Archive for Robert Siodmak

No Acting Required

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , on July 17, 2017 by dcairns

This is a PARTICULARLY lovely set photograph, I think you’ll agree. It’s from PHANTOM LADY, a Cornell Woolrich adaptation I adore unreasonably. But there’s something cool and mysterious about the way the slate just gives the director’s name, SIODMAK, and an inexplicable number.

Since my source for these, the auction site iOffer.com, was offering exclusively still from Universal, there’s quite a bit of Siodmak on offer. I previously posted images from his SON OF DRACULA, which had curiously been slated under the title DESTINY. Via Facebook, Perry Shields gave the explanation: “This was explained years ago by Greg Mank in his excellent book It’s Alive. The writers would assign a lame title to the horror films (GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN was THERE’S ALWAYS TOMORROW) so that the producers would feel like they made a real contribution by suggesting a more appropriate title.”

Brilliant stuff. Of course, over at RKO the title came first, direct from the front office, so we have CAT PEOPLE and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE.

My question is, what was going on when Douglas Sirk’s ALL I DESIRE, also at Universal, was retitled THERE’S ALWAYS TOMORROW?

This train station set is so atmospheric and quasi-believable in the film, it’s fascinating to see off the top of the set.

The phrase No Acting Required, or NRA, is a thespian code-phrase used when the performer is required to simply behave naturally, ie “Just edge along this narrow precipice and try not to fall in the lava.” Whatever the actor’s face does naturally during this activity is likely to work for the scene. I have used the phrase in a different, wrong sense here, to evoke the peculiar quality of movie images without cast.

For some reason, once Siodmak got better known, his slates start listing the name of the film, not just his moniker (pronounced See-Odd-Mack).

SHOCK! A set photo (from Siodmak’s THE SUSPECT, also excellent) with an actor (Ella Raines). You never see any really big stars in set photos, it seems to me. I’ve seen Dorothy Malone in the diner in WRITTEN ON THE WIND, that’s about it. Maybe they were afraid to ask her to move.

Empties

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on July 11, 2017 by dcairns

I love empty sets. They would take these stills for continuity reasons, but, like security camera footage, they always have an atmospheric quality. A little bleak, a little scary.

You may notice that the film is called DESTINY and the director is Siodmak (Robert). And you may know that no such film exists. What they were shooting was released as SON OF DRACULA, though in fact the main character is Dracula, not his son. He has no son.

It’s fun to imagine that Dracula might be as invisible to photography as he is to mirrors and shadows. So Universal, trying to record his exploits on celluloid, ended up with footage of a lot of empty rooms. They had to get John P. Fulton to put Drac in afterwards.

Or maybe it was just that Lon Chaney Jr. was off getting drunk somewheres.

My first thought on the trivial mystery of the non-existent movie DESTINY was, Of course! Screenwriter Curt Siodmak, the idiot brother, wanted a classier title and thought he might persuade Universal that DESTINY would be boffo box-office. What a maroon!

But I have a new-found respect for Curt after reading Donovan’s Brain. So I was pleased to find another explanation, or perhaps a deepening of the mystery.

This set photo is from HOUSE OF DRACULA, a much later entry in the Universal monster series (the last, in fact, not counting ABBOT & COSTELLO). I like how the bat-signal is apparently considered part of the set.

But look! This movie is also called DESTINY, according to the slate. Though it would be amusing to imagine Curt S. still gamely trying to get an evocative, poetic title accepted by the front office years later, he had nothing to do with this film, apart from having created Lawrence Talbot, the wolf man. So it seems like Universal always shot their horror sequels under this false title, maybe to control the publicity until they were ready for it, or something? I know there are a lot of people who know WAY more about this stuff than me, so maybe they can help solve the puzzle.

I have a lot more of these, if you like them.

Visiting Time

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on August 11, 2014 by dcairns

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CRY OF THE CITY is essentially Robert Siodmak’ farewell to Hollywood filmmaking, and it’s a very strong one. It seems likely that his getting gypped out of the directing gig for ON THE WATERFRONT played a decisive role in driving him back to Europe. And while some of Siodmak’s later films are extremely good, in hindsight it looks like a mistake — he could have done better in America.

(Incidentally, I like the noir version of WATERFRONT Siodmak would have made, as I hazily imagine it, better than the Kazan method-and-location classic.)

Early in CRY is my fave scene — it has a show-stopping, lip-smacking turn by Berry Kroeger, who I wish was in the rest of the movie and in more movies and in bigger roles. And a ferocious perf from Richard Conte. The movie is unusual for its time in how ethnic it is — Conte plays a proper Italianamerican crook.

I want to look at Siodmak’s shots in some detail.

Conte Cruelle from David Cairns on Vimeo.

It’s a slow starter (I’m actually breaking into the scene midway as Kroeger enters). The two-shots of Conte and the nurse and Kroeger and the guard are fairly flat and deliberately pedestrian. Have patience. The first clever bit is Kroeger crossing the room to tie everything together and clarify the space, forming a new two-shot at the foot of Conte’s bed, while the nurse bustles in the bg.

As the scene progresses, Kroeger moves in and pulls the camera with him for a tighter medium two shot, Conte forming the lower horizontal edge and Kroeger the left vertical. Now Kroeger starts to seem more like a heavy as he reshapes the composition, walking behind Conte and leaning on the bedstead. It’s a jerk move, exploiting Conte’s immobility and making him strain round. It also helpfully makes the shot even tighter, more compact.

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It gets fancier. Kroeger now completes his half-circle of the bed and takes a stance that turns him into a dark shape screen left, Conte looking up at him — the kind of angle that invites a cut to a reverse shot. But Siodmak holds off for a moment while Conte considers the situation, and when he does cut to a reverse, he makes it a surprise closeup. So far, Kroeger is the dominant party, mobile where Conte is pinned in place, towering over him, and now afforded a big gloating CU.

The reverse on Conte is just as big but of course it’s a high angle. Conte seems to be impressed by the offer, falling into line with Kroeger’s wishes.

Siodmak now returns to his master shot as Kroeger returns to his perch on the bedstead, hammily looking about for eavesdroppers before revealing the most criminous part of his scheme. Now Conte reveals he’s wise to Kroeger, and though his knowledge shakes up the slick lawyer’s plans, it doesn’t swerve him from his plans, and it doesn’t cause Siodmak to do anything particularly dramatic either. He’s not trying to give the impression that Conte has won.

Calmly, Kroeger now circles the back of the bed again and pulls the camera into a still more intimate two-shot, Conte larger in foreground but with his opponent standing just far back enough to be outside of his comfortable line of site. So Kroeger establishes continuing dominance. It’s a very popular kind of shot in classical Hollywood because it presents both actors’ faces clearly to the viewer.

“Get out!” snaps Conte, and Kroeger pulls the camera into a single at the foot of the bed, taking up his hat as if her were going to leave, but his whole attitude suggests he’s winning, not losing the argument. His power to make Siodmak’s camera follow him about is part of his charisma and strength. When he refers to Conte’s girl, we get a sort-of-matching shot of Conte, his static position maybe now starting to look like one of moral strength. Throughout, Siodmak resists obvious shot-reverse-shot matches, usually varying the size of one angle to make the exchange more expressive.

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Now Kroeger LUNGES, and Siodmak lungers with him! The camera actually excitedly starts advancing on Kroeger before he’s off the starting block, and the effect is a vulpine swoop into a tight two-shot favouring Conte. Kroeger is a relatively bland profile view, but generally the reaction of the listener is more important than the face of the person giving information, and so giving the angle to his protagonist but the camera’s authority to Kroeger works very well indeed here. It’s the first moment when Siodmak’s verve reaches the fruity heights of Kroeger’s characterisation.

When Kroeger straightens up the camera, hypnotized by his smirking evil, has no choice but to mirror his movement and again we have a single on the triumphant antag.

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The next cut should be awkward but I think we get away with it. An angle full on Conte, looking up the length of his body rather like the shots of Alex in bed at the end of CLOCKWORK ORANGE. The POV of Conte’s toes, perhaps. It’s tricky because it’s not a reverse of the previous shot by any means, and it’s not motivated by anything to speak of. Normally you’d expect a match cut on Kroeger exiting the previous frame but it’s possible Siodmak neglected to shoot that. What makes it feel like a match cut is Kroeger’s shadow, which is pretty much already in motion anticipating his entrance — so the angle change is justified because this is where Kroeger is headed. He’s still calling the shots.

This new frame makes the head of the bed an architectural element so that when Kroeger says “a face like a Madonna” with a weird accent on the last word as if it were exotically foreign, the image looks like an altarpiece. Kroeger positions himself directly above Conte, smirking down at him like an obscene cherub (Kroeger is always like an obscene cherub: he’s the evil version of Orson Welles).

Next, Siodmak jumps more or less straight in on BK, Frankenstein monster fashion, for a big, looming CU. Not a Leone brow-to-chin frame-filler, still pretty loose. It took extreme provocation to make a 40s filmmaker go Extreme. But this is more than enough to make Kroeger seem like a giant.

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It’s followed by a Big Head of Richard, but upside-down, from Kroeger’s POV. Again, Conte gets a shot making him big, but he still appears weak because he’s inverted. The emphatic view of his forehead has us imagining beads of sweat (there aren’t any). But after a crosscut to Kroeger, something starts happening. Kroeger’s threats infuriate Conte rather than cowing him. His eyes dart about, then slowly rise to meet our gaze and —

The set up similar to the previous “altarpiece” frame — but when Conte abruptly grabs Kroeger by his big fat head, the camera rises as if pushed up by Conte’s corky arms. It’s elating and dramatic, and for the first time Conte has done something that has made Siodmak’s camera react — he’s taken control of the scene, and the movie, and the camera has to pay attention to him now.

One last grace note — as the two wrestle, a chair gets kicked and scoots left to right across the floor, motivating a fast pan which leads us to the nurse, hurrying to intervene. It’s only when she separates the men that we notice how low the angle is, a real noir-Wellesian neck-cricker, looking UP at the bed from ankle level. Siodmak has sidled up to his big dramatic effects, without robbing them of impact but integrating them into the scene to prevent sore-thumb syndrome.

It’s expressive, economical and both serious and fun — textbook Hollywood filmmaking.

Buy Cry of the City