Starring Ella Raines, Franchot Tone, and Alan Curtis
My rating: ★★★ 1/2 stars
Stylish film noir about a secretary’s quest to exonerate her condemned boss.
A sad and lonely woman and a sad and lonely man meet in a bar and decide to spend the evening together at the theater. After the show, they part without exchanging names, expecting never to see each other again. When the man returns home, he finds the police waiting for him. His unfaithful wife has been murdered. He has a perfectly solid alibi, but he has no way of locating her.
Thus begins Phantom Lady, a film noir from director Robert Siodmak, a master of the genre. The film contains classic noir elements: the clip-clop of high heels on the wet streets of the city at night, the threatening surroundings of a lonely elevated train station, the underground jazz club, seedy bars and apartments, and even seedier people. Yet, more significantly, the film presents the noir worldview—it takes place in an uncertain and hostile world characterized by indifference and alienation, a world where the institutions of order fail to care about truth or justice.
Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) has all the trappings of happiness. He’s a successful engineer, who, even though he is only in his early 30s, already has a thriving business of his own. He lives in an expensive apartment. Handsome himself, he has a beautiful wife and plenty of good friends.
Within minutes of the beginning of the film, Scott’s entire world is destroyed. His wife is dead. His friends abandon him. He’s convicted of murder and sent to death row. Having lost everything in his initial defense, he can’t even afford to appeal. All he has left is the devotion of his secretary, Carol Richman (Ella Raines), who takes it upon herself to prove his innocence.
Phantom Lady, like I Wake Up Screaming, is unusual for film noir in that it has a female protagonist. Most films in the genre focus on men attempting (and often failing) to establish a moral code that will guide them through the venality of the world. Oftentimes, they are confronted with two contrasting females who represent different paths in life—the alluring and dangerous femme fatale and the dependable and moral, if slightly boring, domestic woman. Here, the dependable and moral woman takes center stage. The alien and venal world is hers to navigate.
Unlike the male protagonists of films noir, Carol is never tempted to veer from her goal, to find the phantom lady who can provide an alibi for Scott. Even when she degrades herself going undercover to finagle information from a sleazy drummer (Elisha Cook Jr.), she remains above it all—morally unimpeachable in an amoral world. In this way, the film captures a transitional period for women. Carol is a modern 20th century career woman and an active protagonist in the film, but she also reflects the Victorian ideal of the “Angel in the House,” a concept where women were seen as the moral bulwark for men.
Siodmak directs the film with a flair for the genre. His shot choices reflect a great sense of style. Early in the film, when Scott is being interviewed by the police in his apartment, Siodmak composes the shot so that the low angle, which usually makes the subject seem large and powerful, captures Scott in the lower right corner of the frame, the position of greatest weakness (because, in the Western world, we read images left to right, top to bottom), while a giant portrait of Scott’s wife looms over him in the upper left corner, the position of greatest power. One of the most famous visuals in the film occurs during the scene when Carol visits Scott at the prison. Carol and Scott, separated by railings, are placed in the background of the frame. The backlighting from the light streaming in from a high, barred window places the characters in shadows, with only hints of their facial features illuminated. It’s a scene of bleak hopelessness where even the light creates darkness.
The scene that the film is most noted for involves Carol’s undercover experience with the drummer, when he takes her to a jazz jam session. As the music increases in tempo and volume, the shots become shorter, the framing haphazard, the editing frenetic. When the drummer begins his solo, a low-angle shot captures Carol, showing her increasing power as her encouragement drives the drummer to an almost orgasmic frenzy. It’s a masterful scene, reflecting film noir’s Expressionist influences.
Unfortunately, the film loses its way when it diverges from the source novel by Cornell Woolrich. For no good reason, the film reveals the killer to the audience halfway through. At that point, the story becomes tedious as we wait for Carol and helpful police officer Inspector Burgess (Thomas Gomez) to realize what we already know. Top-billed Franchot Tone finally appears as Scott’s best friend, Jack Marlow, who was in South America at the time of the murder. Tone, who is a usually dependable and occasionally inspired actor, here is so over-the-top hammy that his performance is almost painful to watch and contrasts awkwardly with Raines’s understated and straightforward performance. Unnecessarily, the screenplay also delves into too many discussions of popular notions from psychology at the time.
Despite these flaws, the film has enough strong elements to recommend it and to earn it a place among the classics of the film noir genre.