|An example of Siodmak's lighting.|
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.|
|A passer-by (far right) likely saves Ella's life at the train platform.|
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.