I’m quite excited to post my first article for #Noirvember 2020! I’ve decided to kick things off with an essay that I originally wrote for a class on film noir I attended during the last year of my bachelor degree in film studies. The work consisted of analysing the style of film noir director Robert Siodmak through three of his films: Phantom Lady, The Dark Mirror and The Spiral Staircase. I hope you’ll find this interesting!
Spoiler alert: because it is more of an analysis rather than a review of these three films, the following essay contains spoilers. (But then, if you haven’t seen these films, what are you waiting for? They are so great!)
Edit: This is also my 500th post on this blog! Amazing!
Robert Siodmak was among the most important figures of the Film Noir era. I the following text, three of his films will be analysed to understand his personal touch. What are the common elements between these films? How can one recognise them as Siodmak films as well as important noirs? The choices are Phantom Lady (1944), The Spiral Staircase (1946) and The Dark Mirror (1946). This essay will delve into both their narrative and aesthetic aspects.
German Expressionism and black and white cinematography
Films noirs were known to be influenced by German Expressionism aesthetic, and Robert Siodmak films are perfect examples of this. In his book, The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir, Foster Hirsch compares Siodmak’s style to Fritz Lang’s by claiming that his use of German Expressionism is more flamboyant. (1) The use of shadows in contrast with a paler surface is the first influence of German Expressionism one can observe in The Spiral Staircase. The image often shows a clear contrast between the shadow of a stair railing and the white wall behind it. That obviously highlights the relevant use of staircases in this film. After all, the climax takes place in one of those. German Expressionism lightning is also used in an interesting way when Helen (Dorothy McGuire), a mute girl, dreams that she is marring Dr Parry (Kent Smith). It becomes nightmarish when she is unable to say “I do”. The audience is sitting in the dark, and only their solemn faces, waiting for Helen to talk, are lit. By using noticeable contrasts between shadows and white walls, luminosity and darkness, the German Expressionism style often used in films noirs seemed to have the task to show only the important parts of the image, those that have a real significance.
In his book, Le Film Noir, Patrick Brion confirms the use of the style by writing that, in Phantom Lady, Siodmak plays with the shadows and, therefore, recreates the dark atmosphere of the most beautiful German films. (2) When Carol (Ella Raines) decides to follow the barman (Andrew Tombes), she is, at one point, seen from his point of view, reading a journal at the end of the sidewalk. The white raincoat she wears contrasts with the night and gives her a ghostly appearance. This scene has some visual similarities with the one in Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street (1945) when Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson) sees Kitty March (Joan Bennett) under a streetlight for the first time.
Finally, The Dark Mirror illustrates well the German style in this scene where Terry (Olivia de Havilland) is talking on the phone with Dr Elliott (Lew Ayres), pretending she is her twin sister, Ruth (De Havilland). In the dark room, only a small lamp is lit, which creates low-key lightning (often used in films noirs). The light is soft but allows Terry’s shadow to appear on the wall. As she is the evil sister, this image reflects her dark soul affected by her madness.
The originality of the cinematography mentioned by Gabriel Lucci in Le Film Noir (3) and the striking images mentioned by Foster Hirsch (4) are expressed by an overall work of quality in the search for images that use black and white at its full potential. The images are essential for their composition. Monthly Film Bulletin, quoted in Jürgen Müller’s book Films des Années 40, says of The Spiral Staircase that meticulous care is given to the images of this film. (5) They do not have a visual significance only but also some symbolism. In the book, Burkard Röwekamp explains that the image of the spiral staircase is a symbol of the disastrous swirling movement, the visual structure leading to the dark cellar (a metaphor for Hell), where obscurity dominates and swallows any parcel of light. (6) This place is disturbing, and that is where one of the murders takes place. However, the main floor of the house is also almost in the dark. As the story progresses, the place, which is only lit with gaslights, seems to get darker. Interestingly, in this scene where the murderer (George Brent) kills Blanche (Rhonda Fleming), a shadow hides them, and only their hands are visible. Lastly, the murder scenes (especially the first one) have a considerable visual impact. The camera focuses on a mad eye observing the victim and zooms on its pupil. Then, the victim is seen from the murderer’s point of view before being killed.
Interestingly, one can observe a visual similarity between Blanche’s murder and Cliff (Elisha Cook Jr.)’s murder in Phantom Lady. The murderer and his victim are also hidden by a shadow, which makes this scene even more troubling than it already is. The spectator does not see the murder, but what happens is enough to guess. When Carol is in Cliff’s apartment, only a little bedside lamp is opened, but when the drummer discovers the truth about her and tries to kill her, it falls on the floor, and the place becomes darker. Phantom Lady is also memorable for its use of “smoke” in the scene where Carol visits Scott (Alan Curtis) in prison. In The Noir Style, Alain Silver and James Ursini explain that Siodmak used a filtered light as well as a fog-making machine to create this effect. (7) The contrasted photography, as it is written by Gabriel Lucci, creates a feeling of claustrophobic menace in certain places (8), Cliff’s house being one of the best examples. Curiously, in the murderer’s house, everything is bright as day. Finally, one of the darkest images in this film is when the camera focuses on the barman’s hat fallen in a rill beside the sidewalk. It is only a sound effect and this image that reveal that he has been hit by a car and is now dead.
In The Dark Mirror, the opening scene would be a good example of the use of the image to its full potential. In a dark room, the camera focuses on a lamp fallen on the floor, which is the only source of light. It then moves to a broken mirror, and, finally, to a dead man, and that is enough to know what happened. An image is worth a thousand words. Then, in this scene where Terry suggests to Ruth that she should take her sleeping pills, she wears a black dress, stands in the dark bedroom and her face is barely seen. The only light in the room comes from the outside, which is enough to see what is happening. However, the room remains dark enough to create a certain discomfort. This image reveals that Terry probably has mental issues, and the doctor confirms it not long after. Finally, one particularly noticeable image from this film is when Ruth is in the ballroom with Dr Elliott. At one point, she looks above the balcony, and her eyes reveal an extreme angle view of the street. It creates a sensation of vertigo, emptiness, and deepness. The night is in contrast with the luminous cars down in the street.
Gabriel Lucci describes the atmosphere of Siodmak’s films as a smothered one (9) and Foster Hirsch, as an edgy one. (10) Indeed, Burkhard Röwekamp discusses the worrying atmosphere of The Spiral Staircase and describes the film as a gothic “behind closed doors”. (11) Most of the film takes place in a single house, but, as much as this one is big, a sensation of suffocation is constantly present. Mrs Warrer (Ethel Barrymore) is right: Helen is in danger and must leave the house at once. It is the dark lightning that creates this visually edgy atmosphere as well as the presence of a murderer in the house (who frequently observes the young woman). Interestingly, when his identity is revealed, everything seems to become even darker.
In Phantom Lady, the characters often seem to suffocate, starting with Scott when he discovers that his wife is dead. The police surround him to question him, and it seems that he has no way to “escape”. He suffocates both physically and mentally. To accentuate this effect, the camera slowly gets closer to the group, the frame becoming smaller. That leads eventually to the climax where Carol herself is trapped in the real murderer’s house who turns out to be Scott’s best friend (Franchot Tone). Her panic is felt when she discovers the police’s papers in one of his drawers. She tries to phone the inspector who’s helping her without being herd by the assassin. When she tempts to run away, the door is locked, and the fact that Jack Marlow (the murderer) remains extremely calm makes Carol panic even more.
Foster Hirsch writes this about The Dark Mirror: “As the net closes around her, Terry becomes more and more possessive of Ruth”. (12) It is felt when she says: “You and I are never going to be separated, as long as we live. You an I are going to be together. Always”. (13) The atmosphere in this film becomes edgy in a graduated way. In the beginning, Terry is only presented as a protective person like many sisters are, but as the story evolves, her attitude reveals a certain mental instability. If she is the insane one, she makes her sister believe that she is the one going crazy by making her think that she has hallucinations. Because of that, Ruth feels more and more uncomfortable and unhappy. As the doctor says, Terry is paranoiac and, therefore, can do pretty much everything, and it includes torturing her sister psychologically.
Characters’ psychology and obsessions
One can’t deny that Terry is an obsessive character and this psychological trait is something that many of Siodmak’s characters have in common, and it can be exploited positively or not. As revealed by Hirsch, the characters are nurtured by their obsessions. Negatively, it provokes some of them to commit unforgivable acts but, in some situation, it leads to a positive outcome (14), the best example being Carol’s persistence to exculpate Scott. While this one seems to have lost all hopes (even though he is not guilty and knows it), Carol pursues her investigation to elude this mystery and find the real murderer as well as the “phantom lady”, Scott’s only alibi. She does everything to save him, which involves playing different roles (a mysterious lady at the bar and Jeannie when she meets the drummer, Cliff), but also risking her own life on several occasions. Her hard work is worthy since, as Alan Silver and James Ursini write it, Scott is exonerated in the end. (15) In the same order of ideas, Hirsch says of Siodmak’s character that “fierce grip on a hopeless love […] give them purpose and identity”. (16) It is indeed for love that Carol is helping Scott. On his side, the murderer also has his obsessions, but these are expressed negatively. He is obsessed with his hands, his murdering tool, which explains that he could commit such a crime more than once. Jack Marlow’s murderous drive is like a drug for him but, as Carol makes him realize, he is trapped in a vicious circle and can’t murder people forever when he is in an uncomfortable situation. It is also a “love” motive that led him to murder his best friend’s wife. She did not want to leave her husband for him.
The Spiral Staircase‘s antagonist commits his murders because of his obsession to eliminate “imperfect” people from the surface of the Earth. That is why people with disabilities are his victims. Foster Hirsch writes that he has been poisoned by his father’s cult of masculinity, and the only way he can prove himself is by killing the disabled ones. It is a way to protect his own sense of incompleteness and vulnerability. (17) The heritage of his father’s memoir is felt when he says to Helen: “What pity my father didn’t live to see me strong – to dispose of the weak of the world whom he detested. He would have admired me from what I am going to do”. (18) That is, to murder Helen.
The status of obsession in The Dark Mirror is expressed by Terry’s fixation to control her sister and to be declared innocent. However, it is a lost cause for her as the doctor has made the diagnostic of her mental situation quite rapidly. After Ruth’s false suicide, Terry pretends that SHE is Ruth and that it is Terry who is dead. As she walks, she looks crazier, with her eyes wide open and nervous voice full of hate for her sister. But she is caught in her own trap when Ruth appears in the living room, making her realise that she only condemned herself. The positive outcome of this situation resides in the fact that, now that Terry involuntary admitted that she killed her fiancé, Ruth has nothing to worry about anymore. She won’t be psychologically tortured anymore and now knows that her supposed hallucinations were her sister’s brilliant idea to make her vulnerable and have more control over her.
This essay mainly discussed the way Siodmak used the black and white cinematography in a noir way, the atmosphere of his films, as well as the psychology of his characters. Many more common elements have been noticed with the help of written sources and film viewing, but it should be for another time. An aspect that would be important to mention is the use of the city in Siodmak films, this one becoming almost like an extra character. Hirsch talks about the “real city tempo” of his films, expressed by the use of on-location shooting and the constant use of the outside world. (19) However, we did not include it in this essay as it applied less to The Spiral Staircase. The best example of the use of the city as a background would be Phantom Lady, which takes place in New York, “evoked during the toxic heat of midsummer”. (20) Siodmak signature also is the veritable style of film noir, that is why his films were so important during this era and stood out from the other ones.
(1) Foster Hirsch, The Dark Side of the Screen : Film Noir (Da Capo Press: 1981), 117.
(2) Patrick Brion, Le Film Noir (Paris: Éditions de La Martinière, 2004), 83.
(3) Gabriele Lucci, Le Film Noir, trans. Bonnet (Paris: Hazan, 2006), 113.
(4) Hirsch, 118.
(5) Montly Film Bulletin cited in Burkhard Röwekamp, “Deux mains, la nuit – The Spiral Staircase”, in Films des années 40, ed. Jürgen Müller, trans. Thérèse Chatelain-Südkamp and Michèle Schreyer (Cologne: Taschen, 2005), 277.
(6) Ibid., 278.
(7) Alain Silver and James Ursini, Les Milles yeux du Fim Noir, trans. Alice Boucher (Cologne: Könemann, 1999), 129.
(8) Lucci, 203.
(9) Lucci, 113.
(10) Hirsch 117
(11) Röwekamp, 274.
(12) Hirsch, 190
(13) The Dark Mirror (Robert Siodmak, 1946)
(14) Hirsch, 118.
(15) Silver and Ursini, 129.
(16) Hirsch, 118.
(17) Hirsch, 195.
(18) The Spiral Staircase (Robert Siodmak, 1945)
(19) Hirsch, 118.
(20) Joel Greenberg and Charles Higham, “Noir Cinema,” in Film Noir Reader, ed. Alain Silver and James Ursini (New York: Limelight Editions, 1996), 29.