Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Auteur Files #4: Robert Siodmak's THE FILE ON THELMA JORDON

I typed this up a few years ago and was inspired to retool it a bit for posting since director Robert Siodmak has been getting some blog comment section action over the past week at Dave Kehr's site, and also a post devoted to him at Glenn Kenny's excellent blog SOME CAME RUNNING. This'll be just the tiniest squeak next to their collective roar, but I'm cool with a wide and varied sonic spectrum. Aren't you?

Robert Siodmak (pronounce it See Odd Mack) directed some truly classic films. THE KILLERS and CRISS CROSS both starred a young Burt Lancaster, and those two movies sit at the top of the heap of late 40’s noir, the former based on an Ernest Hemingway story. Siodmak had a relatively short period of prime productivity, about ten years (1943-53), and he’s considered a director who never excelled at another genre beside the mid-century’s quintessential American staple of gloomy, fatalistic black and white pessimism. This might be why the guy’s essentially forgotten. Unlike some noir filmmakers, Siodmak didn’t work on Poverty Row pictures with no-name or has-been actors: he made films with studio budget and muscle behind him, and in the late’40s the types of movies he directed could be compared in terms of contemporaneous significance to the work of guys like Billy Wilder and John Huston. In 1946 he directed three films, which is striking by today’s standards of productivity, but I bring it up because all three of them were nominated for Academy Awards. That doesn’t mean the films are any good of course, but it does make it seem even odder that his name isn’t better known. In contrast to Siodmak’s truncated career, Wilder and Huston both directed into the 70’s and 80s, making movies that ranged from comedies to literary adaptations. THE KILLERS is in the Criterion Collection in a nifty two disc edition with the 1964 (also classic) Don Siegel version, however, and currently Siodmak’s output can be accurately assessed as an ‘underground’ taste awaiting an overdue reemergence.
THE FILE ON THELMA JORDON is one of the more difficult Siodmak films to see, due to the fact that it has apparently never been released on VHS or DVD, at least in this country. Again, this is weird, due to Barbara Stanwyck playing the lead, and the plot’s rough similarity to Wilder’s DOUBLE INDEMNITY, where Stanwyck also starred. I sat down for a TCM showing and found that while the film isn’t as strong as either THE KILLERS or CRISS CROSS, it is a fine work that holds complexity, nuance, and quiet, assured visual flair.

This is early noir, so it doesn’t quite reach for the bleak inky blacks and doom laden scenarios that are attributed to many famous films of this style/cycle as it reached its conclusion at the close of the 1950s. Wendell Corey plays a district attorney who’s disillusioned with his marriage. He goes on a bit of a bender on his anniversary and finds himself involved with Stanwyck. She’s a woman with a shady past who is possibly using him as a dupe. There’s an aunt, some jewelry, a recently changed will, a dead aunt, an arrest, a trail where Corey presides as prosecuting attorney and clandestinely sabotages the whole proceeding, and a dude in a fedora lurking around in the shadows. What’s unusual is the film’s intersecting currents of familial breakdown. The DA’s marriage is, on the surface, being plagued by his wife’s intruding parents. This would seem to be an easy enough hurdle to cross. But it isn’t. Underneath is something deeper, something that avoids being made explicit. This failure of communication isn’t given large prominence in the story. No mention is made of the marital problems beyond the overbearing/meddlesome parents. Instead it’s allowed to lurk under the surface where it combines with another crisis of family on Stanwyck’s side of the story. Basically, the narrative hook of the film is the question of her involvement in her aunt’s murder. The very possibility of matricide, when in combination with Corey’s marital logjam, emphasizes the concept of family, and specifically betrayal within its boundaries, as the film’s underlying motif.This may not seem startling, but few films I’ve encountered in this genre are concerned with such a theme. That said the overt thrust of the story does revolve around the question of Stanwyck’s guilt and the drain that Corey’s life finds itself moving down as he surreptitiously aids her case from the side of the prosecution. Corey is nobody’s idea of a great actor (okay, maybe his mother’s), but his ‘adequate’ performance really does something to enhance his effectiveness as a patsy. As he pulls strings and gets deeper and deeper in the shit, his small town schmuckiness (L Fucking 7, man) just grows like a weed and feels pitch-perfect due to the absence of any large, brassy thespian gestures. What a poor sap.

Oh, you poor sucker

Stanwyck is great in the lead, which is to be expected. The first half of the movie moves at a more deliberate pace than most noir, and without her skill this could have posed a real problem. But her presence and ability assures that the story is never bland, and when combined with the tight yet expressive direction, the narrative arrives at an expertly filmed sequence where we discover that Thelma’s aunt is no longer among the living. Corey ends up there after the fact (splitting the scene just before others discover him), Stanwyck gets arrested for the murder, and from that point it’s inevitable: human carnage will pile up.
For me, the big payoff of watching this movie is the above sequence, specifically its complexity, the suspense it gathers, and the smoothness with which it’s delivered. There is so much happening in so many different directions, and yet it has such a seamless, easy quality that allows the mounting tension of the story to be the focal point rather than the difficulty of effectively and efficiently depicting the scenario. I really wish that THE FILE ON THELMA JORDON was readily available for plucking from video store shelves or through the mail via Netflix, so that the scenes I’m referring to could be easily accessed and the source of my pleasure better communicated. But alas, this is not the case. Siodmak’s work is perfect fodder for reissue though, and hopefully some company will grab this film (and other hard to see work by him from this period) and give it the release it deserves.
The rest of the film is also well done, holding steady to a suitably downbeat conclusion (I will give away nothing more). Siodmak is accomplished yet restrained, from a visual standpoint. Having strong material such as a complex and solid story/script, a star actress, an experienced supporting cast, and a big studio budget to work with can allow for a polished subtlety that might contribute to why Siodmak continues to be so underrated. Having so many tools at yr disposal helps to erase any desperation on the part of the director to really get the whole thing across and the invisibility of perceived ‘craftsmanship’ can result. If this is the case, that’s too bad, because I feel that Siodmak displays real artistry in this film. Noir is often defined by its extremes; the fringy gut-punches of anonymous conjurers who captured the subterranean malaise that crept up after WWII and spat it back out through movie projectors with strange, doomy darkness and contagious helplessness which makes abundantly clear that these movies were authored by unique, artistic personalities (Edgar G. Ulmer’s DETOUR and Joseph H. Lewis’s THE BIG COMBO spring immediately to mind). THE FILE ON THEMA JORDON isn’t infused with that type of urgency, its artfulness never grabbing the viewer by the collar and demanding significance. It’s never as dark or as bleakly futile as it could have been in some other director’s hands. But that’s what could have been. It’s much more satisfying to deal with the film that actually is. I just wish more people could see it, since it’s a fine piece of work. It is available for internet streaming or download from the Internet Archive, but I mention that hesitantly, since very often films found via that source are in shoddy condition or worse. Again, my viewing was courtesy of the TCM cable channel, so if you are interested in seeing this and forming yr own opinion, I say check yr local listings. Increased familiarity can only help to boost Siodmak’s reputation, and that would be a nice, much needed corrective. And, who knows, the established noir canon could deepen, as well. Wouldn’t that be a kick in the head?

Robert Siodmak


the horse and hare said...

You've been tagged! See my most recent post to get your assignment.

Joseph said...