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Film & TV

How a German Jewish Refugee Became a Master of Film Noir

In London, the British Film Institute — the leading organization for film in the U.K. — is running a two-month season dedicated to the renowned German Jewish filmmaker, Robert Siodmak (1900-73). The centerpiece of this major retrospective of over 20 films is the re-release of “Cry of the City” (1948), a noir crime thriller that is also being screened in select cinemas across the U.K.

Adapted from the novel “The Chair for Martin Rome” by Henry Edward Helseth, “Cry of the City” is a riveting, fast-paced tale of law and disorder, shot mainly on location in New York’s Little Italy neighborhood. It tells the story of charismatic criminal Martin Rome (Richard Conte) and his nemesis, police Lieutenant Candella (Victor Mature), a former friend from the same Italian immigrant community who is intent on bringing Rome to justice and who pursues him through the city with an obsessive, dogged determination.

The BFI has described “Cry of the City” as a great noir classic — one of their reasons for its re-release. It is arguably the finest of Siodmak’s American thrillers, despite being less known than the highly acclaimed “Phantom Lady” (1944) after which he was hailed as “the new Hitchcock,” or “The Killers” (1946), for which he received an Oscar nomination.

The film opens with Rome, a petty thief and a cop-killer, awaiting his fate as he lies badly wounded in hospital. The police suspect he was involved in a jewel robbery. Although under police guard, Rome is desperate to escape in order to clear the name of his fiancée, who is implicated in the heist.

What follows is a thrilling chase between these two central characters, played out in a city bathed in shadows, in a battle between darkness and light, good and evil. Rome’s compelling ruthlessness is in sharp contrast with the conscience-driven, good-cop Candella. In fact, when Rome mocks Candella’s weekly salary, Candella replies that he “sleeps good nights.” There is little charm in the noir streets of Little Italy, and this classic visual style contributes to the heightened sense of tension and suspense.

Although murderous and dangerous, Rome still manages to bewitch men and women alike. His girlfriend, younger brother and a prison orderly all fall victim to his seductive, self-serving ways. Minor characters such as these are well cast. It has been said that Siodmak was skilled at inspiring strong performances from those in supporting roles, and perhaps the best example here is Rose Given (Hope Emerson), as the terrifying masseuse with a less than sensitive touch.

Born in 1900, the son of a German businessman, Siodmak’s birthplace is a subject of dispute: some critics say he was born in Dresden, others argue it was Memphis, Tennessee, while his parents were on holiday before they returned to Germany. In his book “The File on Robert Siodmak: 1941 – 1951,” the writer Joseph Greco suggests that Siodmak’s American birth was a simply a myth, used by him in order to obtain a visa in Paris.

Siodmak’s career began in Germany. His debut, “People on Sunday” (1929), was an experiment in realism using non-actors, and it told the story of four young Berliners on one Sunday afternoon. But with the rise of Nazism, Siodmak left Germany via France, where he directed a number of features before arriving in Hollywood in 1939.

Geoff Andrew, Senior Film Programmer, and Margaret Deriaz, Head of Film Distribution at the BFI, say that it was in Hollywood — after making some successful B movies — that Siodmak established himself, alongside Fritz Lang, as a brilliant and influential exponent of film noir, using expressionist lighting to reflect his characters’ fraught or unstable states of mind and their sense of isolation and danger.

“In many ways I feel Siodmak was the most American of the ‘outsiders’ and his mastery of film noir recognized how much he had absorbed U.S. culture and filmmaking style,” said Janet McCabe, lecturer in Film and Television Studies at Birkbeck, University of London. But “he was always looking from a distance.” Perhaps he was the ultimate outsider, suggests McCabe, neither belonging in Hollywood nor back home, which is what made him such a superb exponent of the film noir form.

“Noir was refined by these outsiders struggling to define a place for themselves within the Hollywood studio system. Creating stylish signatures was a way of getting noticed.” And yet, McCabe said, “although he was a master of the thriller with a distinct visual signature and feel to his films, it always surprises me that Siodmak wasn’t as recognized as you’d think.”

Indeed, by the early 1950s — as the popularity of the noir genre waned — Siodmak reversed his original exile and returned to Europe, including to Britain for a brief spell, where he continued to make films. “He never made it back into the West German imaginary like Douglas Sirk or Lang,” says McCabe. His name faded and he lived his later years in Switzerland, where he died.

His brother, screenwriter Curt Siodmak, once referred to the supremely stylish Siodmak as, “a genius.” Out of a career that spanned almost 40 years and over fifty films, this special season is an opportunity to demonstrate to audiences just how much the accolade is merited.

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