Phantom Lady is a moody noir adapted from a novel by Cornell Woolrich and directed by Robert Siodmak, one of Hollywood’s many European émigré directors. It was Siodmak’s first Noir and his first big Hollywood success, with stunning cinematography supplied by Woody Bredell. His contemporaries often dismissed Siodmak as just another B director capable of nothing more than churning out solid studio assignments and whose best work was confined only to the parameters of Noir. Maybe so, but for any Noir aficionado he is one of the primary architects of the genre and his output in it is unparalleled.
Now, we could uncharitably tick off Siodmak’s cinematic arrangements as mere genre standards, but with every camera movement, every angle, every mise-en-scène purposefully and meticulously designed, he infuses the film with a nightmarishly mesmerizing atmosphere that clearly benefitted from a sparse budget.
The movie’s plot has more holes than a Swiss cheese, it really doesn’t hold water but when has that ever mattered?
Cornell Woolrich’s appeal as a writer lies mainly in his bleak worldview. Protagonists are always just one step from catastrophe, stories begin in an ordered world and then plunge headlong into darkness.
For his picture, Siodmak changed the author’s story though. Phantom Lady is not a movie that is drenched in Noir nihilism, hope shines throughout the film.
Alan Curtis plays unhappily married Scott Henderson who goes out for a night on the town after just another fight with his wife. He comes home to find his wife murdered and his supposedly airtight alibi - a mysterious woman with a flamboyant hat whose name he doesn’t know - is nowhere to be found and nobody wants to admit having seen her with Henderson. With a motive and no alibi, the cops consider it a flimsy story. Henderson is arrested for his wife’s murder and without corroboration he might face the chair. But Henderson’s devoted secretary Carol “Kansas” Richmond (Ella Raines) pursues the investigation on her own with the help of drummer Cliff (Elisha Cook) whose intentions are strictly dishonorable. There's also the slightly strange Henderson family friend Jack Marlow (Franchote Tone) who's pushing his way into the picture. Kansas soon finds out that the witnesses were paid off to keep their mouths shut...
Typical for the 40s, Phantom Lady was almost entirely shot on the soundstage. Siodmak created a city of the imagination, a fantasy NYC made from expressionistic lighting, clever framing and elaborate backdrops. The “fabricated city”, as Foster Hirsch called it, "deliberately lacked the fullness and density of the real world". Shown usually at night, it had dark eerily deserted streets full of shadows and menace. On-location filming may lend an air of authenticity to the proceedings, but artifice can conjure up the perfect background for stories of entrapment and claustrophobia, with protagonists whose life is one of loneliness and isolation. In Phantom Lady we have a story about New York that shows nothing of the real New York and yet it captures the essence of that faceless anonymity that characterizes the urban jungle.
The film has no score to speak of. The protagonists stumble through the nightmare underscored by the sounds and more often the silence of urban menace: the screeching breaks of elevated trains, footsteps in the dark, deserted subway platforms, empty bars, barren intersections of streets, a prison that seems almost unoccupied and a strange after-hours jazz club. The night is a dangerous place and the city is an inky-black void that sucks all life and light in. Silence is loneliness and terror.
In fact Siodmak concentrates on absence: we see the dead wife's portrait but no wife; we hear messages on the office dictaphone from the boss, but see no boss; we see a hat that recalls a dead fiancé and we follow the quest for a woman who exists only in the memories of a condemned man and the audience.
But most of all, in a brilliant break with tradition, we see court transcripts, but no murder trial. Not a single shot of the judge, the jury, the attorneys or even the accused. We only hear the trial and see the reaction shots of the spectators in the gallery.
It is Ella Raines who carries the movie. She’s dynamite, an active and resourceful heroine. She’s the living proof that the good girls of Noir don’t have to be bland.
Phantom Lady is one of the few Noirs where love is a positive force, though frankly the object of Kansas’ affections is a bit on the bland side.
Raines was another of Hollywood’s almost-success stories who deserved a better career. She was one of Howard Hawks’ discoveries (note her resemblance to Lauren Bacall) and comes across as a typical confident Hawks heroine, a Girl Friday. Her character could easily have turned into a bundle of cliches, but at the hands of Siodmak she mercifully escapes this fate. She doesn’t just simply go around and asks some inefficient questions, she literally hounds a guilt-ridden bartender until he starts to crack under the pressure. The lengthy sequence where Kansas stalks him is masterfully shot. We can feel the tension rise and the man’s fear become palpable. She’s a pitiless avenger.
And if called upon, she can out-fatale any femme fatale in a hideously trampy get-up that is just the ticket to drive Cook crazy. There’s an interesting little scene in the jazz club where she adjusts her lipstick in a mirror after Cook has kissed her and the face staring back at her hardly seems to be her own. She's determined to find one witness who'll talk, even if that means compromising herself.
Noir City’s favorite fall guy, Elisha Cook, plays yet another chump who never gets a break. He’s the type of guy who must have been shit outta luck from the day he was born. Beaten, slapped, humiliated and/or killed in almost every one of his movies, here he is the luckless drummer who wants to make a splash with the ladies - especially Kansas - but never succeeds. It takes just one look from her and price sucker that he is he falls right for her.
The most famous scene of the movie is Cook’s drum solo which has become legend. It’s a deliriously strange sequence which must have raised an eyebrow or two at the Hays Office. We can almost smell the booze and the reefers in this place with its feverish atmosphere.
The sexual overtones of his drum solo are as subtle as a sledgehammer. Close-ups of Cook’s sweaty face, wild eyes and open mouth leave no doubt as to what’s going on, as he drums himself ever more frantically into orgiastic ecstasy while Kansas urges him on with smiles and come-hither looks. Vince Keenan, Eddie Muller’s guest on Noir Alley, was right when he said: It’s not subtext, it’s text.
The biggest problem of the film might be Franchote Tone’s acting. I can’t quite decide if he’s really good or really bad in his role. Maybe both. His study of an insane mind is overplayed. He continually casts strange looks around him, obsesses about his hands with which he strangles people, he has odd twitches and dizzy spells. As so often in the 40s, Hollywood couldn’t resist the lure of dime-store Freudianism. But there’s a certain indisputable charm to his hamminess that I find effectively creepy.
Maybe the movie is all style over substance, but who cares if there is so much style to enjoy.