German-born director Robert Siodmak has more A-grade film noirs to his name than just about anyone else, but where to start with a career that spanned four decades and as many countries?
Robert Siodmak was a man of contradictions. Some were of his own devising, others were thrust upon him. They start at birth, with some sources claiming his birthplace as Memphis, Tennessee, while others give Leipzig or Dresden. Critic Andrew Sarris reckoned that his American films were more Germanic than his German ones, while others feud over whether he was an auteur who helped define film noir or a studio hack whose work was decidedly mediocre when not abetted by quality craftsmen. Moreover, while Siodmak was feted in some quarters as the new Fritz Lang or Alfred Hitchcock, he was appreciated in others as a master of kitsch.
So, how do you start to fathom such a self-effacing enigma? Some of the answers lie in an eventful life history that saw his Jewish banking family endure the hardships of the Depression before Siodmak left Berlin for Paris and then France for the United States, as the Nazis rolled across Europe. There are also clues in the films he made before he reached Hollywood, as the optimistic naturalism of People on Sunday(1929) – which he produced with his writer brother Curt, roommate Billy Wilder and friends Fred Zinnemann, Edgar G. Ulmerand Eugen Schüfftan – was first replaced by the claustrophobic expressionism that characterised UFA pictures like the Emeric Pressburger-scripted Abschied (1930) and the 1933 adultery saga, The Burning Secret(which led to Joseph Goebbels branding Siodmak “a corrupter of the German family”) and then by the nascent noir morbidity that pervaded Gallic outings like Mollenard(1937) and Pièges (1939). But the true Siodmak style only started to emerge in Hollywood towards the end of the Second World War.