Monday, October 13, 2014


Robert Siodmak, 1944
Starring: Ella Raines, Franchot Tone, Alan Curtis, Elisha Cook, Jr.

A man named Scott spends a lonely night out on the town after a fight with his wife. He meets a mysterious woman with an unusual hat who refuses to give him her name, but they have a few drinks together and go to see a show before parting ways. Unfortunately, Scott's wife has been murdered in his absence and, due to his lack of a solid alibi, he's the sole suspect. He is soon arrested, prosecuted, and is preparing for his execution. His secretary, Carol, is secretly in love with him and is determined to prove his innocence. She begins stalking the underworld bar and nightclub scene, and is determined to find some witness who knows about the phantom lady. She is helped by Burgess, a detective who thinks that Scott may be innocent after all, and Marlow, Scott's friend who has been out of town.

Phantom Lady was Robert Siodmak's first film noir and was released during the same year – 1944 – as some of the first genre heavy hitters, such as Double Indemnity and Laura. For whatever reason, The Phantomy Lady has been largely forgotten, though it is an excellent early example of the genre. Based on Cornell Woolrich's novel of the same name (under a pseudonum he regularly used, William Irish), Phantom Lady follows the same formula as much of Woolrich's more famous Black Series, in which one character (often a woman) is forced to descend into the underworld to either get vengeance for a loved one or to help exonerate a loved one who is wrongly accused. In early hardboiled fiction, Woolrich is somewhat unique in two instances: he wrote about serial killers or men who killed because of some psychosis, and he often has female protagonists or prominent female characters who were more than the sweet, innocent wife or femme fatale popular in film noir and hardboiled fiction.

Phantom Lady boasts both of these. Ella Raines (Brute Force, The Suspect) is perfect as Carol, a memorable, unusual, and almost outright strange heroine who doesn't have an equal an all of film noir (except for maybe Dementia, a Z-grade surrealist noir). Though she begins the film as just another meek woman in love, Scott's plight quickly prods her to action. He calls her “Kansas” and her journey does have some Wizard of Oz and fairytale aspects, albeit much darker. Her descent into the underworld becomes deeply disturbing. There's an early scene where she stalks a bartender – silently waiting and staring, night after night, driving the man into the grip of paranoia – and her desperate attempt to get information results in a tidbit of a clue (he was bribed to say he had not seen the phantom lady) and the man's death, when he accidentally jumps in traffic to get away from her.

In one of the film's most memorable sequences, she goes to the same show that Scott and the phantom lady attended. She catches the eye of an enthusiastic drummer (noir regular Elisha Cook, Jr.) and goes to an after-hours jazz club with him, one fueled by drugs, alcohol, and sexual frenzy. She hovers between paranoia and flirtatious dancing, resulting in a drum solo that is so clearly a stand-in for sexual frenzy that it's amazing the scene made it past the censors at all. I've already written about the somewhat obvious connection between Laura and David Lynch's Twin Peaks, but I couldn't help but think that Raines' Carol was an inspiration for Donna (played by Lara Flynn Boyle), another character on the show. Boyle is nearly identical to Raines, and both Carol and Donna exhibit a combination of romanticism and innocence, as well as an ability to access a deep sexuality when the need arises.

Despite the fact that Raines is clearly the star of the film, Franchot Tone (Mutiny on the Bounty) is given top billing. He is likable as Marlow, but unfortunately the character is somewhat overdone and derails the film's conclusion a bit. His character helps to make this something of a cross between noir and horror. Due to the introduction of a serial killer character, this would make a wonderful double feature with my favorite Woolrich adaptation, The Leopard Man.

There are some nice supporting performances, particularly Alan Curtis (High Sierra) as the Everyman wrongly accused, Scott. Thomas Gomez (Key Largo, Force of Evil) puts in a nice turn as Inspector Burgess, and Elisha Cook, Jr. is great as the sex-crazed, drugged-out drummer. But the most important side role is obviously from Fay Helm (Dark Victory, The Wolf Man) as the titular phantom lady. Her romantic-related insanity, a meltdown after her fiancé's death, enhances the film's gloomy, melancholic air.

Phantom Lady is not yet available on DVD, but there's much about it to like. Plot holes and non-sequitors are made up for with heaping amounts of German expressionist-fueled atmosphere and some great moments of style. There is a mix of B-movie sensibility, a sense of poetic realism, and the film really captures Woolrich's themes that the world is fundamentally hostile and illogical. The nighttime, rainy, urban setting with glistening streets and seedy bars are unforgettable, and if you're remotely interested in noir, this is a must-see.

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