Archive for Robert Siodmak

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

The Idiot Brother

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on May 23, 2014 by dcairns

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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.

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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.

The Greengrocer’s Apostrophe

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on October 20, 2013 by dcairns

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From Robert Siodmak’s CRISS CROSS. “Employee’s only.” No wonder their armoured car gets robbed, they can’t even use basic English grammar.

Bunch of idiot’s.

Showed this one to students and was struck by how it really wants to be a portrait of a terrible love affair (trust is gone) and has to force itself to be a crime movie. Fortunately, the crime movie it’s forcing itself to be is a damned good one, even if the crime masterminded by dopey hero Burt Lancaster is a magnificently dumb piece of self-destruct planning. I mean, it doesn’t so much carry the seeds of its own destruction as the whole damn tree. Which is itself in bud.

The sub-sub-genre of armoured car robbery movies deserves a pamphlet of its own, from the shambolic overthinking of Lancaster’s scheme and its Soderbergh remake, THE UNDERNEATH, to the factual comedy of THE BRINK’S JOB (note the correct apostrophe) to Richard Fleischer’s self-explanatory ARMORED CAR ROBBERY and climaxing with the Mackendrick-Rose-Ealing-Guinness THE LADYKILLERS.

Philip Kemp’s Mackendrick bio, Lethal Innocence, has a good story about that heist. Mackendrick had a tendency to go all-out for authenticity in small matters, which he later identified as a diversionary measure to take his mind off the more intractable problems of the narrative at hand. Anyhow, in quest of realism he consulted the Metropolitan Police, appraising them of his fictional caper and asking if such a scheme could possibly work.

The detective took a long breath. “I’m very glad you decided to become a filmmaker, Mr Mackendrick. It would work only too well.”

The Best Of Ealing Collection [DVD]
Criss Cross (1949) Region 1,2,3,4,5,6 Compatible DVD. Starring Burt Lancaster and Yvonne De Carlo

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