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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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