Oscar Profile #456: Robert Siodmak

Born August 8, 1900 in Dresden, Germany, Robert Siodmak was one of four sons of a Jewish family from Leipzig. He worked as a stage director and banker before becoming editor scenarist for director Curtis Bernhardt in 1925. The following year he was hired by his cousin, producer Seymour Nebenzal to assemble original silent movies from stock footage of old films. In 1929, he persuaded Nebanzal to finance his first film, People on Sunday, featuring a script by his brother Curt and Billy Wilder. Released in 1930, it would be Germany’s last silent film.

Siodmak directed several early German talkies before fleeing to Paris with the rise of Hitler in 1933. There he directed a number of films including the 1933 comedy, The Weaker Sex, the 1936 French-English musical, Parisian Life and the 1939 thriller, Personal Column starring Maurice Chevalier and Erich von Stroheim later remade in Hollywood by Douglas Sirk as 1947’s Lured.

Emigrating to the U.S. in 1939, Siodmak’s first American film under contract to Universal was 1941’s West Point Widow. That and several subsequent films were not up to the levels he had achieved in its earlier work, but in 1943 critics took notice of his direction of Son of Dracula from a script by his brother Curt. He followed that with 1944’s Phantom Lady, his first film noir which established him as a master of the genre. Working with A-list stars once again, he directed in quick succession, Denna Durbin and Gene Kelly in Christmas Holiday, Charles Laughton in The Suspect and George Sanders and Geraldine Fitzgerald in The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry.

Still under contract to Universal, Siodmak made 1946’s The Spiral Staircase starring Dorothy McGuire, George Brent and Ethel Barrymore on loan-out to RKO, earning Barrymore an Oscar nomination. That same year, he earned a nomination himself for his direction of The Killers featuring Burt Lancaster in his first film and Ava Gardner in her first dramatic role. His third classic noir released that year was The Dark Mirror starring Olivia de Havilland as twin sisters opposite Lew Ayres.

Siodmak had two more major successes in the decade with 1948’s Cry of the City starring Victor Mature and Richard Conte and 1949’s Criss Cross starring Lancaster and Yvonne De Carlo. Unfortunately for Siodmak, in 1949 he also directed the notorious flop, The Great Sinner which wasted the talents of an all-star cast led by Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Melvyn Douglas, Walter Huston, Ethel Barrymore, Frank Morgan and Agnes Moorehead. He rebounded with 1950’s The File on Thelma Jordan with Barbara Stanwyck and Wendell Corey but came a cropper again with 1952’s The Crimson Pirate in which his experience working with Burt Lancaster was so bad that it sent him and his wife Bertha, who he had married in 1933, back to Germany.

The director’s most successful film upon his return to Germany was 1957’s The Devil Strikes at Night which received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film. He returned to Hollywood just one more time to make the 1967 critical and box-office failure, Custer of the West starring Robert Shaw.

Robert Siodmak died on March 10, 1973 at his home in Switzerland seven weeks after his wife’s death. He was 72.

ESSENTIAL FILMS

PHANTOM LADY (1944)

Two years before French film critic Nino Frank coined the term “film noir” to describe dark black-and-white melodramas from the 1920s to the then present and beyond, Siodmak became the exemplar of the genre with this stylish edge-of-the-seat suspenser in which Ella Raines searches for the woman who can alibi her boss (Alan Curtis) for the murder of his no good wife. Franchot Tone as a friend of Curtis gets top billing on name value alone. Raines carries the film with strong support from Thomas Gomez as a sympathetic cop and Elisha Cook, Jr. as a drummer with a plan. Fay Helm is also quite good as the titled phantom lady.

THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1946)

Siodmak’s sharp emphasis on unusual camera angles in tight, shadowy places heightens the suspense in this classic film about a serial killer who preys on handicapped women. Dorothy McGuire as bedridden eccentric Ethel Barrymore’s servant in an old dark mansion may well be his next target. Her chances of being the next victim rise exponentially when a murder occurs in the mansion. Kent Smith as McGuire’s doctor fiancé, George Brent and Gordon Oliver as Barrymore’s sons, Rhonda Fleming as a maid, Elsa Lanchester as a cook and Sara Allgood as a nurse are also on board, but the film belongs to McGuire and Oscar nominated Barrymore.

THE KILLERS (1946)

Siodmak’s adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s short story begins where Hemigway’s story ends with the murder of a young gas station attendant played by Burt Lancaster in his film debut. The events leading up to the murder are seen in flashback as they are investigated by insurance investigator Edmond O’Brien in one of his best performances. Lancaster as the almost glad to get it over with victim exudes charisma from his every pore and is matched by Ava Gardner in her first starring role as the femme fatale who leads him to his demise. Albert Dekker, Sam Levene co-star with Charles McGraw and William Conrad as Lancaster’s killers.

THE DARK MIRROR (1946)

Even if you’ve seen it multiple times since its first appearance more than seventy years ago, this psychological murder mystery remains difficult to figure out which one of the twin sisters played by Olivia de Havilland murdered the doctor who came between them. Lew Ayres is the psychiatrist asked by detective Thomas Mitchell to figure it out. Although de Havilland would win the Oscar for her portrayal of the self-sacrificial mother in the same year’s To Each His Own, she is equally impressive in her dual performances here. Lew Ayres, the movies’ Dr. Kildare, in his first post-war film, is equally effective as the twins’ shrink.

CRISS CROSS (1949)

Cited by many as their favorite film noir, Siodmak’s atmospheric film has more twists and turns than any of his previous films as Burt Lancaster once again plays a guy duped by a femme fatale, this time played by Yvonne De Carlo at her most alluring as his ex-wife. Dan Duryea is De Carlo’s loathsome second husband with whom Lancaster conspires to rob the armored truck he is driving. Sympathetic support is provided by Stephen McNally as Lancaster’s friend and Richard Long as his brother. Tony Curtis, who would later co-star with Lancaster in two films, makes his film debut in an uncredited role as De Carlo’s dance partner in an early scene.

ROBERT SIODMAK AND OSCAR

  • The Killers (1946) – nominated – Director

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