director Robert Siodmak
Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady has long been one of my favorite film noirs. Adapted from a Cornell Woolrich novel of the same name, it’s got one of those “only in the movies” (or “only in a pulp novel”) set-ups: a guy comes home to find his somewhat contentious wife strangled to death. His alibi, true enough, is that he left the house after a fight and met a woman in a bar and went out on the town with her, only never learning her name or anything about her. She is a “phantom lady” that can’t be found, and none of his potential witnesses remember seeing her.
Alan Curtis plays Scott Henderson, the guy on the hook. Lucky for him, he’s got a girl Friday at the office in Carol “Kansas” Richman (the stunning Ella Raines) who is sweet on him enough to do the leg work tracking down the truth behind his alibi and ultimately the real killer.
Produced by Joan Harrison, a frequent writing collaborator with Alfred Hitchcock, Phantom Lady has an almost proto-feminist quality to it. While the titular “Phantom Lady” is the mysterious unnamed date with the funny hat, Ella Raines switches from able assistant to a chameleon-like phantom lady herself. She stalks a bartender to his death like something out of Cat People (1942) in one of the film’s most stunning sequences, becomes a cheap floozy to entrap drummer Elisha Cook, Jr. in a sleazy death, and solves the damn murder, unveiling the serial killer. It might not be the utter showcase of Raines’s talents but it’s a fine and interesting character and performance.
The film’s greatest elements though are in it’s visual design and aesthetics, especially in two of the film’s wordless sequences. The first, I mentioned already, is stunning and eerie as Raines tracks a witness bartender across the wet night city streets, glinting and shadowy, full on chiaroscuro, following him to a lonely train station, and finally chasing him to his death. This sequence is totally amazing. Film Noir 101 perfection.
The second is no less amazing as Raines picks up Cook from his spot in an orchestra and goes back with him to a wailing backroom jazz party. This sequence is one of sex and jazz and manic lewd insanity, hepped up by the writhing rhythms and beats of the chaos of the musicians. Raines gets jived too, dancing and wordlessly egging them on from the unleashed passion and wildness. Really, this scene must be witnessed. It’s fantastic.
There are smaller elements of this powerful visual storytelling and mood creation, throughout the film, but in many ways, these two set-pieces elevate what might otherwise be a lesser film onto a level of pure cinema.
I hadn’t had a chance to see Phantom Lady in almost 20 years since it’s not been readily available. I caught it on TCM this time, and it’s as amazing as I remember it. I don’t know how obscure a film it is, certainly not as obscure as some film noirs, but it certainly is one of the most striking and cool of the movies in my book.