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Phantom Ladies | Village Voice


Phantom Ladies


A vintage year for film noir, 1944 saw the release of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window, Otto Preminger’s Laura, Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet, and Robert Siodmak’s Christmas Holiday. Although the first four films, often revived, have been accepted as key works in the noir canon, Siodmak’s stylish thriller has hardly been seen since its original release. The centerpiece of BAM’s five-film Siodmak mini-retro, it will be shown in what appears to be the first New York screening of a 35mm print since 1944. On April 30, the film will be presented by critic James Harvey, whose recent Movie Love in the Fifties (Knopf) contains a chapter devoted to a close reading and impassioned defense of Christmas Holiday.

One of the most distinguished, yet most neglected, of the German directors who worked in America, Siodmak fled Hitler in 1933 and escaped from Paris the day before the Wehrmacht arrived. He headed straight for Hollywood, where he found his European reputation counted for little. He made a number of B’s of every description and then established a special corner for himself in film noir with Phantom Lady (1944), a moody whodunit that brought his Americanized expressionism to the fore.

Christmas Holiday (1944), his next picture, was initiated by its star, Deanna Durbin, Universal’s golden girl, anxious to break the mold of her “singing sweetheart” image. The huge grosses of her wholesome musical soufflés had saved Universal from bankruptcy—she remained queen of the lot for nearly a decade. The film she chose as her first adult dramatic effort was based on W. Somerset Maugham’s novel about a young upper-class Englishman who finds all the assumptions of his background questioned when he goes to Paris and meets a young Russian prostitute whose husband has been sent to Devil’s Island for murder.

Herman Mankiewicz’s adaptation, with its multiple flashbacks, shares some of the labyrithine quality of his Citizen Kane screenplay. The locale has been shifted to New Orleans; the young Brit becomes an American army officer who meets local singer Durbin in a cabaret that—to the extent allowed by the Hays office—seems to front for a brothel. The pair hop straight from the cathouse to a cathedral for midnight Mass. She tells him the story of her marriage to a personable young blade who turned out to be a mother-fixated criminal. After the flashbacks have come and gone, her murderous man breaks out of jail and provides a suitably agitated climax to this complex gothic tale.

Both leads are cast against type. Durbin’s sinister husband is played by a non-singing, non-dancing Gene Kelly (the actor’s dark side would never again be exploited). The scene in which he brings Durbin home to meet his horrid mother is observed with pitiless malice. Siodmak had a great eye and a flair for camera movements that were graceful yet ominous. The concert hall sequence where they first meet opens with a magnificent crane shot that ascends five levels until it reaches Kelly and Durbin. Siodmak was working here with Woody Bredell, one of noir’s foremost cameramen, who had shot Phantom Lady and would later organize the harsh, unsettling lighting schemas of The Killers. Although audiences gasped in shock at the first sight of America’s chirping child diva, heavily made up and in décolleté in a sleazy club, Christmas Holiday was a money-spinner and Durbin has repeatedly cited it as her only worthwhile film.

The later Siodmak movies on view, The Suspect (1944), The Killers (1946), and Criss Cross (1949) are near-classics. The first, a Hitchcockian period piece, stars Charles Laughton (at the height of his powers) as a mild-mannered shopkeeper who kills his wife. Siodmak’s close rapport with actors is also evident in The Killers, which featured Burt Lancaster’s screen debut as Swede, the young boxer-turned-criminal in an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s story. Criss Cross, arguably the best film of Siodmak’s career, is both a superbly crafted caper movie and a disturbing account of amour fou depicted with Germanic fatalism. It contains the most striking opening shot in the entire noir cycle—a stunning aerial panorama of nocturnal Los Angeles with the camera swooping down to a parking lot where the embrace of a doomed couple (Lancaster and Yvonne De Carlo) is revealed by the glare of headlights. Weary of the studio system, Siodmak returned to Europe in 1953 and continued working there for nearly 20 years. He made a few good late films, but nothing as accomplished as Criss Cross or as fascinatingly peculiar as Christmas Holiday.

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