An idiosyncratic noir: Phantom Lady (Robert Siodmak, 1944)

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Phantom Lady may be an inconsistent film, but its better aspects are so striking and, at times, unique that it’s not one to pass over. Its first half hour is slow going, largely because it focuses on Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis), who isn’t really the lead character and should have been treated more as an impetus for the story. Scott is easy-going and not terribly sharp, which gets him into hot water after his unpleasant wife turns up dead. His only alibi is a mysterious woman (or rather, Phantom Lady) who he took to a show, on a whim, after his wife stood him up. This woman, obviously troubled, refused to tell Scott anything about herself, and his only observation is that she wore a sizeable hat. This hat is impressive enough to get its own screen credit (as the “Phantom Hat,” no less, created by Kenneth Hopkins), but no one else who saw Scott can seem to remember it, or the woman.

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Scott’s neck is on the line but, luckily, his secretary is is love with him and determined to clear his name. Carol (Ella Raines) starts her own investigation, and the film gets going too. She’s helped by Inspector Burgess (Thomas Gomez, in an interesting example of a Latino actor in the 40s getting to play a competent character), who doesn’t believe that Scott was really guilty. She’s the one doing the dangerous work, however, quickly managing to unnerve one suspicious fellow so much that he almost pushes her in front of a train. Moments later, she’s chasing him down a dark street, demanding that he answer her questions, and shaking off the local men who come to her defense. Carol is tougher than she seems.

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The film’s top-billed performer, Franchot Tone, was correct when he insisted that this is Raines’ film. She really comes into her own when Carol takes a different tactic with another potential witness. To charm a drummer (Elisha Cook Jr.) at the show Scott and the Phantom Lady went to see, she becomes a gum-chewing airhead in a tight dress and high heels. The seduction sickens her (she keeps her fists clenched while getting kissed) but she throws herself into the part.

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This leads to the film’s strangest sequence. The drummer takes Carol to a hole in the wall packed with jazz musicians and sets about showing off. She drives him into a drumming frenzy until, convinced, she gestures that she’s willing to leave with him. The lascivious camera placements and unrelenting close-ups make this one of the most (bizarrely) suggestive moments you’re likely to see in a G-rated movie.

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Carol’s investigation is getting results, and it’s at this point, more than halfway into the film, that the killer appears. He enters shadow first. He’s played by the film’s biggest name, so it’s no great surprise that he is the killer (and he quickly makes his identity obvious), but both the character and the actor represent a betrayal of sorts. The character is Jack Marlow, Scott’s best friend, and the actor is Franchot Tone, better known as a suave leading man. A well-respected and well-dressed architect, Jack may have the outward appearance of a typical Tone role but, inwardly, he’s insane.

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Tone was trying to stretch his talents with Phantom Lady, and he has in the past been so adept at playing sophisticated, charming men that he should be able to convince us that Jack has everyone fooled. He’s undercut, however, by the film’s rather simple take on mental illness. There’s more than one scene where Jack basically stands in the corner twitching while Carol and Burgess question witnesses. Was this character type fresher in 1944 than it is today? I couldn’t answer that with any more surety than I could say that surrounding a character with reflections was still an unfamiliar way of conveying madness. I do find Jack outright comedic at times, however, which is through no fault of Tone’s.

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Phantom Lady is full of marvelous visuals. The image I’ve used at the top of the post is more famous than the film itself. The section of about twenty minutes between Carol beginning her investigation and Jack revealing himself is a nightmarish journey through an urban underworld. The final confrontation between Jack and Carol in his apartment is strikingly staged and shot, with the strong performances from both actors making it a wonderfully tense sequence. Even before Carol was in danger, we must have noted Jack’s sculpture of two outstretched hands, an expression of his fascination with his own ability to do both good and evil. After Jack has made his intent clear, the sculpture stands in his place as a threat even while he’s not onscreen.

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Given the plethora of notable moments that take place in Phantom Lady‘s last two thirds, it’s all the more odd that its first half hour should be so unremarkable. This beginning makes the film seem as though it will be a dull procedural with little original to offer. Persevere, however, and you’ll find that Phantom Lady is anything but.

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