Robert Siodmak (August 8, 1900 - March 10, 1973) was a German born American film director. Siodmak was born to a Jewish family in Dresden, Germany (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 Kurt Bernhardt in 1925. At twenty-six he was hired by his cousin, producer Seymour Nebenzal, to assemble original silent movies from the stock footage of old ones. Siodmak worked at this for two years before he persuaded Nebenzal to finance his first feature, the silent chef d'oeuvre, "Menschen am Sonntag" in 1929.
With the rise of Nazism he left Germany for Paris and then Paris for Hollywood. Siodmak arrived in Hollywood in 1939, where he made 23 movies, many of them widely popular thrillers and crime melodramas, which critics regard today as classics of film noir. Beginning in 1941, he first turned out several B-films and programmers for various studios before he garnered 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," for instance, Siodmak was brought in to replace Frank Tuttle only six days after completing work on "The Killers." At Universal, Siodmak began with yet another B-film, "Son of Dracula" (1943), the third and the best in a trilogy of Dracula movies (based on his brother Curt's original story). His second feature, and first A-film, was the Technicolor, Maria Montez-Jon Hall vehicle, "Cobra Woman" (1944). But his first all-out noir was "Phantom Lady" in 1943, for staff producer Joan Harrison, Universal's first female executive and Alfred Hitchcock's former screenwriter. Following the critical success of "Phantom Lady," Siodmak directed "Christmas Holiday." And for the first time in Hollywood, his work attained the stylistic and thematic characteristics that are most astonishing in his later noirs. Today a rare, seldom-seen film, "Christmas Holiday" was the most successful feature to that date for star Deanna Durbin, and the one she considered 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, "Nachts, Wenn Der Teufel Kam," would be nominated for best foreign film in 1956). The film is notable for many reasons, not the least of which is Burt Lancaster's debut.
Before leaving Hollywood for Europe in 1951, after the problematic production "The Crimson Pirate" for Warner Bros., his third and last film with Lancaster, Siodmak had directed some of the era's best film noirs, the most of any director who worked in that style, twelve in all. But 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 to make 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--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," which later became "On the Waterfront," was a major disappointment too for Siodmak. So much so, in 1954 he sued Sam Spiegel for copyright infringement and was awarded $100,000, but no screen credit. To this day his contribution to the original screenplay has never been acknowledged.
His return to Hollywood film-making in 1967 to make the wide-screen western "Custer of the West" was yet another disappointment. Siodmak fared better in Europe, especially with the British film "The Rough and the Smooth" (1959), yet 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, "Der Kampf um Rom" (1968), oddly more campy (perhaps intentionally, one hopes) than "Cobra Woman" had been. Like the Roman Empire, it too fell, but more quickly. There was a brief and profitable foray into television in Great Britain with the O.S.S. series in the late 1950s. Siodmak was last seen publicly in an interview for Swiss television at his home in Ascona in 1971. He died alone in 1973, seven weeks after his wife's death.
by J. Greco, author of "The File on Robert Siodmak in Hollywood: 1941-1951."