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April 02, 2021

The Man in Search of his Murderer

man in search of his murderer.jpg

Der Mann, der seinen Morder sucht / Jim, der Mann mit der Narbe
Robert Siodmak - 1931
Kino Classics BD Region A

First, an explanation is needed regarding the two German titles. While the blu-ray is released with the English language translation of the original title, the actual film we see has the second title, translated as "Jim, the Man with the Scar", hereafter referred to as Jim. The original version, now considered lost, had a running time of 96 minutes. The blu-ray is the abridged version with a running time of 53 minutes. There is no online material discussing what is in the missing footage, nor is any information provided in the commentary track. Even with the excised footage, the narrative is still fairly cohesive.

While Robert Siodmak is known almost exclusively for his noir made during the 1940s, he has had a couple of comedies even after this film. And yet, I was overwhelmed by the how much of the film seemed connected to Billy Wilder, one of the film's three credited screenwriters. The basic plot is of a bumbling man, Hans Herfort, who can not bring himself to commit suicide by shooting himself in the head. A burglar breaks into Hans' apartment. Hans negotiates with the burglar to murder Hans for an agreed upon price by Noon the next day. The burglar bungles the job of assassin which is handed over to the titular Jim. In the meantime, Hans finds himself in love with Kitty, a young woman he meets in an overcrowded cabaret. Now in love, Hans attempts to cancel the contract on his life. The film is a black comedy that the creative team enjoyed making. Among the identifiable influences are the social satire of Brecht, the romantic misunderstandings of Lubitsch, and the boisterous mayhem of Buster Keaton and peers. Man/Jim was also a commercial failure, not connecting with the audience of the time.

With that opening scene, with Heinz Ruhmann as Hans, I thought immediately of how Wilder had used suicide as a source of humor in his films. That the initial set-up recalls Wilder's last film, Buddy, Buddy made me wonder if that film's original source author, Francis Veber, had at least seen the remake of Man that came out in 1952. That remake was written and directed by Ernst Neubach, author of the play that was the source for Siodmak's film. As for what changes were made and any specific contributions made by the writers, that is unknown. In an interview, Curt Siodmak only briefly mentions that he was working on the yet completed screenplay when producer Erich Pommer put the film in production. Having worked with him previously, Robert Siodmak brought in Wilder who was transitioning from working as a journalist. The third screen writer, Ludwig Hirschfeld, was primarily known for writing several travel books, stage plays and novellas. One play, Geschaft mit Amerika ("Doing Business in America") was filmed in four different language versions between 1932 and 1933. A play co-written by Hirschfeld was the source for a low budget American comedy, The Mad Martindales, released in 1942, the year Hirschfeld died in Auschwitz. It is sobering to note that the least known of the the creative team was the one who stayed in Germany while the others achieved varying degrees of success in Hollywood.

Visually, one can recognize Robert Siodmak's use of high and low angle shots. There is also the expressive use of lighting, especially in night time street scenes. The cabaret scene in particular is notbable in that we see the various dancing couple in the foreground moving in an out of the frame, while behind them, sitting at a table is the first view of Kitty with a would-be lover she is trying to shake off. The music score was by Friedrich Hollaender, known later as Frederick Hollander, with supervision by Franz Waxman. Hollander also has a small role in the film. The two composers would work again with Billy Wilder.

The commentary track by historian Josh Nelson primarily discusses the film as early work by Robert Siodmak. Stars Heinz Ruhmann and Dutch actress Lien Deyers have brief overviews of their respective careers. While the commentary is a well prepared presentation, I still wish I knew more about the film we can not see. As it is, the surviving Jim is a 2013 restoration from the F. W. Murnau Foundation which has done outstanding work with early German films.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at April 2, 2021 06:17 AM