Saturday, August 08, 2009

Phantom Lady

(1944, 87 min.)

Starring Ella Raines, Franchot Tone, Alan Curtis, Thomas Gomez, Elisha Cook, Jr., Fay Helm, Aurora Miranda (as Aurora), Andrew Tombes, Regis Toomey, Joseph Crehan.

Screenplay by Bernard C. Schoenfeld, from the novel by Cornell Woolrich, writing as William Irish.

Directed by Robert Siodmak.

As our story begins, New York architect Scott Henderson (Curtis) is out on the town and in a lousy mood, for reasons to which we are not yet privy. Dulling the pain in a bar with his ferment of choice, he impulsively invites the woman on the next stool (Helm) to come see a show with him. She seems an unlikely candidate to offer him much comfort, being rather perturbed herself, but he assures her he wants nothing more than company and wouldn’t it be a shame for the tickets to go to waste. She agrees, reluctantly, insisting on total anonymity as part of the deal.

They hit the theater where they see a Latin-themed review. Scott’s “date” is wearing a rather garish hat, which stands out all the more when the lead performer onstage, Monteiro (Miranda), turns out to be wearing the same one. The acid looks the singer shoots at Scott’s companion are rivaled only by the cheesy grin of the drummer in the band (Cook). After the show, Scott walks her back to the bar and they part company.

Scott heads home only to find a couple of police detectives in his apartment (Toomey and Crehan) along with their boss, Detective Burgess (the reliably watchable Gomez). Turns out that Scott’s wife was murdered while he was out, viciously strangled with one of his own ties. Scott admits that they had just had a terrible fight – and that the marriage was, for all intents and purposes, over – but that she was alive when he left. Despondent over the state of things, he had left the apartment resulting in his encounter with the mystery woman, who could verify his story if they would just ask her. Problem is he doesn’t know her name and, even worse, every single person who saw them together now claims he was alone. Looks like it’s time to send in housekeeping to make up a bunk on death row, unless, of course, Scott’s trusty assistant Carol Richman (Raines) can find the mystery woman and put him in the clear.

The above set-up is presented in fairly concise fashion, all the better for the focus of the film to shift to Carol, the actual lead character. She’s served up with equal succinctness – we know that she’s a small town girl transplanted to the big city because Henderson calls her “Kansas”; we know that she still has some of the small town girl in her by the way she fiddles with her stockings when she’s nervous – and that shorthand too turns out to be a mere springboard for what comes next, as the small town girl rather abruptly plunges into the darker sides of the big bad city in the interest of clearing her boss’s name.

Director Siodmak was one of that famed group of filmmakers that made the journey from Germany to Hollywood rather than stick around to see how the whole Nazi thing worked out. Here, working from a novel by suspense master Woolrich, penned under one of his pseudonyms, Siodmak creates an odd little noir that I can’t completely make up my mind about. Enjoyable as it is, long before Carol reaches any sort of definitive point in her quest to clear Scott, with the help of Scott’s best friend Jack Marlow (Tone) and Detective Burgess, who has come to rethink the case, the film drops a significant piece of the mystery in the audience’s lap. It allows Siodmak to dabble in similar psychological territory to other crime films of his native land, and yet also changes the nature of the intrigue in a such a way that…well, like I said, I can’t quite make up my mind about, although I suspect it probably worked a bit better on paper.

But either way it’s hardly a deal-breaker. The film does have a few logical bumps and indulges in some of the sort of hyper-stylistics to which fans of the genre are largely inured, but overall it succeeds, with clever details scattered here and there and some really effective sequences, including one in an elevated train station and one at a jazz jam session that is remarkably bald-faced in its sexual overtones. Anchoring it all is Raines, who gives a sweet and sexy performance as a woman with a singular focus (and who is actually more attractive when she’s just being herself than when she’s deliberately playing the vixen). Despite the obvious markers as to Carol’s origins, the film isn’t condescending about it, or about anything in regard to her really. Detective Burgess does acknowledge the danger of what she’s doing but doesn’t make a big production of it, more or less trusting her judgment. That she’s doing it for love may be one of the ultimate clichés, but in a genre that routinely paints women as either dangerously naïve or just plain dangerous, the film’s willingness to allow for the possibility that, as a grown woman, she may know exactly what she’s doing makes Phantom Lady seem almost liberated.


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