Phantom Lady: Forgotten Cerebral Noir: It’s not how a man looks, it’s how his mind works that makes him a killer.

Phantom Lady (1944)

Directed by the master of suspenseful thrillers and fabulous noirs- Robert Siodmak; (Son of Dracula 1943, The Suspect 1944, Christmas Holiday 1944 The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry 1945, The Killers 1946, The Dark Mirror, The Spiral Staircase 1946, Cry of the City 1948, Criss Cross 1949, The File of Thelma Jordon 1948) is as nightmarish and psychologically aromatic as it is a penetrating crime noir. The distinguishing cinematography by Woody Bredell.

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 the quietly enigmatic Ella Raines (Cry ‘Havoc’ 1943, The Suspect 1944, Impact 1949), 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 noir’s innocent man theme beautifully. Siodmak’s directing creates an often nightmarish realm, the characters float in and out of. The intersectionality frames the story between crime melodrama and psychological thriller. 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 functions as a woman in danger as well 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 (Alan Curtis), spends the night with a mysterious woman whose identity is unknown to him. Only later do we learn that her name is Ann Terry (Fay Helm) The two first meet in a bar, after Scott has been shunned by his wife for the last time. The phantom lady is obviously disturbed by something causing her emotional pain, she finally agrees to take in a show with Scott who has tickets. 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 feeling dejected.

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. The anonymous lady who wore this stand out hat is the only key to providing Scott’s with an alibi.

Scott proceeds to tell Inspector Burgess (the wonderful Thomas Gomez), 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 hat– the performer Estela Monteiro (Aurora Miranda) was also wearing the same hat on stage, which is later used as a lead. 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. Estela Monteiro has a fit, walks off stage and decrees that no one would have the nerve to wear one of her original hats, and throws hers away. Wonderful character actor Doris Lloyd plays the designer Kettisha who is sought after for her one of a kind hat designs.

Inspector Burgess takes Scott around to each of these witnesses but no one recalls having seen him with the 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.

Inspector Burgess: [Questioning] You’re a pretty neat dresser, Mr. Henderson.

Detective Tom: [Taunting] Yeah. Everything goes together. It’s an art.

Inspector Burgess: Nice tie you’re wearing.

Scott Henderson: [Upset] Tie?

Detective Tom: Pretty taste. Expensive. I wish I could afford it.

Scott Henderson: Hey, what are you trying to do to me? Marcella’s dead, gimme a break! What’s the difference if my tie is OK or not?

Inspector Burgess: It makes a great deal of difference, Mr. Henderson.

Scott Henderson: Why?

Inspector Burgess: Your wife was strangled with one of your ties.

Detective Chewing Gum: Yeah. Knotted so tight it had to be cut loose with a knife.

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 sophisticate 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 sweet and devoted secretary 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 who was in a loveless marriage with  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 assumes the role of serious cookie as she taunts Mac the bartender who denies having ever seen the woman with the funny hat in his bar with Scott at the time his wife was murdered. She also goes undercover as a “hep kitten” to trap the lecherous and super frenetic drummer Cliff Milburn played to the sweaty frenzied nines by Elisha Cook Jr.

Along the way, Inspector 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 Marlow 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 amidst the looming shadows and dead ends.

Elisha Cook Jr. is too believable yet fantastic as the tweaked sleazy drummer who’s got an appetite for women in the audience, even the phantom lady whom he flirted with.

And Fay Helm plays a very palpable victim of her own sadness as the Phantom Lady who alludes the police after that one night at the musical revue with Scott.

What adds to the noirish obfuscation of the story is the witnesses who are despicable in their evasiveness, which creates an atmosphere of obstruction that is stirring and at times, maddening. But they will all meet a certain cosmic justice by films end.

Woolrich 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.

 

Carol ‘Kansas’ Richman: [Visiting Scott in prison] Is there anything I can do for you?

Scott Henderson: Yes. You can thank the foreman. I forgot to.

Carol ‘Kansas’ Richman: I don’t know what to say.

Scott Henderson: Skip it, Kansas. I’ll be all right now that I know where I stand. Yes, I’ll be fine. Last night for the first time I didn’t have to count sheep. I slept like a guilty man.

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 , 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 technique, we see who these people are by their actions. The film explores human nature in a slightly gritty naturalistic style.

The cinematography by Elwood Bredell (The Ghost of Frankenstein 1942, The Mystery of Marie Roget 1942, Christmas Holiday 1944, Lady on a Train 1945, The Killers 1946, The Unsuspected 1947, Female Jungle 1956)  is remarkably as Bredell paints a landscape of looming shadows, dark sinister corners and breaks of light that cut through the clouds of mystery and excursions into bad spaces.

A nightmarish journey of the wrongly accused, the tragedy of loss, greed and true madness and sometimes darkness of the soul. And ultimately the love that bears its fruits by unrelenting devotion and the pursuit of the truth at any cost.

Kansas will need to wash her mouth out with bleach after the predatory Cliff plants a raptorial kiss on her!

Inspector Burgess: The fact remains that none of you could have committed these murders.

Jack Marlow: Why not?

Inspector Burgess: You’re all too normal.

Jack Marlow: Oh, the murderer must be normal enough. Just clever, that’s all.

Inspector Burgess: Yes, all of them are. Diabolically clever.

Jack Marlow: Who?

Inspector Burgess: Paranoiacs.

Jack Marlow: That’s simply your opinion. Psychiatrists might disagree.

Inspector Burgess: Oh, I’ve seen paranoiacs before. They all have incredible egos. Abnormal cunning. A contempt for life.

Jack Marlow: You make it sound unbeatable.


 

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The Dark Corner: Private Detective Noir: Mark Stevens-Lucille Ball-Clifton Webb-William Bendix “for 6 bits you’d hang your mother on a meathook”

The Dark Corner (1946) Director Henry Hathaway’s (Niagra 1953, Kiss of Death 1947 )rhythmical detective Noir, with more than just one great line here or there to fill out the plot. Based on a story by Leo Rosten and adapted to the screen by Bernard C Schoenfeld (Phantom Lady 1944, Caged 1950, Down Three Dark Streets 1954, There’s Always Tomorrow 1955) and Jay Dratler.(Laura 1944, Call  Northside 777 (1948), Pitfall 1948, Impact 1949, The Las Vegas Story 1952)  Cinematography by Joseph MacDonald(Panic in the Streets 1950, The Young Lions 1958, Walk on the Wild Side 1962, The List of Adrian Messenger 1963, The Carpetbaggers 1964, The Sand Pebbles 1966). Music composed by Cyril J. Mockridge.

“Hard-boiled, well-paced narrative, — tough-fibered”– Bosley Crowther-The New York Times May, 9 1946

The Dark Corner is a particularly violent example of film noir the idea of a private detective being pursued by a gunman, whom he captures and proceeds to smash his hand and smears his white suit in order to make him confess to the reason he is tailing him. Later when William Bendix (white suit) breaks into the detective’s apartment he knocks him out viciously and before he leaves, he pays him in kind by stomping on Mark Steven’s hand while he’s unconscious. Dark Corner pushes the limits in drawing out anxiety in the audience. Still as yet Bradfor Galt the private eye (Mark Stevens) cannot imagine why he is being persecuted and hunted down. He doesn’t even know the identity of his enemy. There is an Machiavellian villainous master-mind who is pulling the strings, and Galt is merely a puppet but not the true object of his ire. The great thrust of this narrative is the sense of meaningless suffering mixed with the motiveless persecution.

In most Noir films there are the elements of existential anguish– the angst that runs through the central characters’ narrative. Bradford Galt is a prime example of the detective with this sense of being at the mercy of his past burden, the one that haunts his present life. He got a fast shuffle out west, accused of a crime he did not commit, serving time in prison for vehicular manslaughter, set up by his partner-the double-crossing dandy Tony Jardine (Kurt Kreuger) Now he just wants the chance to start up a legitimate business as a Private Detective in New York City.

Kathleen “But remember, I can get brand new tough guys for a dime a dozen.”

Bradford “Here, get yourself two dozen.”

[Bradford tosses two dimes at Kathleen across the table]

Kathleen Kathleen pushes them back towards Bradford] “I’d rather pick you up at a rummage sale. I’m a sucker for bargains. Speaking of bargains, if you can’t get nines in those nylons, I’ll take eight-and-a-half or even ten. Doesn’t matter.”

Bradford I’ll make a note of it.”

Mark Stevens (The Snake Pit, The Street With No Name) is Bradford Galt, the hemmed in beleaguered protagonist of the film. A private dick who just can’t escape his past, and is targeted as the fall guy in a malicious plot of revenge. As Foster Hirsch says in Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen “His life is subjected to wild reversals and inversions… Cornered, framed, set up as the patsy and the fall guy, these victims are the playthings of a malevolent noir fate…”

The Dark Corner (1946) Directed by Henry Hathaway Shown from left: Lucille Ball (as Kathleen), Mark Stevens (as Bradford Galt)

Lucille Ball is Kathleen Stewart his always faithful and trustworthy secretary who is with Galt for keeps. And then there’s the inimitable Clifton Webb as Hardy Cathcart who reprises his role at the effete love-struck snob Waldo Lydecker in Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944).

In The Dark Corner he plays the overrefined art dealer who’s sanctimonious utterances drives much of the film’s best lines. William Bendix is the quintessential homicidal thug, Cathcart’s paid muscle, Stauffer alias Fred Foss who’s been hired to shadow Galt and unnerve him just enough to manipulate Galt into having a confrontation with ex partner Tony Jardine in hopes of framing him for his murder by creating a motive for Jardin’s murder. Jardine is a man who blackmails women with incriminating love letters, in addition to having set Bradford Galt up for the previous manslaughter sentence, he is having an affair with Cathcart’s wife Mari (Cathy Downs) giving him money and jewels so they can take their stash and run away together and there in lies the tale of revenge. Galt is just the patsy, the fall guy and the sacrificial goat.

Hardy Cathcart has a psycho-sexually grotesque obsession with his wife Mari played by Cathy Downs In fact, his icy preoccupation with owning fine things in particular his wife, who bares a striking resemblance to a rare painting, presenting Webb’s character as a collector indeed, by entrapping his wife in a marriage as the ultimate ill fated ‘object’.

Hardy Cathcart: “The enjoyment of art is the only remaining ecstasy that is neither immoral nor illegal.”

In the realm of the Noir as detective yarn, The Dark Corner goes smoothly through each scene, darker than some contributions to Noir, it is sustained by some memorable dialogue and a psycho-sexual current that flows underneath the narrative. In particular Cathcart as coded-gay character, which I will cover in my upcoming feature Queers & Dykes in the Dark: Classic, Noir & Horror Cinema’s Coded Gay Characters.

The Dark Corner utilizes some of the characteristic visual motifs of the Noir film The frame within a frame, which creates the environment of imprisonment. Bradford Galt is an iconic figure who’s existential anxieties create the trope of no way out.

Bradford Galt murmurs “There goes my last lead. I feel all dead inside. I’m backed up in a dark corner, and I don’t know who’s hitting me”. This reflects the uncertainty of the character’s situation. Mired in the existential despair of going down blind alleys and not being able to see who his enemies truly are.

Even the shot of Kathleen waiting in the cab, looking out the window, Kathleen (Lucille Ball looking gorgeous) face is framed by the glass and the darkened night. She is fixed within her love for Bradford Galt. As she tells him

Kathleen-“I haven’t worked for you very long, Mr. Galt, but I know when you’re pitching a curve at me, and I always carry a catcher’s mitt.”

Bradford-“No offense, A guy’s got to score, doesn’t he?”

Kathleen-“I don’t play for score. I play for keeps.”

 

There is a very memorable scene in The Dark Corner which has a very vivid moment of someone being flung out a window. I guess defenestration is a popular method of character disposal in Noir/Thrillers. Being hurled out a window is quite a drastic way to die, lets say rather than being shot in the heart once with a small pistol. Defenestration is an utterly violent way to die.

The Dark Corner has other inherently typical themes of Noir in addition to the detective yarn, it also shares the “wrong man archetype”. Galt has been framed for a crime he did not commit. For the first part of The Dark Corner it is also not made very clear the who and/or why someone, possibly this Jardine character is persecuting Galt.

The chiaroscuro is used powerfully when obscuring  the embrace of Jardin and Cathart’s wife’s downstairs in the lower level of the art gallery, while Hardy Cathcart stands off stage. This ambiguous shadow-play that Hardy Cathcart witnesses reveals that he might have known for quite some time about his wife’s unfaithfulness.

More disturbing is the idea, that as his prized possession, wife Mari is an object d ‘art, a thing, that will remain with him even if she doesn’t love him, even if she’s been with other men. This is the main underpinning for the film. Without Cathcart’s sinister obsession there would be no story.

Hardy Cathcart “Love is not the exclusive province of adolescence, my dear; it’s a heart ailment that strikes all age groups-like my love for you. My love for you is the only malady I’ve contracted since the usual childhood diseases. And it’s incurable.”

Hardy “I found the portrait long before I met Mari, and I worshiped it. When I did meet her it was as if I’d always known her. And wanted her.”

Party Guest “Oh how romantic”

Hardy “If you prefer to be maudlin about it. Perhaps.”

Bradford Galt (Mark Stevens) is superb as the private investigator who after serving 2 years for vehicular manslaughter, in which he was set up by his ex-partner a shyster lawyer  the suave Tony Jardine (Kurt Kreuger), Galt comes to New York from San Fransisco to start over. He’s got a kind of Alan Ladd, nice guy look about him.

He opens up his new detective’s agency. Bradford Galt sits in his huge mostly empty office with one large desk and a map of the city on the wall, and a phone.

Lt Frank Reeves ( Reed Hadley) is the ever present detective on Bradford Galt’s back, watching over him to make sure that he isn’t going to slide into any criminal behavior again, and let’s Bradford Galt know that he’ll be watched from here on out. The detective promised his friends in California that Bradford Galt wouldn’t get into any mischief, saying “He’s an impulsive youth” he’d be smart to keep it clean.

One of the driving narratives of The Dark Corner is Bradford Galt’s self persecution and Kathleen’s need to prop him up and keep him from feeling sorry for himself. The more he tells her to forget him, the tighter she holds on and sticks by him.

Kathleen-“What’s done to you is done to me.”

The banter between Stevens and Ball is highly palpable and it’s quite sweet the way they develop their relationship. Even when she mentions him being a detective and uncovering a pair of nylons size nine for her and he keeps saying he’ll make a note of that. It’s their chemistry, their adoring partnership that’s yet the other real focus of the story.

 (Frank Foss also known as ‘White Suit’ throughout the film) hired muscle and tail, dressed in an ‘out of season’ linen white suit is tailing Galt and his secretary very conspicuously, while the Galt and his new secretary and lady friend are on their first unofficial date, wandering through the Tudor Penny Arcade, they confer that white suit’s been tagging along. Both Bradford Galt and Kathleen notice him and conspire to get him up to Galt’s office. Kathleen is supposed to wait in a taxi and then follow Foss to where ever he goes. After Galt finds out what his game is. Once Bradford Galt gets hold of Foss (Bendix) he hits back hard, smashes his thumb with a rolled up wad of quarters used like brass knuckles and finds out that Jardine the ex partner who had framed Galt back in San Fransisco and is now after him once again. Or is this just a ruse, set up by yet another nefarious mastermind behind a scheme to frame Galt for murder once again.

This sets off a chain reaction for Bradford Galt to uncover why Jardine is so interested in him again. Bradford Galt roughs up Bendix, humiliates him, takes his wallet so he can remember his name and where he lives and when Foss spills ink on his desk, he wipes his inky fingers all over the nice white linen suit. Bradford Galt also breaks Frank Foss’ (Bendix’s) thumb. Which becomes significant later on in the film.

During the film Bradford Galt is as sullen as a wounded animal having been set up a few years earlier by his ex partner and now is being targeted once again, but this is secondary to the plot. It’s the vehicle for which Galt can finally put the demons from the past to bed and start over as a stronger more complete man who’s found his strength and love in his “faithful noir lady” Kathleen(Lucille Ball), who dotes on him and is the strong shoulder to lean on, whenever things get confused or dangerous. Kathleen’s in it for keeps.

Kathleen just won’t quit her boss. She knows he’s in trouble and wants to help him in any way she can. She keeps pushing Galt to open up his steel safe “heart”, of his and let her help. After a wonderful kiss, He just tells her “if you don’t want to lose that stardust look in your eyes, get going while the door’s still open… If you stick around here, you’ll get grafters, shysters two bit thugs, maybe worse, maybe me.”

The one liners are great in this film. And there are so very many of them. Webb is perfect as the pretentious predatory art gallery, he’s a snobbish fop who is more concerned about his collectibles namely his wife Mari though he connects them with his sense of pride, dignity without any moral principal. His wife being his possession and keeping her as such, is the only thing that matters to Cathcart.

The Dark Corner is filled with quirky, interesting moments that fill out the landscape with memorable plot devices. One such wonderful element is when the little blonde girl who keeps playing her penny whistle irks Bendix’s character and adds a light comical edge to the picture. Galt is being hounded by Bendix using the alias name Foss who doesn’t succeed in running him down with his car, detective Frank Reeves is trailing Bradford Galts’ every move to make sure he isn’t into any unsavory business.

Tony Jardine looms over Bradford Galt, the memory of having been framed for manslaughter by Jardine who doused him up with booze, puts him in the car and leaves him to take the rap for killing a truck drive. At times we see Galt as he sits in his big mostly empty office except for his desk. This shot makes him look small and swallowed up. Again, Joseph MacDonald’s cinematography frame the shot within an atmosphere of entrapment.

memorable lines:

KathleenI’ve never been followed before.”

Bradford Galt “That’s a terrible reflection on American manhood.”

 

Hardy Cathcart “How I detest the dawn. The grass always looks like it’s been left out all night.”

 

Bradford Galt “{to Anthony Jardine} “For six bits you’d hang your mother on a meat hook.”

 

Bradford Galt: “I’m playing this by the book, and I won’t even trip over a comma!”

 

Bradford Galt “There goes my last lead. I feel all dead inside. I’m backed up in a dark corner, and I don’t know who’s hitting me.”

 

Bradford Galt “I’m clean as a peeled egg. No debts, no angry husbands, no payoffs… nothin’.”

 

Bradford Galt: “I can be framed easier than “Whistler’s Mother”.

 

Mrs.Kingsly: Isn’t my Turner divine? Look at it! It grows on you.”

Hardy Cathcart: “You make it sound like a species of fungus.”

 

Hardy “I found the portrait long before I met Mari, and I worshiped it. When I did meet her it was as if I’d always known her. And wanted her.”

Party Guest “Oh how romantic”

Hardy “If you prefer to be maudlin about it. Perhaps.”

 

Bradford Galt You know, I think I’ll fire you and get me a Tahitian secretary.”

Kathleen “You won’t like them; those grass skirts are a fire hazard.”

 

Bradford Galt [replying to Anthony Jardine] “You, on the level. Why, for six bits you’d hang your mother on a meathook.”

 

Hardy Cathcart “Take, uh, Tony for instance. I never imagined him to be interested in… Lucy Wilding.”

Mari Cathcart “But he loathed her! It’s not true.”

Hardy Cathcart “He loathed her intimately.”

Mari Cathcart “He couldn’t!… she’s too old for him!”