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Friday, 24 April 2015

Pieges (Snares) (1939)

The director Robert Siodmak had a fascinating career, divisible into a number of disparate sections. Although his official biography shows his being born in Dresden, he was actually born in Tennessee where his Jewish parents were visiting. The family returned to Germany when he was a one-year old and he was raised as a proper German gent. After trying his hand at various jobs, he drifted into the world of film. His first cinematic outing was the influential semi-documentary "People on Sunday" (1929) which he co-directed with two other burgeoning talents, Fred Zinnemann and Edgar G Ulmer, from a script by Billy Wilder. He continued with a successful career at UFA before Hitler's rise to power, at which time he followed Wilder to Paris for a brief fling at French film-making. He arrived back in the United States in 1940, travelling on the last ship to leave France before the German occupation.

His early Hollywood years were with Paramount where he was only trusted with B-pictures. However when he moved to Universal in 1943 and given a freer hand, he churned out a remarkable run of titles; he successfully blended the techniques of German Expressionism with American naturalism to create a run of film noir classics such as "Phantom Lady", "The Suspect", "The Killers", "Cry of the City", "Criss Cross", and perhaps his masterpiece "The Spiral Staircase". His films combine broody violence in sombre or sordid urban settings and he could be relied upon to produce a professional-looking movie on the tightest of budgets. His is an unsentimental vision of underworlds, both of crime and the damaged psyche. After 1950, there were only a couple of notable American films and his career turned full circle when he moved back to Germany.

The above film also known as "Personal Column" was his last French movie and a template for the American films to follow. A serial killer has been responsible for the disappearance of eleven young girls, taunting the police with cryptic poetic letters. Commissioner Tenier enlists a young taxi dancer, Maria Dea, in her first film role to reply to ads in the personal columns which seek young ladies for unspecified duties. There follows a series of vignettes as she follows a number of possible leads in the search for the killer, briefly introducing us to various lonely and not altogether reputable or sane suspects. The stand-out scene, but one which does not really further the action in any way, is a ten-minute section with Erich von Stroheim in one of his many charismatic film roles after his directing career hit the skids. He plays a has-been couturier who employs her as a model to strut his designs before an imaginary audience.

The film's male lead is the inherently charming, despite himself (and despite what one knows of his collaboration during the war years), Maurice Chevalier, returning to the movies after a two year absence. He plays a night-club owner, a debonair ladies' man, who notices Dea at one of her rendezvous, and woos her non-stop. Siodmak even manages to include two of his jaunty songs into the action. The man is a charmer, no doubt, but he is not really much of an actor, and when he finds himself having to play things seriously when he is accused of being the sought-after killer and facing death row, it is something of a stretch for the boulevardier. His friend and lawyer played by Pierre Renoir (son of the painter and older brother of the director) offers him no real hope. Of course the real culprit is revealed at the last moment in a whirl of images -- clocks, shadows, mirrors -- invoking the terror and confusion of a guilty man now caught in an inescapable net.

While this movie has its moments, it is a little too leisurely and 'bitty' to be wholly successful. However as a teaser for the psychological thrillers to follow it is well worth a glance, especially since there are the turns from von Stroheim and Chevalier to tickle one's fancy.     
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