Robert Siodmak and Jess Franco: a brief pictorial essay.
Today is the birthday of Robert Siodmak (1900-1973). A favorite director of Jess Franco, who went on at length, during our 2005 interviews with him, about how he acted as Siodmak’s Personal Assistant on the set of CUSTER OF THE WEST (1967), which filmed in Spain circa 1966 and featured future Franco regular Jack Taylor (NECROMOMICON/SUCCUBUS, NIGHTMARES COME AT NIGHT, SEXY SISTERS) in a small part. Franco, of course, also assisted another of his idols, Orson Welles, during the 1964 shooting of FALSTAFF: CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT. That has been documented both in photographs and by the testimony of others, although Franco’s name doesn’t appear in FALSTAFF’s credits, and it doesn’t appear in the credits of CUSTER OF THE WEST either. Franco told me about his time with Siodmak in minute detail during our Q and A sessions. He said that Siodmak was particularly dissatisfied with the casting of Robert Shaw as Custer and had wanted Sterling Hayden for the lead. I’m not sure if all, or any of this, is true, but Jess believed it. I could tell by the animated, passionate tone of his voice. He also enthused about Siodmak’s PHANTOM LADY (1944) when I prompted him, especially the Le Jazz Hot jam sequence, which inspired LA MUERTE SILBA UN BLUES (1962), the jazz performances in VENUS IN FURS and many other Franco projects. He called this kind of music inspired mise en scene “jazz noir.”
Jazz-noir in Siodmak’s PIEGES (1939)
Jess also had a video of Siodmak’s THE KILLERS (1945) in his personal collection, which seems to have been his all time favorite. Also see BOTAS NEGRAS LATIGO DE CUERO and CAMINO SOLITARIO (1983) to note the influence of classic film noir on Franco’s cinema. With Jess Franco you have to believe in what you see more than what he tells you. And I see the name Robert Siodmak written all over his filmography, from his early Oroff films (GRITOS EN LA NOCHE) to those later neo-noirs. I also see the influence of Siodmak’s black and white horror films of the 1940s (THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE and SON OF DRACULA, in particular) in such Jess Franco titles as LA MANO UN HOMBRE MUERTO (1962), both STAIRCASE and LA MANO… have cultured, unlikely candidates as mad serial killers of beautiful women, and are mainly set in haunted estates. And both have highly effective black and white cinematography which adds a layer of orthographic unreality. SON OF DRACULA, with an unlikely Lon Chaney playing the Count, also prefigures LA FILLE DE DRACULA (1972), with Howard Vernon’s coffin bound Dracula controlling a female family member, in much the same psycho-sexual manner, within a dysfunctional family matrix which itself generates sexual ambiguity. And Dracula is destroyed in both as his coffin sanctuary is burned, by Jess Franco himself in the case of LA FILLE…. . Douglas Sirk’s LURED (1947), based on Siodmak’s 1939 PIEGES, features a pre-television Lucille Ball as an undercover police operative working as a “dancer” in order to trap a mad killer in a story and atmosphere very similar to Franco’s first horror film, GRITOS EN LA NOCHE (1961).Siodmak’s PIEGES (1939) The dance hall settings, the foggy streets, the baffled police investigator, a woman posing as pick-up, and black and white mise en scene are strikingly similar elements in all three films and it is probable that Franco, at least during his time spent at La Cinémathèque française, managed to absorb LURED and PIEGES, as he admired both Sirk and Siodmak. There are many more comparisons and contrasts to be made between the two auteurs, one a German refugee working within the Hollywood system, the other a maverick working within the restrictive Spanish censorship and without adequate resources. I’ll be looking at some more of these in future blog posts. (C) Robert Monell, 2015