Robert Siodmak shows his skill as a director in this early 1942 screwball comedy starring later SF star Richard Carlson and Oscar nominee Nancy Kelly, as they chase a Nazi superweapon, trying to prove Carlson’s innocense in a murder case. 7/10
Fly by Night. 1942, USA. Directed by Curt Siodmak. Written by Jay Dratler, Sidney Sheldon, et.al. Starring: Nancy Kelly, Richard Carlson, Albert Bassermann, Miles Mander, Martin Kosleck, Nestor Paiva. Produced by Sol C. Siegel. IMDb: 6.5/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
I recently purchased a hefty tome called Variety’s Complete Science Fiction Reviews, and whatever you want to say about its editors, at least they have been thorough. On this blog, I’m striving to review all science fiction films ever released to a theatre in chronological order, so I decided to leaf through it and catch any picture that might have gotten away from me the first (or, actually second) time around. What first struck me was despair. A good half of all the films on the first 50 or so pages I had never even heard of — and there were something like 5-10 films on each spread, reproduced in facsimile in a painfully small print. “This will take me ages to get through”, I thought. But I soon calmed down, after reading the plot synopses. If I’m being generous and broad in my definition of science fiction here on Scifist, the editors of the book have thrown in everything but the kitchen sink. Any war movie predicting future events of WWI or WWII are included, and any film featuring a scientist making a new discovery or an inventor inventing something has been labelled science fiction, as has every detective serial featuring some sort of fictional spy gadget. Something like a quarter of all films on these pages had a plot involving spies and detectives chasing after some new sort of new explosive, death ray or other lethal jigamajag. Not only am I not going to review every one of these films, that ultimately have very little to do with SF, many of them are also lost or not available for home viewing.
One film that caught my eye, however, was Paramount’s 1942 noir thriller-cum-screwball comedy Fly by Night. (For some reason, Wikipedia and IMDb have added hyphens to the title, “Fly-by-Night”, but there are none in the original posters, nor in any of the reviews from the period, so I’m omitting them). The reason for my peaked interest was the name of the actor in the male lead: Richard Carlson. Friends of 50’s SF movies will know him as the soft-spoken hero of Jack Arnold’s classics It Came from Outer Space (1953, review) and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954, review), as well as a number of other SF movies. Carlson was, in my opinion, an underrated actor that didn’t quite fit the leading man mold of the 40’s and 50’s, even though he racked up quite an impressive line of first and (primarily) second billings in these decades, often opposite a more famous female star, as is the case in Fly-by-Night. The other name that drew me to the film was Robert Siodmak. On this blog, we have mainly been preoccupied with Robert’s brother, writer and occasional director Curt, who made a name for himself in SF circles in Germany in the 30’s, and worldwide in 1942 with his novel Donovan’s Brain. With a few exceptions, Robert steered clear of the fantastic, instead establishing himself as a master of clever and atmospheric mid-budget noirs with strong expressionist influences. Fly-by-Night was his second American picture, and one of three films made during a short stint at Paramount 1941-1942, before he found his home at Universal. Interestingly enough, Richard Carlson played the lead or co-lead in all three of Siodmak’s Paramount movies.
Like so many of Robert Siodmak’s films, Fly by Night puts an interesting spin on a classic trope, in this case by combining what are actually four different tropes in one movie. First, there is the classic Hitchcockian theme of a wrongly accused on the run from the police, trying to prove his innocense. This young physician Geoff Burton (Carlson), who is one night carjacked at gunpoint by a lunatic asylum escapee (Martin Kosleck). The escapee kidnaps Burton into a hotel room, where he tries to explain that he is no madman, but a foreign scientist called Tieler working for a Professor Langner (Miles Mander), who has invented a new super-weapon called G36. He says he has been kidnapped by a Nazi spy ring who have kept him at the asylum in order to get him to divulge the secrets of the weapon, and produces a baggage check ticket for a package holding the prototype of the weapon (that’s trope #2). But when Burton is starting to believe him, he steps into another room, where he is murdered by someone who flees out the window. When the police arrive, they assume Burton is guilty and show no interest in even checking his claims of innocense. Using Tieler’s gun, Burton is able to escape out the window and enters the room of beautiful young Pal Lindsey (Nancy Kelly). He explains his situation and hides in the bathroom, begging Lindsey not to give him away, but when the police arrive, she promptly gives him up. However, he has already escaped through the bathroom window, but re-enters when the police are gone. Turns out Lindsey is a professional illustrator, and Burton tells her he can’t have her drawing pictures of him for the press, so he kidnaps her in only her negligee and coat (and high heels, naturally). That’s trope #3, straight out of Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940). Now the chase is on, which ultimately takes them from Hitchcock territory to romantic screwball comedy, as, through a number of circumstances, they are helped by two brothers who turn out to be Keystone cops, and whose parents run a one-stop marriage chapel and boarding house, and Burton and Lindsey can’t get out of the situation without getting married (trope #4). Lindsey, now convinced Burton is telling the truth, helps him infiltrate the insane asylum where they believe the real Professor Langner is being held, as Burton plays a husband suffering from a wedding ring fetish (having lifted a pocketful from the chapel). Alas, he steps into a trap, and now the Nazis are on him from one side and the cops from the other — but in the final showdown the weapon prototype actually comes to the rescue.
As SF, Fly by Night is certainly fringe, but can stand on this blog as a representative of the many films from the 20’s to the 50’s featuring similar plots. At least in this movie, the super weapon actually plays a part in the plot, as opposed to many other pictures where it just remains a MacGuffin chased by different parties. It’s a minor movie, and has probably popped up on this side of the millennium because of being featured at the Noir Film Festival in 2009. It’s not a classic, nor should it be considered as one, but it is a well-crafted, impeccably acted, quite clever and rather funny little film. Despite the many strands and ideas, it never quite falls apart, owing largely to Siodmak’s strong direction and the neck-break pace of the movie.
Would this film have had a larger budget, it would be easy to see Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in the lead roles. I haven’t seen Richard Carlson in a comedy before, but he’s made clear in the movie’s I’ve seen with him that he has a strong comedic strand and can wield a nice, understated irony. He does well here, aged 30, and still climbing his way up the career ladder as leading man, feeling somewhat more sprightly than in his later films, although there’s always been a lightness over his acting, making him instantly relatable as a human being, as opposed to many of the chisel-jawed leading men of the era. In most of his SF movies, he benefits from good co-stars, but seldom as good as in Fly by Night. Nancy Kelly’s Pat Lindsey is no fainting waif; in a scene near the end, where Burton wants her to fake a fainting, she protests: “I have never fainted in my life!”. And rather than quiver in a corner when a fistfight gets going, she clocks bad guys double her size. Kelly has great rapport with Carlson, which helps elevate the film above its programmer status.
The film has a couple of outstanding scenes. One is something I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a film of this vintage: When Geoff and Pat are on the run from the police in the beginning of the movie, Geoff decide they need to ditch Pat’s car — in full flight. Geoff spots a car transport truck on the road ahead of him, pulls up beside it, and they both jump from a speeding car onto the truck, where they hide in a new car while the police follow Pat’s vehicle, which crashes by the roadside. Geoff then drives the new car off the truck, still speeding along, and escapes. Of course, it’s highly unlikely that cars would be transported with keys and a full tank, but you don’t look for logic in screwball comedies. The scene also has another quirk, which you probably won’t see in any modern movie. While waiting for the police to pass, Geoff lights a cigarette, and when done, flicks the butt against the inside of the car. It rolls on the seat, behind Pat and burns her bum, then onto Geoff’s side, where it burns him as well, making for the first bonding moment of the two reluctant partners in crime.
Another fun sequence is one of the few in which the film lets up its relentless pace. Through a number of circumstances, Geoff and Pat are given a ride by two brothers, who turn out to be Keystone cops (Edward Gargan and Adrian Morris). Explaining their hurry with the story that they are eloping to get married, Geoff and Pat are told that the brothers’ parents run a one-stop wedding chapel, and can have them wed by the end of the day. With no choice but to play out the charade, they get married and spend their marriage night boarding at the chapel/boarding house run by “Ma and Pa Prescott” (Oscar O’Shea and Mary Gordon). While “consummating their marriage” on the upper floor, Geoff and Pat are actually getting ready to escape through the window, but first Pat must mend Geoff’s trousers, leading to series of shots of Geoff, sans pants, goes downstairs asking for needle and thread, then scissors and finally a shoehorn, making the old folks wonder what on Earth young kids nowadays do on their wedding nights. Here Richard Carlson gives great show of his comedic timing. In the following sequence the couple go out shopping for a dress, as Pat has spent most of the film in only a negligee and an overcoat. While she changes, she suggests Geoff go and buy her some underwear, insinuating that for the main 40 minutes of the film, she hasn’t been wearing any. This segues into what could be read as a satire of the patriotic fervour in the US following the attack on Pearl Harbour, as the shop attendant tries to sell Geoff “patriotic knickers”. These sequences give you the impression that story writer Sidney Sheldon (yes THAT Sidney Sheldon) and Siodmak are trying to see just how far they can push the Hays Code, making little subversive sex puns while never mentioning anything related to sex or showing any nudity.
Robert Siodmak keeps the direction and editing tight and always interesting. Several plot twists are told through clever visual reveals rather than through dialogue, and he refrains from over-explaining the story, trusting the audience to follow along. The film starts almost like an expressionist horror film, segues into noir and then smoothly turns into a light comedy, but Siodmak manages the turnaround without making it seems forced or abrupt, or making us feel we watch three different movies. It’s a well-crafted routine and you feel the director has the film firmly in hand all the way through. The script is based on a story by Sidney Sheldon and Ben Roberts, and the screenplay by Jay Dratler and F. Hugh Herbert, but despite the many cooks, it stays tight and to the point. Mind you, this is no Hitchcock, nor is it Billy Wilder, and the conclusion feels like a bit of a letdown, as it degrades into clunky mad scientist territory, and the evil Nazi gets what’s coming to him. All writers would go on to bigger and better things, all but one being nominated for an Oscar. Sheldon won one for the screenplay for the The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947), another screwball comedy, indeed starring Cary Grant. Sheldon also won two WGA awards and was nominated for an Emmy. This was before Sheldon launched his career as an author of best-selling smutty thrillers and hugely successful TV writer, creator of The Patty Duke Show, I Dream of Jeannie and Hart to Hart. Ben Roberts, on his part, is best known as the creator of the legendary TV show Charlie’s Angels. He was Oscar-nominated for the script for the Lon Chaney biopic The Man of a Thousand Faces (1957). Dratler received an Oscar nod for the screenplay for Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944). F. Hugh Herbert never got the Oscar nod, but won a WGA Award for his work on the 1948 comedy Sitting Pretty.
Fly by Night got mixed-to-good reviews upon opening. Variety called it “well done, but the maddeningly impossible plot sets it down as routine”. Motion Picture Herald thought the comedy was unfunny, but praised Nancy Kelly‘s performance. Motion Picture Daily also wrote: “occasionally the comedy becomes very broad, indeed”, but nevertheless called Fly by Night an “entertaining film which has pace and timeliness”. The paper wrote: “There’s plenty of excitement and lots of laughs, not all of them are for children’s ears”. Harrison’s Reports was positive: “This is a good program espionage drama. The action is fast-moving, and at times exciting, and, even though the plot is highly far-fetched, holds one’s interest and keeps one in suspense. The tension is occasionally relieved by some good comedy bits and a pleasant romance.” Showmen’s Trade Review wrote: “The studio has gone to town with this one and spared nothing to make it entertaining.”
Robert Siodmak created his legacy at Universal, and his three films made for Paramount 1941-1942 are mostly glanced over in his biography, perhaps rightly so, but of these Fly by Night is considered the best. It has a 6.5/10 rating on IMDb, based on less than 300 votes. It has no Rotten Tomatoes rating, nor do you find a lot of contemporary reviews, although a few seem to have popped up after the film’s screening at the Noir City festivals. Hal Erickson at AllMovie gives the film 2.5/5 stars, writing: “The innovative direction of Robert Siodmak lifts the inexpensive imitation-Hitchcock Fly By Night well above the ordinary.” Dave Sindelar at Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings echoes the 40’s critics in his judgement: ” It’s all pretty far-fetched and ridiculous, but it’s funny enough to have kept my attention in its own nutty way, though my mind came to a dead halt for about ten minutes when someone uses the phrase “patriotic panties” (I am not making this up)”. Odie Henderson at Slant Magazine writes: “Siodmak keeps the film on track, showcasing both the comedic and the suspenseful side of the picture with two well-done camera reveals: He generates tension with a pan down to the second appearance of Teisler’s [sic] bullet-holed hat, and gets Airplane-style humor out of a pan that reveals what Pat Lindsey does for a living. His work is efficient and tight: He manages to squeeze four movies into 74 minutes, and it works. It’s not a masterpiece; it’s one of those movies you watch for the sheer enjoyment of being dragged around by a wild plot that holds together just when it seems poised to disintegrate. I liked it so much, I watched it twice.” And John Grant at Noirish concludes: “the plot isn’t altogether logical, and its holes are wide and deep. But then the plots of screwball comedies are generally fairly ramshackle, and this movie could just about be considered as a screwball comedy rather than a lighthearted thriller with comedy elements. Whatever the classification you want to give Fly by Night, I found it a delight.”
I liked the film. Technically, my only criticism is that the special effects used in the scene where Pat and Geoff jump cars are a little shoddy, otherwise this is impeccably filmed, directed, edited and acted. It showcases many of Siodmak’s trademarks, such as chiaroscuro lighting, deep focus photography, and his penchant for weaving multiple themes and threads into his stories. I’m not sure, however, that I remember any mirror shots, that became such a significant call sign for the director. If you’re strictly after SF movies, then you can certainly skip Fly by Night, even if you are a completist. There’s no SF content in this movie that you won’t get from a dozen other 40’s programmers. However, it is a fun, well-made little noir comedy that ought to satisfy anyone who likes screwball schemes of the era. There’s one particular logical flaw that had me digging into one of those corners of the internet that I never thought I’d be digging into: the history of the car key. Several times in the film, Geoff and Pat “borrow” other people’s cars, most of the time while they are parked. I remember this being a thing in a number of 40’s films; people stealing cars and just driving off with them. I knew old cars used to have a start button rather than a starter key, so I thought that perhaps it really was that easy to steal a car back in the day: if the doors were unlocked, you could just sit down, push the button and take off. But somehow that seemed unlikely, so I checked it. And quite right, the actual starter key wasn’t invented before 1949, but you still couldn’t steal even an unlocked car without a key in 1942. While you did start the car by the push of a button, you needed a key to turn on the ignition. So either Geoff is really lucky to get cars with the ignition keys in the key hole, or this is just a plot hole that we can perhaps forgive a film like this.
Nancy Kelly was not known to me before this film, despite her great career, and she is wonderful in the role as the head-strong, independent and funny Pat. Kelly, born in 1921, was a child model, radio actress and occasional kid actress in films. As a teen she primarily worked in radio, to great success, for example as Dorothy in NBC’s show The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and as the first ingenue of CBS’s hugely popular show The March of Times. Such was her vocal range that she portrayed both men and women in the show. Kelly returned to the screen in 1939, and quickly became a popular B movie lead, and in 1940 started getting first billing. Her screen career never really took off, despite starring in popular B movies like One Night in the Tropics (1941) and Tarzan’s Desert Mystery (1943). In the late forties she started focusing more on stage work, where she found greater opportunities, and was rewarded accordingly. She was twice awarded the Sarah Siddons Award, the top theatre award in Chicago, and won a Tony for her performance in The Bad Seed on Broadway in 1955. She reprised her role in the 1956 movie adaptation, for which she was nominated for an Oscar — Ingrid Bergman took home the award that year. Alongside her stage work, Kelly appeared regularly on anthology shows on TV in the fifties and early sixties, and was nominated for an Emmy in 1957.
This isn’t Richard Carlson’s most memorable turn, but he is likewise good in the male lead, showcasing a slightly more macho side of himself than we are used to from his SF movies, but also a light and playful side that I’ve seen glimpses of in other films, but never to this extent. He proves good at physical comedy, and the two actors play superbly against each other, helping to sell the story. Robert Siodmak seems to have liked Carlson. Siodmak’s first American movie was the romantic comedy West Point Widow (1941). For friends of horror and science fiction movies, the picture is interesting inasmuch as it brings together Richard Denning and Richard Carlson, the two legendary co-stars of Creature from the Black Lagoon, once again competing for the same woman, in this case Anne Shirley. In My Heart Belongs to Daddy (1942), another screwball comedy, Carlson, playing a doctor for the third time in a Siodmak film, found himself to be the object of desire of both Martha O’Driscoll and Frances Gifford. For more info on Carlson, see, for example, my review of It Came from Outer Space.
The rest of the cast is adequate enough – it’s filled with great character actors, but none of them really get the opportunity to shine. Albert Bassermann, playing the faux Professor Langner, was a noted German stage actor who also appeared in close to 50 films between 1913 and 1938. The ageing actor came to the US in 1939 with his family, and despite his age of 72 and despite knowing little English, he soon was able to carve out a decent second career as a character actor in Hollywood, often playing Nazis and other European characters. He appeared in 25 pictures between 1940 and 1948, and even made a triumphant return to the German stage after the war. Bassermann played the mad scientist in the 1930 sound remake of Alraune (review), appeared in the 1940/1945 dystopia Strange Holiday (review) and in Universal’s Invisible Agent (1942, review). He passed away in 1952.
In the 1930 Alraune remake, as well as in Strange Holiday, Bassermann was joined by Martin Kosleck, who plays Tieler in Fly by Night. Kosleck was a German stage-cum-film actor who fled to the US during the Nazi rule. In the US, it became his yoke to appear as a Nazi in a whole slew of WWII movies. After the war the demand for Nazi villains diminished and like so many other European actors he found himself working primarily in B-movies. Horror aficionados may remember Kosleck from a string of Universal cheapos from the mid-forties. He appeared in The Mummy’s Curse (1944) and The Frozen Ghost (1945) opposite Lon Chaney, Jr., who he is reported to have disliked intensely. His biggest role in the four Universal films came in House of Horrors (1946), and he also appeared in the better known She-Wolf of London (1946).
Appearing in a bit-part as a Nazi henchman is Nestor Paiva, who in 1954 would be immortalised for monster movie fans as the formidable tug captain in Universal’s The Creature from the Black Lagoon (review).
Robert Siodmak is a director whose name is always mentioned with certain degree of reverence among fans of “classic Hollywood”, however, few cineasts would name him as their favourite director, and he is often omitted from lists of the greatest film noirs — sometimes the list compilator even apologises for the omission. Nevertheless, argues Chris Justice at Senses of Cinema: “Among fanatic cinephiles, particularly those with a penchant for film noir thrillers, Siodmak is considered the primary architect of the genre. No other director has produced more quality film noir thrillers than Siodmak. His canon is a viewing list for any authentic study of the genre.” There are those who argue that Siodmak’s The Phantom Lady (1944) was the first fully formed crime noir, and The Killers (1946) is rightly considered one of the true masterpieces of the genre. Then again, other lists will include the bewildering Criss Cross (1949) instead, and there are those who swear by The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945), The Spiral Staircase (1946) or The File on Thelma Jordan (1949). Then again, there are those who prefer his last US-produced movie, The Crimson Pirate (1952), the film that turned Burt Lancaster into a swashbuckling Technicolor hero.
Tellingly, it was Siodmak who discovered Burt Lancaster, or at least launched his Hollywood career when he cast him as “the Swede” in The Killers, still one of his most memorable roles. Unlike some the noir pioneers that came over from Europe, Siodmak was known as an actors’ director and was extremely well liked by his cast, many of whom returned his movies. This did not prevent him from being exacting as to the visuals, placing great weight at mis-en-scene and set design, giving them unspoken meaning and using them either to move the story forward, to make revelations or to add a psychological or philosophical layer to the characters. As mentioned, mirrors became a hallmark of Siodmak’s films, and in Fly by Night, a hat becomes an important part of the plot. Justice writes: “Siodmak’s holistic vision often enabled him to manage several aesthetic impulses simultaneously. Like all classic films that serve as the high-water mark of a particular style, The Killers, for example, tackles virtually every major theme in the noir cycle, unlike many other noirs, which only focus on a particular subset of motifs. The Killers includes a haunting femme fatale in Ava Gardner as Kitty Collins, a seminal heist scene, psychiatric profiles of a network of professional gangsters, a devastating double cross, the spirit of heavy fatalism, and a hard-boiled protagonist doomed by existential fate in Burt Lancaster as Ole Andersen. Each motif is developed with precision and style. Secondly, Siodmak was also brilliant in inspiring stellar performances from minor characters. Reviews of his films often include references to these outstanding performances. Elisha Cook in Phantom Lady, Ethel Barrymore in The Spiral Staircase and Richard Long in The Dark Mirror are excellent examples. But while the whole is always the sum of its parts in a Siodmak film, those parts were always brilliant.”
Robert Siodmak was born in 1900, although his place of birth is contested. His parents visited the US around that time, and he claimed to have been born during this trip. This may have been a white lie to secure a visa to the US, as there are also documents putting his birth in Dresden, Germany. He attended university at Marburg and got a job at the film studio UFA in Berlin in his twenties. One of his early jobs was translating intertitles for American films, but he soon worked himself up the ladder to editor and assistant director, before collaborating with a number of other young filmmaker on an experimental film called Menschen am Sonntag (“People on Sunday”) in 1930. The movie launched the career not only of Robert Siodmak, but that of his younger brother Curt, Edgar G. Ulmer, Fred Zinnemann and Billy Wilder. His second film, Der Mann, der seinen Mörder sucht (“The Man Who Seeks His Murderer”, 1931) already showcased his knack for putting interesting spins on the crime film, as it deals with a man, who in a dark spell hires an assassin to kill him, but then changes his mind. The film was no great success, and his career did not have time to take off before the rise of the Nazis to power in Germany. He relocated to France, where he made films in several genres, from comedy and musicals to drama and crime thrillers. His brother Curt (or Kurt, as was his real name), had some success as a writer of both novels and screenplays, including the SF movies F.P.1. Doesn’t Answer (1932, review), The Tunnel (1935) and Non-Stop New York (1937, review). In 1937 Curt relocated to the US, where Universal immediately took notice of his talents for science fiction and horror, penning the screenplay for several cult classics before his breakthrough with the script for The Wolfman (1941). Robert followed in 1941, and in 1942, Curt was able to secure him a contract at Universal, where he would thrive for a decade, while his brother was let go in 1945, when the popularity of horror films was waning.
Robert had a somewhat longer run in Hollywood, but was let go by Universal in 1951, as the noir boom came to and end. His last Hollywood collaboration was The Crimson Pirate, a marvellous family adventure starring an inceasingly difficult but brilliant Burt Lancaster. The movie was filmed in England, and after making it, Siodmak decided to remain in Europe, becoming the first major movie director to return to Germany after WWII. He made a good dozen films in Germany, the UK and France between 1954 and 1969, to modest success, but none that rivalled his noir streak at Universal, even if many of his European efforts are quite good.
Thanks to Noirish for screengrabs!
Fly by Night. 1942, USA. Directed by Curt Siodmak. Written by Jay Dratler, F. Hugh, Herbert, Sidney Sheldon, Ben Roberts. Starring: Nancy Kelly, Richard Carlson, Albert Bassermann, Miles Mander, Martin Kosleck, Walter Kingsford, Marion Martin, Edward Gargan, Adrian Morris, Oscar O’Shea, Mary Gordon, Clem Bevans, Arthur Loft, Nestor Paiva. Cinematography: John F. Seitz. Editing: Arthur Schmidt. Art direction: Haldane Douglas, Hans Dreier. Sound: John Cope, Gene Merritt. Produced by Sol C. Siegel for Paramount.
Categories: Future war & weapons