by us. At a certain point, we lose sight of the cops, who must be closely shadowing their man, surely.

We are inside Adorf’s mind. Not quite in the past — because we don’t see his “prey” — only the spaces she once walked in — but we don’t see the police he’s talking to. We’re trapped in a phantom zone somewhere between then and now.

And then, when Adorf begins scrabbling in the dirt to conceal the invisible body, a simple cut abruptly causes the police to appear — they’ve been all around him all along.

I can’t think of another film of the time that does this. We’re practically in MARIENBAD territory. A pan around the treetops during the recollection of the murder itself makes me think RASHOMON is in there somewhere. And the camera reconstructing the crime is taken from REBECCA, I think, but the strange, depopulated half-world is a wholly original conceit.

The Gaze

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , on May 25, 2019 by dcairns

We had our friend Marvelous Mary round last night for the first time in an age. She’d just been reading about producer Joan Harrison, and I offered to screen PHANTOM LADY, a favourite film of mine. I hadn’t seen it for years, but remembered most of the iconic images. But I had forgotten the above.

Ella Raines may not be the strongest actress in history, but she had a great LOOK, in the sense both of her physiognomy and style, and in the intentness she can bring to her gaze. This is a male/female gaze movie. At one point, she seems set to stalk a man to his death by her stare alone, like Karloff in THE WALKING DEAD. And she’s the heroine!

The movie gives us a sound-stage/back-lot/process shot New York, and combines Cornell Woolrich’s fervid pulp fiction style with the noir look and the dollar-book Freud beloved of Hollywood scenarists (in this case, Bernard C. Schoenfeld, of THERE’S ALWAYS TOMORROW and THE SPACE CHILDREN, of all things).

The low budget seems to show only in the B-list casting (but Raines, Thomas Gomez and Franchot Tone are all perfect and Elisha Cook raises the tone, temperature and stakes) and in the curiously thin soundtrack. There’s basically no score, which allows the jazz number and song (from Carmen Miranda’s sister Aurora) to pop out, but leaves a lot of dead air on the soundtrack, which detailed atmos and effects tracks might have effectively filled… but nobody took the trouble to make this happen.

Elisha Cook Jr. gets the shaft again

However, the suspenseful climax really turns this to its advantage, the long silences pregnant with terror, the white walls of the killer’s studio complimenting the blankness of the audio. The whiteness of the white whale.

THE KILLERS and other later Siodmak noirs are far more convincingly set in a version of the real world: this movie has a comic-book simplicity to every character and every line, though details like the two mean cops discussing ice-cream flavours impart a surprisingly Tarantinoesque quality (though without any of the concomitant vulgarity).

Really nice to revisit this: may be time to delve into UNCLE HARRY, CRISS-CROSS, THE SUSPECT, again too…

The Big Box Set

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 9, 2017 by dcairns

Thrilled to be a part — or several parts — of Arrow Academy’s Four Film Noir Classics box set. I have provided video essays on Fritz Lang for SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR (House of Lang), and Joseph H Lewis for THE BIG COMBO (Wagonwheel Joe), both in collaboration with editor Timo Langer. Those were huge fun and should serve as helpful intros to the filmmakers work while hopefully providing interest and entertainment even to those who are very familiar with their oeuvres. For the hardback booklet (can a hardback be a booklet?) I wrote a piece on Robert Siodmak and THE DARK MIRROR, which puts me alongside pieces by Tony Rayns, Michael Brooke and Andrew Spicer, which is pretty good company to be in. I feel like a fraud!

This means the only film in the set I didn’t get to talk about is Abraham Polonsky’s FORCE OF EVIL. Awww, why not? I love that film!

Momo the crazy Tonkinese did nose this set onto the floor, but the incident wasn’t captured on camera. You’ll have to take his continuing enthusiasm for my work on faith.

The set is available now ~ here.