Phantom Lady: Forgotten Cerebral Noir

Phantom Lady (1944) directed by Robert Siodmak; is as nightmarish and psychologically aromatic as it is penetrating.

Phantom Lady is a sadly neglected film noir based on a story by Cornell Woollrich and scripted for the screen by Bernard C. Schoenfeld. Stars Ella Raines as Carol “Kansas” Richman, Franchot Tone as Jack Marlow and Alan Curtis as the leading man Scott Henderson. The film also co stars Thomas Gomez (Key Largo) as perceptive Detective Burgess, the intelligent and compassionate detective who eventually comes around to believe in Scott Henderson’s innocence.

Phantom Lady utilizes the innocent man theme beautifully. Siodmak’s directing creates an often nightmarish realm, the characters float in and out of. The intersectionality of crime melodrama and psychological thriller is framed nicely. Siodmak is a master storyteller who earned an Oscar nomination for The Killers in 1946.

Although on the surface you would assume Phantom Lady to be a man in peril film, it actually works as a woman in danger because Carol “Kansas” puts herself in harms way in order to help her boss, whom she’s in love with. Fay Helm’s mysterious woman has a tragic trajectory herself as a woman who is spiraling into oblivion by mental decline after losing her beloved fiance.

Scott Henderson, spends the night with this anonymous woman he meets in a bar, after having been shunned by his wife for the last time. The woman who is obviously agitated and disturbed by something causing her pain, agrees to take in a show that Scott has tickets for,but the conditions are that they do not exchange names as it’s just a way for both of them to keep themselves occupied at a moment when both are broken.

The “Phantom Lady” is wearing a sensationally quirky hat which the film revolves around in a sense, because Scott returns home to find his apartment crawling with police after his wife has been brutally strangled, with one of Scott’s expensive ties. This woman in a stand out hat is the only key to proving Scott’s alibi.

Scott proceeds to tell Detective Burgess, that he spent the night with this no name woman, after fighting with his wife and that there are several people who would have seen them together. The bar tender, the cabbie with a very memorable name, and the temperamental lead singer/dancer in the musical review could identify him accompanied by the phantom lady, because of her supposedly original yet quirky hat which the performer was wearing on stage. Aurora shoots daggers at the Phantom Lady for having worn the same design. You could see the fury on her face as she sings her musical number. Aurora played by Estela Monteiro has a melt down once she walks off stage and decrees that no one would have the nerve to wear one of her hats, and throws her own hat away.

Detective Burgess takes Scott around to each of these witnesses but no one recalls having seen him with a woman at all. They all very curiously deny seeing the lady, and it becomes obvious that something is very wrong with the testimony from all these people who were obviously covering something up. The outcome looks bleak for Scott.

Because it appears that Scott is guilty of the crime he is sentence to death and faces the electric chair in 18 days. With no witnesses to back him up.

Even his best friend sculptor Jack Marlow played by gravel toned sophisticated Franchot Tone who doesn’t come onto the scene until midway through the film, is away on business in Brazil, so there is no one but Kansas who is left to stand by Scott. Scott resigns himself to his fate and doesn’t even blame the jury for their decision.

Scott Henderson is a civil engineer in a loveless marriage, with a beautiful associate who works for him, which he affectionately calls Kansas. She never doubts his innocence for a moment and devoutly sets out on a mission to try and find this mysterious lady to prove she really does exist, before it’s too late. She also tracks down those whom she knows have lied about seeing this woman.

Kansas is chilling as she taunts Mac the bartender who denies having ever seen the woman with the funny hat in his bar with Scott the night and time his wife was murdered, she also goes undercover as a “hep kitten” to trap the lecherous drummer who flirted with the phantom lady, the night she sat beside Scott at the show.

Along the way, Detective Burgess, confronts Kansas in her apartment and tells her that although he did his job at the time, he also believes in Scott’s story because a child could make up a better alibi than the story he has stuck to so religiously. So now Kansas and Burgess set about to prove that someone has been tampering with these witnesses.

At this point, Jack comes back from Brazil to lend a helping hand in getting to the bottom of the case. The always present Jack begins to play an important role in helping solve the murder.

What lies ahead is a very gripping story with several taut and fiery moments. Elisha Cook Jr. is fantastic as the tweaked sleazy drummer who’s got an appetite for women in the audience. And Fay Helm is very palpable as the Phantom Lady who alludes the police after that one night at the Broadway show with Scott.

The characters are very engaging, and the witnesses are despicable as they are being evasive, which creates an atmosphere of obstruction that is stirring and at times, maddening.

Although at the time the film got critical acclaim, I’m surprised it wasn’t more popular in the Noir film psyche of reviewers and critics. Today it seems like a forgotten gem amidst some of the more over- treaded Noirs and the popularity they still maintain.

Woollrich was a prolific writer who’s work came close to being as popular as Raymond Chandler, and he was responsible for many of the screenplays of the 1940’s as well as the radio drama Suspense. Ella Raines is absolutely breathtaking to look at. And sadly Alan Curtis having died in the 50’s of complications from surgery was not only great at being sympathetic, he was strikingly handsome as well.

Phantom Lady is a cerebral excursion, which uncovers a lot of psychological layers for us, as it progresses.

Without giving away any key parts of the plot development, I’ll say that the film shows us a dark side of humanity.

Without going into the background of the characters, the narrative of Phantom Lady is drawn out in little scenic bursts of disclosure. While the film doesn’t describe to us why these characters are doing what they do with the use of  flashback another Noir staple technique, we see who these people are by their actions. The film explores human nature in a slightly gritty naturalistic style. A nightmarish journey of the wrongly accused, the tragedy of loss, greed and true madness. And ultimately the love that bears its fruits by unrelenting devotion and the pursuit of the truth at any cost.


9 thoughts on “Phantom Lady: Forgotten Cerebral Noir

  1. I’m glad you got around to Phantom Lady, Joey. It’s a favorite noir of mine, too, and yes, it does seem neglected nowadays, Oddly, it was somewhat of a sleeper in its day, was highly praised by some of the best critics if the time, helped opened the door for more noirs, yet it’s sort of fallen by the wayside.

    There are likely several reasons for this: :first off, Ella Raines isn’t a cult figure at the level of a Stanwyck, a Crawford, Lana Turner or even Claire Trevor. Gloria Grahame probably has more fans these days, or even, for that matter, Jane Greer.

    Then there’s the non-starting career of leading man Alan Curtis, an actor I like but who never made the top cut or even the solid rank. In this he reminds me of another Alan, Marshal, who was British and who was active around the same time. Franchot Tone was never a noir guy, and fine actor though he was I don’t think he was used to good advantage in the film. For my money supporting players Gomez and Elisha Cook, Jr.,–like refugees from a Bogart flick–steal it. Gomez is rock solid, Cook is astonishing.

    I like your review, Joey. Phantom Lady is a difficult film to discuss for some reason, and I find this often true of Cornell Woolrich stories. They’re highly effective on the surface, actually get under your skin sometimes, push all sorts of buttons, then disappear, into the night, as it were. I’ve heard some excellent radio adaptations of Woolrich,–Papa Benjamin and Night Revealed–yet I don’t know what to say about them except that they’re excellent.

    To return to Phantom Lady, its director, Robert Siodmak, really saw his career take off after this one, and it’s his later films, The Killers especially, that he’s best remembered for. He was just a Universal general utility man director prior to this one. His previous picture was Son Of Dracula, which is excellent, btw, but not the stuff great careers are built on due to its belonging to an at the time infra dig genre, horror. One thing I noticed about Phantom Lady is that it doesn’t look like a Universal picture of its time, whether of the Gloria Jean, Abbott and Costello, Deanna Durbin or Boris Karloff kind. Its production values are way above the studio’s average, even for an A picture.

    Be Well, John

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    1. John! You should really be posting your own commentaries on film. You’re so savvy about these things and people would be interested in your thoughts. I appreciate your input here at the drive in and hope that you are also well

      Joey

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  2. I found some personal items (pictures, letters, movie scripts, etc) that belong to the actress Fay Helm who was in this film. I am looking for her daughter Leslie so that I can return such preciouse items. Does anyone know anything about her daughter or maybe the last known address of Mrs. Fay Helm, her husband is Albert Farmer married in 1947 and a year later had a daughter Leslie. Any information will be helpful. Thank you.

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    1. I wish I had some information to help you locate Fay Helm’s daughter, but unfortunately I do not. I wish you a lot of luck and think it’s quite sweet that you are taking the time to get these articles back into the right hands. Best of luck to you! joey MonsterGirl

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