8 August 1900|
Dresden, German Empire
|Died||10 March 1973
Ascona, Locarno, Switzerland
|Spouse(s)||Bertha Odenheimer (1933-1973; her death)|
Robert Siodmak (8 August 1900 – 10 March 1973) was a German-born American film director. He is best remembered as a thriller specialist and for the series of Hollywood film noirs he made in the 1940s.
Siodmak was born in Dresden, Germany, the son of Rosa Philippine (née Blum) and Ignatz Siodmak. His parents were both from Jewish families in Leipzig (the myth of his American birth in Memphis, Tennessee was necessary for him to obtain a visa in Paris). He worked as a stage director and a banker before becoming editor and scenarist for Curtis Bernhardt in 1925. At twenty-six he was hired by his cousin, producer Seymour Nebenzal, to assemble original silent movies from stock footage of old films. Siodmak worked at this for two years before he persuaded Nebenzal to finance his first feature, the silent chef d'oeuvre, People on Sunday (Menschen am Sonntag) (1929). The script was written by his younger brother Curt Siodmak, later the screenwriter of The Wolf Man (1941).
With the rise of Nazism he left Germany for Paris and then Hollywood. Siodmak arrived in Hollywood in 1939, where he made 23 movies, many of them widely popular thrillers and crime melodramas, which critics today regard as classics of film noir.
Beginning in 1941, he first turned out several B-films and programmers for various studios before he gained a seven-year contract with Universal Studios in 1943. As house director, his services were often used to salvage troublesome productions at the studio. On Mark Hellinger's production Swell Guy (1946), for instance, Siodmak was brought in to replace Frank Tuttle only six days after completing work on The Killers.
At Universal, Siodmak made yet another B-film, Son of Dracula (1943), the third in a trilogy of Dracula movies (based on his brother Curt's original story). His second feature, and first A-film, was the Maria Montez-Jon Hall vehicle, Cobra Woman (1944), made in garish Technicolor.
His first all-out noir was Phantom Lady (1944), for staff producer Joan Harrison, Universal's first female executive and Alfred Hitchcock's former secretary and script assistant. Following the critical success of Phantom Lady, Siodmak directed Christmas Holiday (1944) with Deanna Durbin. For the first time in Hollywood, his work attained the stylistic and thematic characteristics that are evident in his later noirs. His black-and-white stylisations and urban backdrop together with his light-and-shadow designs formed the basic structure of classic noir films. Christmas Holiday was Deanna Durbin's most successful feature, and she considered it her only good film. During Siodmak's tenure, Universal made the most of the noir style, but the capstone was The Killers in 1946. A critical and financial success, it earned Siodmak his only Oscar nomination for direction in Hollywood (his German production The Devil Came at Night (Nachts, wenn der Teufel kam) would be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in 1956). Robert Siodmak was considered an actor's director, discovering Burt Lancaster and skillfully directing actresses such as Ava Gardner, Olivia de Havilland, Dorothy McGuire, Yvonne de Carlo, Barbara Stanwyck and Ella Raines.
Return to Europe
Before leaving Hollywood for Europe in 1952, following the problematic production The Crimson Pirate for Warner Bros., his third and last film with Burt Lancaster, Siodmak had directed some of the era's best film noirs (twelve in all), more than any other director who worked in that genre. However, his identification with film noir, generally unpopular with American audiences, may have been more of a curse than a blessing.
He often expressed his desire to make pictures "of a different type and background" than the ones he had been making for ten years. Nevertheless, he ended his Universal contract with one last noir, the disappointing Deported (1951) which he filmed partly abroad (Siodmak was among the first refugee directors to return to Europe after making American films).
Those "different types" of films he had made - The Great Sinner (1949) for MGM, Time Out of Mind (1947) for Universal (which Siodmak also produced), The Whistle at Eaton Falls (1951) for Columbia Pictures - all proved ill-suited to his noir sensibilities (although The Crimson Pirate, despite the difficult production, was a surprising and pleasant departure).
The five months he collaborated with Budd Schulberg on a screenplay tentatively titled A Stone in the River Hudson, an early version of On the Waterfront was also a major disappointment for Siodmak. In 1954 he sued producer Sam Spiegel for copyright infringement. Siodmak was awarded $100,000, but no screen-credit. His contribution to the original screenplay has never been acknowledged.
After returning to the Federal Republic of Germany, he made The Rats (Die Ratten) which went on to win the Golden Berlin Bear at the 1955 Berlin Film Festival, and The Devil Came at Night (Nachts, wenn der Teufel kam, 1957) which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and is based on the true story of Bruno Lüdke.
His return to Hollywood film-making in 1967 to make the wide-screen western Custer of the West was another disappointment. Siodmak fared better in Europe, especially with the British film The Rough and the Smooth (1959), another noir, but much meaner and gloomier than anything he had made in America.
He ended his career with a six-hour, two-part toga and chariot epic, Kampf um Rom (1968), oddly more campy (perhaps intentionally, one hopes) than Cobra Woman had been. There was a brief and profitable foray into television in Great Britain with the series O.S.S. (1957–58). Siodmak was last seen publicly in an interview for Swiss television at his home in Ascona in 1971. He died alone in 1973 in Locarno, seven weeks after his wife's death.
- "Wettbewerb/In Competition". Moving Pictures, Berlinale Extra (Berlin): p.84–85. 11–22 February 1998.
- "The 30th Academy Awards (1958) Nominees and Winners". oscars.org. Retrieved 25 October 2011.
- "5th Berlin International Film Festival: Prize Winners". berlinale.de. Retrieved 24 December 2009.
- Robert Siodmak at the Internet Movie Database
- Senses of Cinema: Great Directors Critical Database
- Literature on Robert Siodmak
- The File on Robert Siodmak in Hollywood: 1941-1951