Monday, April 25, 2016

The Dark, Rainy Streets of "Phantom Lady"

An example of Siodmak's lighting.
If you've read this blog recently, you know we've been on a film noir kick since the start of the new year. We started by revisiting The Blue Dahlia and then moving on to This Gun For Hire and Black Angel. Our latest noir is Robert Siodmak's 1944 "B" mystery Phantom Lady, which--like Black Angel--features an amateur female sleuth.

The film opens with civil engineer Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) meeting a mysterious, distraught woman (Fay Helm) at an empty bar on a hot Saturday night in New York City. Scott, who has been stood up by his wife, asks the dark-haired stranger if she wants to see a musical revue with him. She initially refuses, but then reluctantly agrees on one condition: They exchange no names, no addresses, and never meet again. Scott agrees.

Later that night, Scott goes home to find the police at his apartment. His wife has been strangled with one of his ties ("A knot so tight it had to be cut with a knife," says one of the detectives). Scott's alibi falls apart when he can't identify his mysterious date. Even worse, the bartender, a taxi driver, and a drummer at the theatre all act as if they had never seen him.

Scott is arrested, convicted, and sentenced to die. It's up to his office co-worker Carol (Ella Raines) to find the real murderer. It's obvious to everyone--except Scott--that Carol is mad about the civil engineer.

Franchot Tone, Thomas Gomez, and Ella Raines in a telling scene.
This premise is similar to the later--and better--Black Angel, in which a man's wife must prove his innocence while he awaits his fate on death row. Black Angel provides more complexity and more nuance. The only element separating Phantom Lady from a dozen other mysteries is that the key witness--the mysterious woman from the bar--appears to have vanished without a trace. Well, there is another distinguishing trait: the killer, played by the biggest star in the picture--doesn't show up until the film is half over.

A passer-by (far right) likely saves Ella's life at the train platform.
Yet, if Phantom Lady lacks a creative spark plotwise, it benefits mightily from Robert Siodmak's moody direction and Ella Raine's determined detective. Siodmak creates some knockout visuals once Carol takes to roaming the city's darkened streets to find the killer. The scene in which she follows the suspicious bartender is a tour-de-force as the two move through rainy streets, a shadow-filled train platform, and partially lit arches. It as good as the famous sequence in Cat People (1942) in which Jane Randolph is followed by something after leaving the swimming pool.

I'm curious as to whether the decision to have the murderer wring his hands compulsively was the screenwriter's or Siodmak's. Regardless, it provides the director with the opportunity to provide some disconcerting close-ups of the hands of the strangler.

As for Phantom Lady's star, Ella Raines makes Carol so likable that it's easy to see why Inspector Burgess decides to help her. (Sure, he makes up an excuse for doing so, but I think it's clear that he admires Carol.) She also gets to display her first-rate acting chops when slipping in a disguise as a trampy lady who takes a liking to a manic drummer (and key witness) played by Elisha Cook, Jr.

Raines had a solid, if unspectacular, acting career. She starred in a handful of "A" pictures opposite leading such men as John Wayne (Tall in the Saddle), Randolph Scott (Corvette K-225), and Eddie Bracken (Hail the Conquering Hero). She later headlined the 1954-55 TV series Janet Dean, Registered Nurse.

Ella Raines also reteamed with director Robert Siodmak in another film noir, The Suspect (1944), which starred Charles Laughton. A year later, Siodmak would make The Spiral Staircase, one of my favorite mysteries, and follow it with his noir masterpiece The Killers (1944). I suspect we will reviewing that one in the near future, too.

8 comments:

  1. Love this one for all the reasons you mention, but also agree BLACK ANGEL is better -- that one should be far better known. Duryea breaks my heart every time.

    Best wishes,
    Laura

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  2. Sometimes you enjoy the mood of a picture more than the nuts and bolts of the plot, and that's alright. My only problem with "Phantom Lady" is that I am too old for someone to call me a Hep-Kitten. Sigh.

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  3. Was recently ntroduced to Black Angel and loved it. Looking forward to seeing Phantom Lady ASAP. The two have something in common as both were based on stories by the gifted Cornell Woolrich (he wrote Phantom Lady under the name William Irish).

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    1. Woolrich also wrote the story that served as the basis for the excellent Val Lewton-produced thriller LEOPARD MAN.

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  4. what a pleasure to read your commentary ...
    siodmak is my all time favorite director bar none ....

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  5. It has all the Siodmak touches, a compelling film despite its flaws. Love Ella Raines' stalking of the bartender.

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  6. Siodmak was a master at creating dark moody scenes. Raines' is perfect and Cook's drumming scene added a frenzy of eroticism to it all.

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  7. Rick, you did a great job capturing the noir look in the photos you shared for this "Phantom Lady." The premise is fascinating and the atmosphere undeniable.

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