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 Woolrich 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. This film noir is directed by Robert Siodmak who derived attention after the release of Phantom Lady which carved out a niche for him in film noir. Adding to the wonderful direction, the film benefits from Woody Bredell’s cinematography (Black Friday 1940, Christmas Holiday 1944, The Ghost of Frankenstein 1942, The Mystery of Marie Roget 1942) He added the elements of Woolrich’s world, from the fraught innocence roaming New York City, a dark blistering urban landscape, threatening shadows, seedy bars, jazz and Kansas’ high heels escaping the pavement.
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 harm’s 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 a mental decline after losing her beloved fiance.
Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis), a successful young businessman, 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 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 bartender, 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. Neither the cab driver, the bartender, nor the singer will confirm his story. 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 sentenced 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 a beautiful associate, his faithful secretary 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. Inspector Burgess and Kansas both believe Scott’s innocence and help each other to try and prove it. Kansas tracks down those whom she knows have lied about seeing this woman. She haunts the bar where Scott first met this mysterious 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. The bartender winds up getting killed in a car accident. She also goes undercover as a “hep kitten” to trap the lecherous and super frenetic drummer Cliff played to the sweaty frenzied orgasmic nines by Elisha Cook Jr. The jazz fanatic admits that he has been paid off to “forget” the woman. But when Kansas drops her purse and Cliff sees the police sheet on him that she’s carrying on him, he goes even wackier and pursues her. She evades him and calls Burgess.
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, Scott’s secretly crazed artist friend comes back from Brazil to lend his help in getting to the bottom of the case. Jack was having an affair with Scott’s wife and killed her when she refused to run away with him. The always-present Jack begins to play an important role in helping solve the murder. He meets Kansas at the prison while both are visiting Scott. He wants to help her find the real murderer. They eventually trace the hat to Ann Terry after they find the milliner who designed the unusual hat. Ann gives them the hat. Kansas goes back to Jack’s studio to wait for Burgess and winds up discovering her stolen purse, realizing that Jack is in fact the murderer. Jack begins to untie his scarf, another strangulation on his mind, but Burgess arrives just in time and Jack commits suicide by defenestration. Interesting to note that Jack’s obsession with his hands reminds me of Maurice Renard’s novel The Hands of Orlac adapted in 1924 starring Conrad Veidt, again in Mad Love in 1935 starring Peter Lorre, and then again in 1960 starring Mel Ferrer.
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 to 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 the film’s end.
Woolrich was a prolific writer whose work came close to being as popular as Raymond Chandler, and he was responsible for many of the screenplays of the 1940s as well as the radio drama Suspense. Ella Raines is absolutely breathtaking to look at. And sadly Alan Curtis having died in the 50s of complications from surgery was not only great at being sympathetic, but he was also 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 the 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 remarkable 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, 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.