Phantom Lady (1944)

Phantom Lady (1944) is a classic wrongfully accused lousy husband fantasy murder mystery film noir, a  luckless, dark and erotic tale of crime, generally in what is known as society’s underbelly.  

In Phantom Lady (Robert Siodmark, 1944, starring Franchot Tone, Ella Raines, Alan Curtis, Elisha Cook, Jr, Thomas Gomez and Regis Toomey) we have all of that on show, and more  

It’s one of the most purely enjoyable film noirs out there — unpretentious, fast and pleasing to watch. 

It has a frantic ‘rape by jazz’ drum scene that is famed through all cinema, and is a high point of the sub-style which we may carelessly call The Female Seeker Hero noir.
The fantasy element of film noir is well presented in this wonderful and style-defining piece. The lousy husband is the perfect set up fall guy for the forties, and even as World War 2 rages to its peak, Franchot Tone may well wonder what he is at and where his masculinity has been left, wandering in the city, rather loose of responsibility, having abandoned his soon to be murdered wife, and even wasting screen time in what seem like scenes of ceasura as he thinks of chat up lines and drinks for no good reason.

Then look at the cops who come into Franchot Tone's life to place the blame of the crime at his door. The three work in concert, with Regis Toomey drifting more like a dancer from pose to pose, fantastic eye work from Thomas Gomez, who controls the scenes with his eyes alone, watch them and follow them, as they make a dance around the set and around the key character.

What is charming about these opening scenes is that they have a certain plod to them that feels like the drama and mis en scene is being made up on the spot, so slow and unsure does it seem. The answer here is that is in one sense just that, being made up on the day, as film noir is progressed into being. 

Ella Raines brooding at the end of the bar
The female seeker hero is also a wartime creation, and there is no doubting any of the noir role reversing here, as Ella Raines becomes the gumshoe, facing the city's threat, the dives and downers, and the danger and the dark.

Then there’s the look, the essential noir look — low-key lighting, bleak urban settings and the cynical expressions on everybody’s faces.  Although all of these elements are present in Phantom Lady, you may be more tempted to think of it as a regular crime or thriller flick.  

But Phantom Lady (1944) is classic film noir, for its dreamlike qualities alone, and the cop choreography in the early scenes are a sure sign of this, from the smeared plastering street and night talk of the bartender played by noir character stalwart Andrew Tombes, to the fake streets themselves, providing that dreamlike sound stage slightly fake quality that does highlight the fantasy.

In fact Phantom Lady, in which an innocent businessman is accused of murdering his wife is an essential noir, as it is an essential Hitchcock film narrative. In this case is an apt comparison.

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  • Joan Harrison
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Apt, because the rights for Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady were bought from pulp crime novelist Cornell Woolrich by producer Joan Harrison, who had formerly been a secretary to Hitchcock, and like that other Cornell Woolrich adaptation, Rear Window (1954), Phantom Lady features an incapacitated male, leaving a strong female lead to take a determining role in the action of the story — fairly unusual for 1944.

In fact, in Phantom Lady you’ll see a good deal about women struggling to come to terms with the metropolis in general, although the heroic figure of 'Kansas', played by Ella Raines is a revelation.  

She is simply amazing, and holds the flick together with style, ease and a focused performance which you will adore.

Ella Raines is great at determining the feel of an entire room, with stillness and an amazing stare.  Her face is calm like nothing else, and amid the awful urban anomie, she appears as constantly vulnerable, but somehow also learning how to cope.

My favourite Ella Raines sequence in Phantom Lady is set in the first bar she haunts — and haunts is a great word.  

Ella Raines sits at the end of the counter, night after night in the same position, a fearfully ambiguous look on her crystal clear face, lit expertly — the lighting in fact has to be your cue to the fact that this is noir — to answer my above point.

Phantom Lady was a hit, although Ella Raines ( didn’t appear to have too many of those, despite keeping busy in the 1940s and 1950s — and unlike in Rear Window, she is a female lead who when she gets going, just about extinguishes everybody else. 

She turns vamp, and has her femininity and internal strength quoshed, as she plays dangerous on the streets, hooking up first with Elisha Cooke Jnr, who plays a very horny drummer, who will probably be one of your favourite characters.

Elisha Cooke Jnr participates with Ella Raines in the strangest set piece in Phantom Lady, which is a basement scene in which Ella as the Wicked Lady of the night is taken into a basement where a jazz band are playing in a tiny, empty concrete room, into which they barely fit. 

It’s an odd scene, suggestive of the rising music craze of the time, and Elisha Cooke joins the band for a deeply mad drum solo — then leaves with his date, while the band still rock it up.

You can get a feel for that crazy, daft, hep, dippy, boozy, drunken, swinging cells of euphoric carnality here.

Elisha Cook is looking at Ella Raines' behind and is supposed to look like he's masturbating frantically — not  playing drums with his right hand.  When Cook does his big solo, with its double strokes, paradiddles and increasing sweat and effort, Ella Raines stands before him and comes to orgasm!  Someone called it ‘rape by jazz’.

Thomas Gomez and Franchot Tone

Despite what must amount to the most dramatic lighting effects of the era, overdone to perfection you might say, Phantom Lady loses the way slightly on the introduction of the psychopathic killer.  The psychopathic killer isn’t exactly a stock noir filler — the genre deals with death, but does so powerfully when the motives are weakness, greed, desire, revenge and a feeling of being cornered.  

Killing because you are obsessed with your hands (like Orlac, elsewhere, funnily enough) is just not the stuff of film noir.

It means there are almost two films at work here.  The densely shadowed world of the innocent man in a jungle of sleaze, merging at the two/thirds mark into a much weaker psycho-killer tale, in which the audience know all the facts, and the characters are left guessing.  

The kind of guignol horror that Franchot Tone indulges in here just doesn’t fit with the great earlier images of the streets, basements, apartments and sleazy downtown surrounds that kick off Phantom Lady.  It can only really be believed if you accept that the cop knows everything all along, and is just playing the murderer to trip him up — which he does brilliantly in a great scene in which the full heights of mid-20th Century DIY analysis are played out in a theatre dressing room.

From critic Bosley Crwother had this to say at the time:

"We wish we could recommend it as a perfect combination of the styles of the eminent Mr. Hitchcock and the old German psychological films, for that is plainly and precisely what it tries very hard to be.
It is full of the play of light and shadow, of macabre atmosphere, of sharply realistic faces and dramatic injections of sound. People sit around in gloomy places looking blankly and silently into space, music blares forth from empty darkness, and odd characters turn up and disappear.

It is all very studiously constructed for weird and disturbing effects. But, unfortunately, Miss Harrison and Mr. Siodmak forgot one basic thing—they forgot to provide their picture with a plausible, realistic plot."

Time may have been kinder to Phantom Lady than this suggests.  We don't always watch these films for plot these days anyhow, although it is fair to say that any analysis of the story of Phantom Lady is going to leave it lacking, that much is sure. 

There's atmosphere and there are great characters, and the plot makes it to the end without too much of a struggle.  

What's a stake here nowadays, is Phantom Lady's credentials as a film noir, and these are on plentiful show.

Phantom Lady (1944) at WIKIPEDIA

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