"Robert Siodmak: Prince of Shadows" runs throughout April and May at BFI Southbank, see here for details.
FILM RATING: ★★★★☆
Robert Siodmak (1900-73), who is being given the retrospective treatment this month by the BFI, was one of the many European filmmakers who eventually found themselves in Hollywood, a part of the great migration of artistic talent that took place around the time of the Second World War. Siodmak was a native of Germany, born in Dresden in 1900. He made his film debut with People on Sunday, a landmark in cinematic realism. Fleeing from the Nazis, he worked in France, then ended up in Hollywood; where he eventually made a name for himself as a major exponent of film noir, alongside that other great German ex-pat filmmaker, Fritz Lang.
Siodmak became celebrated for his use of expressionistic ,“noirish” techniques such as strong lighting to reflect the danger and distress of his characters. But Siodmak’s films also betray a droll, resigned tone as they trace the largely tragic street-level struggles of cops and criminals in a morally murky and dangerous America. The Killers and Criss Cross are great examples of this, but it is another of Siodmak’s great noirs, his 1948 thriller Cry of the City, that forms the centrepiece of the BFI’s celebration.
Though it may not have some of the more exaggerated visual stylings of other noir films, or a plot as famously twisted as The Big Sleep, Siodmak’s crime thriller is built on the tried-and-trusted plot conceit that the cop and criminal at the centre of the plot know each other from back in the day. It also grounds its urban cat-and-mouse game against an evocative backdrop of a tough, working class immigrant-populated neighbourhood in 1940s New York City.
It is in this patch of New York’s Little Italy that slick hoodlum Martin Rome (Richard Conte) and veteran cop Lieutenant Candella (Victor Mature) knew one another as kids, both being watched over by the fussy matriarch Mama Roma in one of New York’s many grimy, crowded tenement blocks. It is the relationship between Rome and Candella that gives Siodmak’s thriller much of its power and complexity. The film opens with Rome seriously wounded in hospital and being overseen by a priest (one of the many religious motifs in the film), with Candela waiting in the wings to grill him. This has been a long-running chase.
Candela projects a world-weary, quiet authority, whereas Rome is all rough-diamond charm under the pressure of interrogation. But actors Mature and Conte, working to an adapted script from Richard Murphy and Ben Hecht (adapting the novel A Chair for Martin Rome), add shades of grey to what should be a relationship clearly divided by the law. There is a palpable sense that Candella pursues his old childhood friend more out of sorrow than a burning desire for justice, even if the film goes on to clearly position him on the side of the angels as he seeks to lure Martin’s impressionable younger brother Tony away from the streets. Rome on the other hand, always quick with a quip, acts like they are still playing wild like the street kids they once were.
Inevitably, Rome escapes the hospital and sets out to reclaim both his girl Teena, and a stash of escape money in the form of a jewel heist he has got wind of. Siodmak populates the well-realised New York streets around the fleeing hoodlum with a deliciously entertaining rogues gallery of shady types. Lawyer Niles is Rome’s first target, as the slimy underworld legal eagle has already tried to blackmail Rome into taking the fall for the jewel robbery by threatening to frame Teena for the raid. His grisly fate at the end of Rome’s switchblade serves as a sharp reminder that the veteran felon, already wanted for the earlier shooting of a cop, can be as a ruthless as he is alluring when his back is against the wall. He almost meets his match though in the form of the memorably sadistic masseuse Rose Givens, who could give Kathy Bates’s character from Misery a run for her money.
Alongside from the snappy chemistry between the noble Mature and street-smart Conte, which foreshadows other great cop/criminal dynamics like that of DeNiro and Pacino in Heat, a mix of on-location footage and in camera effects give the gritty and low-key proceedings a pleasingly steely realism, especially during the night sequences. A great jumping on point for those still unfamiliar with the work of Siodmak; the “Prince of Shadows”.