One of the things that strikes you about Siodmak’s great film Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers is the storytelling. It’s brilliant. Fracturing a narrative and reassembling it is much more interesting then just relating events in a linear flow, at least to me. The film I’m reminded of most by Siodmak’s approach is Orson Welles Citizen Kane which was released 5 years earlier in 1941. Kane had a tremendous effect on the filmmaking community, it was like a bomb of creative freedom, influencing generations of filmmakers. I’m sure it blew Siodmak’s head off and he shows it’s influence in several ways. First off both films start with the death of their main character. In The Killers this opening scene is all that’s based on Hemingway’s short story. The rest of the narrative was invented by the screenwriters. (Including an uncredited John Huston according to an interview with Siodmak). This was Hemingway’s favorite film adaption of any of his works and he would screen the film at the drop of a hat for guests down in Cuba.
The opening is sensational, no credits, no fade in, just cut wham! to a POV driving down a rural road at night. What a way to start a film, Dynamic! Then we get the credit sequence as we see the two killers (William Conrad and Charles McGraw) walking up to a little diner.
An innocent American small town, like a Norman Rockwell painting and two cold as ice killers cruising it’s quiet streets. Talk about a study in contrast, a very Hitchcockian element, showing pure evil in the midst of picture postcard setting.
Small Town Mayhem
Then we get another Kane simile, the story is taken over by an insurance investigator. In Kane it’s an investigative reporter that leads us from one story to another.
Who’s That Knocking At My Door?
The cast is excellent, Burt Lancaster’s first starring role and an early outing for Ava Gardner. They both never looked better and the sexual tension smoulders between them like molten lava. But Burt falls in love and that’s his undoing. There’s a two shot of Burt and Ava with a light burning between them, Siodmak is shining the love light on our star crossed lovers.
This Little Light Of Mine, I’m gonna Let It Shine
This reminded me of a similar shot in Christmas Holiday showing the love of Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly. Actually there is another parallel with Christmas Holiday, when Burt is in jail, his cellmate gives an astronomy lecture, they look out their cell window and what do they see but the exact same glass painted clouds parting reveling a star on high that was used at the end of Christmas Holiday! Check it out it’s the same.
The Same Glass Painting From Christmas Holiday
It has an emotional effect on Burt, he starts thinking about his lost love Ava and asks his cellie to look her up when he gets out. Burt is put in harm’s way by a chance meeting, very similar to what happened to Robert Mitchum in 1947’s Out Of The Past. In both films our protagonists wishing to hide out and start a new life are working at out of the way gas stations when Fate steps in and has a figure from their respective murky pasts show up at the station and recognize them.
Albert “Dr Cyclops” Dekker. He died under very Mysterious Circumstances
It’s a study in extending tension here in The Killers. Albert Dekker ( he of the bald dome and thick glasses in Dr. Cyclops) shows up at the bucolic service station and seems to relish torturing subservient attendant Burt, making him check the oil and wash the windshield all the while giving him the fisheye. Another tour de force sequence is the robbery of the hat factory, all done in one take and brilliantly so. The camera tracks and cranes in a virtuoso series of moves that conveys tension, excitement and execution wonderfully. I noticed that you can see the cameraman on the crane reflected in the window of a departing truck but you barely notice it because the film is working so well. I bring this up to make a point as Fellini said the magician must show the card up his sleeve to make the illusion more complete.
Presto! Crane in The Window
There is a great boxing scene in the film that’s as good as any boxing sequence, it’s like a Whitman’s sampler of Cinematic treats.
A Great Fight Sequence!
Another Kane connection occurs when Edmund O’Brien is hiding out in the rooming house Burt was killed in. O’Brien is laying in wait for one of the gang, Dum Dum, he listen’s through the door as Dum Dum rents the room and then begins tearing it apart looking for a clue to the whereabouts of the missing heist money. We only see O’Brien listenening but the scene is fraught with tension. It plays just like a radio play, unseen just heard.
Edmund (D.O.A.) O’Brien listens to a scene played out on the other side of the door
This was a technique Welles excelled in, a natural extension of his years spent in radio. Check out the amazing scene in Touch Of Evil in the suspect’s love nest apartment when Welles and Heston argue as Joseph Calleia searches for and fids evidence off screen. Sheer Genius. The final note of the Kane symphony is the similarity of Ava Gardner’s and Albert Dekker’s palatial mansion to Kane’s Xanadu. The magnificent staircase is the hallmark of both locations.
The Killers is a masterpiece, a great work of Art diguised as a piece of genre entertainment. True Creativity expresses itself no matter what the subject or format.
Here’s a chance to see a rare gem, John Brahm’s great psychological noir The Locket will be projected in all it’s sparkling 35mm luscious B&W glory on Friday April 9th at 7:30 pm at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, U.S.A. Hats off to Eddie Mueller and Alan K. Rode the Mavens OF Mayhem, Nabobs of Noir, Czars of Crime and High Priests of the Heist . I saw an interview with Robert Mitchum where he talked about this film. Mitchum said he was shooting two films simultaneously, he’d fly to a location in the morning, act all day in Pursued then fly back to the studio and work on The Locket all night long. He said he didn’t get any sleep for a month.
See The Three Faces Of Siodmak!
Here is a link to an article on our director of the month, Robert Siodmak. Click Me! I guess Universal was trying to make a celebrity director out of him like Alfred Hitchcock but maybe it was too soon after WWII for Americans to get behind a filmmaker with a German accent.
See The Famous Phonetic Jacket!
The idiotic “Shoot the match and prove you didn’t kill my wife” Scene, although it looks like a cigarette, which is what’s written in the script but was changed to a match during filming, probably re-infuriating Raymond Chandler!
I got the published screenplay to Raymond Chandler’s The Blue Dahlia. It has an introduction by the producer John Houseman. Houseman tells the story of Chandler needing to get drunk to finish the film after a secret meeting with the head of production who offered R.C. a $5000 bonus to get the script done. Houseman claims that Chandler was blocked, that George Marshall had shot almost all the pages written, 93 or so, and that the attempted bribe by the studio head had so insulted and enraged Chandler that he wanted to quit. But rather than let a fellow veteran of the English public school system down, Chandler heroically opted to sacrafice his health by consuming vast quantities of alcohol which he assured Houseman would enable him to finish. Now there are a few points worth mentioning, the script was almost complete, Chandler had begun work on The Blue Dahlia as a novel, and we know from his correspondence that he had an ending in mind all along, that Buzz (William Bendix) the steel plate in the head veteran was the killer. The Navy objected to this most strenuously and Paramount agreed to change the ending. Houseman does not mention this fact in his introduction. So this is what I think happened, Chandler finished the script as he planned, with Buzz as the killer, the Navy objected, Chandler was called in to a meeting with the studio head, Mr. Head told Raymond to change his ending and offered him $5000 to make it go down easier. Chandler flipped out, he hated the movie business and couldn’t stand anyone telling him what to write. Chandler went to Houseman and threatened to quit. Then R.C. went home and thought it over, “I’ll write their crap ending but on my terms. ” He made his list of demands, he got to work at home, drunk, with round-the clock secretaries he could chase around, and limos waiting at his beck and call and a doctor on call to take care of him. He had to anesthetize himself to write that idiotic scene where Buzz shoots a match in Johnny’s hand to show he wasn’t the killer and then the captain tricks Dad the house detective into giving himself away. Oh Brother! I think Chandler hated that character,( the house dick) he has all the abuse in the movie heaped on him. Houseman acts as if this was the great ending Chandler came up with at the last minute, that Chandler didn’t have an ending in mind at all which we now know is untrue. So that’s my take on why old R.C. needed to get loaded to finish the script. Another point was revealed in Houseman’s intro. During a fight scene a heavy oak table fell on Don Costello’s toe and broke it. Director George Marshall staged the rest of the scene so Costello didn’t have to walk around, he fights Alan Ladd but on the floor. It was brilliant! A great example of taking an accident that could have shut down production and making something better out of it. Marshall really rose to the challenge and elevated the scene creatively. Bravo! More Myth and Magic in the Land Of Make Believe!
This post is still part of our Tribute to Robert Siodmak, Director of the Month here at Film Forno. But I wanted to shine the light of gratitude on Siodmak’s Hollywood benefactor, the late, great Preston Sturges. When Mr. Siodmak arrived in Hollwood, U.S.A. he had very little cash, forced to flee the Nazis he and his wife sailed here with barely anything. Now he had been a very successful director in Europe but unless you were brought over here by a Studio you were treated like any schmuck pounding the pavement in Tinsel Town. Nobody gave you the time of day for what you had already accomplished. This is just part of the immigration song from time immemorial. People who were big deals in their home countries have to start all over when they get to America. Your experience overseas counts for nothing. Often they find themselves working for people they would barely have spoken to back in the old country. Anyway Siodmak was here with his wife starving, he couldn’t get a job, nobody would cut him a break. Then one fortuitous day he wangled his way onto the Paramount lot and somehow bumped into Preston Sturges.
Sturges (crouched under camera) directs a scene from Hail The Conquering Hero
Sturges was at the peak of his fame, power, and clout at that time. He took the time to listen to Siodmak’s plea. Siodmak had been a great comic actor in Germany, often bringing down the house with his antics, I’m sure he put his all into his performance for Sturges. He described films he’d made in Europe and piqued Sturges’s interest so much that Mr. Sturges immediately got on the phone and spoke to the head of production saying he had a terrific European director that all the other studios were fighting over and they should sign him right away, which they did. Siodmak directed 3 films there that he later referred to as “Paramount Shit”. But I have seen Fly By Night in a theater and let me tell you it is as entertaining as all get out! The audience loved it! So did I, it’s great! There is a fantastic stunt involving a car driving off a car carrier in motion that has to be seen to be believed, and it is paced to perfection. If you get a chance to see it, go! It was the second half of a double bill and it fit into that slot perfectly, I’m sure Siodmak designed it that way expressly. But back to Preston, Good deeds in Hollywood are as rare as hen’s teeth and one that allowed a great artist to create great works to be cherished by generations of film lovers even rarer. So I salute you Mr. Preston Sturges, not only for your incredible writing, directing, inventing but for your true generosity of Spirit in recognizing a fellow artist in need ( when no one else did) and giving him a helping hand. You sir are a mensch!
Subversive Cinema at it’s best! Robert Siodmak’s Christmas Holiday delivers a potent punch right in the breadbasket of Normal American Life. Wow, I wish I could go back in time to see this movie with an audience in 1943. It’s a zinger, why do I say subversive cinema you might ask? Well this movie puts all that’s sacred on it’s ear in brilliant ways. A soldier, a man in uniform is dumped by his fiancee, sent a Dear John telegram on Christmas Eve, he wants to go kill her and her new husband! This sets the ball rolling but the movie is really Deanna Durbin’s story. She was Universal’s big child star, singing her way into our hearts as an adolescent, about as squeaky clean and wholesome as they come and here she plays a prostitute! Her incestuous gambling murderer of a husband (played by Gene Kelly!) offed a homosexual bookie and was sent to prison for life.
And guess what? You can still go there today!
The movie was based on a book by Somerset Maughm and the script was written by Herman Mankiewicz! Talk about a literary pedigree. Midnight Mass in a Catholic cathedral is beautifully shot but it’s just a background for our prostitute’s breakdown. The sequence in the church is rendered more powerful by an expressive sound track. The real sounds of the Mass, recorded in a church make this scene come alive, someone coughing in a silent part of the ritual. echoing in that vast stone room, the little bells the altar boys ring during the sacraments, the brilliant cutting to an anguished Close Up of Durbin as the priest intones in Latin “Mea Culpa, mea culpa, mia maxima culpa” A powerful sequence.
Music is subverted, the popular song Always, used in Pride Of The Yankees, a song about Love that lasts is used several times each time commenting on the story in a masterful way. A Sequence at a classical music concert that cuts with a muscular rhythm to a Beethoven symphony, a lot like Quentin Tarantino’s style of editing images to music. Then an amazing transition from the classical concert to a New Orleans jazz band playing at a cafe. A great cut! Wagner’s love theme from Tristan and Isolde is used beautifully. Especially at the end of the film when Durbin goes to the window and looks out, she sees some glass painted clouds parting in the night sky revealing a shining star on high, she stares at it transfixed and it reminds me powerfully of the scene in Un Chien Andalou where Luis Bunuel looks at the cloud passing in front of the moon from a balcony also acompanied by Wagner’s music.
Siodmak showing the influence of Max Rhinehart
Surrealist Star Gazer Bunuel
Bunuel’s artificial Celestial Bodies
But here’s the thing about this ending, several things in fact which raise it to one of the highest echelons of Cinematic Endings, first Bunuel understood better than anyone this dramatic technique of an ending, that you can do anything , any surreal, crazy thing and get away with it because it’s the end, the film or play is over, you don’t have to explain what just happened. Check out Bunuel’s ending for his Diary Of A Chambermaid and you’ll see what I mean. I guess it comes from the Greek Deus Ex Machina, where the Gods could come down and do whatever they felt like to end a play, no need to explain it, the Gods did it. Siodmak understood this as well so here he is referencing a film (Un Chien Andalou) that was a call to revolution, a “gun fired randomly into a crowd”, a film that caused riots on it’s premier in Paris, at the end of a Deanna Durbin film! Incredible! Secondly, the end is fraught with psychological truth, Kelly lays dying, shot down by a handy policeman, he was just about to kill Durbin, yet she still loves him. The guy ruined her life, he murdered someone but because she loves him she stands by him, his mother blames Durbin for her son’s guilt, for killing him! And Durbin accepts the blame, she feels guilty she couldn’t change him and proceeds to punish herself by becoming a prostitute. This stuff happens every day! People are always taking on guilt for something and messing up the rest of their lives in reaction to it. Durbin still loves Kelly as he lays there dying and he says to her ” Let go Abigail” before dying. Then the soldier repeats it “He said let go”. In other words Kelly is dead, move on with your life. I knew a girl many years ago whose boyfriend committed suicide. She was always talking about him, I guess she was still in love with him. Then she met a guy and started going out with him. One day he couldn’t take it anymore and told her to get rid of her dead boyfriend’s stuff! I thought it was brutal at the time but maybe she needed that help to move on with her life. That’s the parting gift Kelly gives to Durban and the soldier hammers home. He’s dead, you have to keep on living. The other people seem to disappear from the room, she goes to the window almost in a trance, she parts the curtains just as beautiful artificial clouds part before an artificial sky, revealing an artificial Star twinkling on high, all accompanied by some of the most beautiful music a human being ever composed.
But here thanks to Youtube you can see this masterpiece for yourself.
Today I’m writing about a great , but not that well known director, Robert Siodmak. I am posting a scan of a sort of self interview he did for Sight and Sound magazine from 1959. Siodmak to me is above all else, a master of cinematic atmosphere. His films always convey that elusive feeling of place, not just a physical place but a psychological place. Something that makes your skin crawl , or causes you to feel a little sweaty , suddenly the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, and it isn’t from the action taking place on the screen , it’s something that oozes out of the background and gets under your skin. Check it out for yourself.
Dan “scumbag” Duryea & B. Lancaster
I tried to find this location from Criss Cross, then I realized it was Bunker Hill. It had been destroyed.
Over at Giallo Fever , Keith did an excellent piece on The Spiral Staircase, Siodmak’s personal favorite. Here’s the link:
I also like The File on Thelma Jordon , The Crimson Pirate with Burt and his acrobat pal from their days in the circus Nick Cravat, Burt is very impressive climbing the rigging and swinging around on ropes, also there’s a scientist who creates many super cool inventions way ahead of their time, like in The Wild Wild West .
The Crimson Pirate and his mute sidekick Ojo
Then there’s The Killers considered by many to be the first film noir and introducing Burt Lancaster!