Awww yeah…another Robert Siodmak joint. I love this dude! It’s also another Cornell Woolrich adaptation. Phantom Lady, based on his 1942 book of the same name, nicely conveys Woolrich’s motif of the passive male and avenging female that subverts the traditional femme fatale. It’s also a fine example of Siodmak’s German expressionistic style bleeding into the visual trademarks of noir. These elements culminate in a tense, tough little ride into fatalism, cover-ups, and good ol’ American psychopathy.
The film begins with a close-up of a woman’s hat, which is a pretty dull way to kick off a film. Don’t sweat it though, from here on out Phantom Lady keeps tightening the proverbial vice grip. Civil engineer Scott Henderson is having a pretty shitty night. After laughing off his suggestion of a divorce, his gold-digging wife stood him up for a night out at the theater. Downtrodden, he finds refuge at the only place a level-headed human being goes for comfort: a bar. There he finds the woman with the obnoxious hat on and asks her if she wants his theater tickets. She acts all distant and fidgety until finally suggesting that they go together as two companions, nothing more.
The woman never tells him her name and Scott’s left dumbfounded by her aloofness. When he returns home, he’s greeted by several plainclothes detectives, led by burly Inspector Burgess (Thomas Gomez). His wife is dead, strangled with one of Scott’s neckties. The cops have no suspects but him, so they push him around a bit and patronize the hell outta him, while remaining entirely apathetic to the fact that he just saw his wife’s corpse. There’s a great bit where Burgess and a couple other detectives surround Scott and start fondling his tie admiringly, saying how they could never such a nice tie. What an expensive tie. A lovely tie! It’s a really uncomfortable moment, ya can’t help but feel sorry for him.
One of the cops just stands around chewing gum like a cow. He’s credit as “Gum Cop” or “Gum Chewing Cop” or something to that effect. In a way, his obnoxious chewing adds the scene’s tension. If he had blown a bubble, I probably would’ve jumped outta my seat.
Scott, of course, didn’t murder his wife. He was at the theater the whole time with that mysterious woman. So all he has to do is produce his alibi and he’s in the clear. The cops bring him back to the bar where they first met, but the bartender swears up and down that he never saw Scott talking to any dame. Then they talk to the cab driver who brought them to the theater. He too adamantly claims that Scott was alone in the back seat. One after another, everyone who saw Scott the night before swears they never saw him with a woman. It’s kinda the same situation as Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes but without any rich playgirls goofing off.
The only person who believes that Scott’s innocent is his secretary, Carol, played by cutie patootie Ella Raines. This is where Woolrich’s male passivity and gender role subversion comes into play. These themes are wonderfully explained in Tony Williams’ essay “Phantom Lady, Cornell Woolrich, and the Masochistic Aesthetic,” by the way. Scott just fucking gives up. Rotting away in jail, he accepts his doomed fate. He even thinks that he may have gone a little crazy and imagined the woman in the hat. But Carol won’t take Scott’s charge or his passiveness laying down. She becomes his avenging angel – a character motif Woolrich used in many of his stories, including The Black Angel, Waltz Into Darkness, and Black Path of Fear.
Carol starts doing her own investigation into the mysterious woman by tracing Scott’s steps the night of the murder. First she haunts the hell out of the bartender. She sits at the end of the bar for an entire day, just staring at the bastard. Then she follows him after close, which causes him to freak out and run into traffic. Til the end he claimed to have never seen Silly Hat Woman, but Carol doesn’t stop pounding the pavement in search of her.
After the bartender dies, she goes undercover in the theater where she seduces band drummer Cliff, played by Elisha Cook Jr., who most folks will remember from Kubrick’s The Killing. He’s got the best face ever for conveying sympathy, but in Phantom Lady he’s like some whirling dervish of booze and drumsticks. He takes Carol to some dark alley that hides a ridiculously small room where a huge jazz band is playing some fast-ass bebop. He takes a swig of booze, sits behind the drums, and goes absolutely bonkers. There’s some really palpable tension in this scene, as Carol stands over him, grinning like a mad mother proud of her little drummer boy, as he plays a blisteringly fast series of rolls. The camera starts cutting quickly back and forth between their faces. The room is consumed with shadows. There’s a look of odd horror on Cliff’s face – like he’s in Carol’s trance and he won’t let her stop playing. It’s a fucking scary and amazing moment.
Shortly after, it is revealed that there’s a conspiracy against Scott. His killer turns out to be your typical mad sculptor who gets off on talking about the many uses of human hands. He suffers from migraines, has delusions of grandeur, and I betcha he’s a bore in the sack. Impotent even. Played with equal parts anxiety and subdued psychopathy by Franchot Tone, he’s a decent villain, albeit way over the top at times.
While the plot is filled with holes and unbelievable coincidences, it manages to work thanks to Siodmak’s sharp direction and impossible talent for creating a dark atmosphere no matter what the location. Even a courtroom can look like a level of hell in Siodmak’s eyes. The very end kinda stinks. It forces Carol, who saved Scott’s passive ass, to devolve into the secretary role again. Other than that I’ve got no qualms with this film. It’s not as well known as the big noirs of 1944, Laura and Double Indemnity, but Phantom Lady deserves a spot on the top shelf with those classics.
Robert Siodmak Power Rankings:
1. The Killers
2. Criss Cross
3. The Spiral Staircase
4. Phantom Lady
5. Cry of the City
6. The Dark Mirror
7. The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry
8. The File on Thelma Jordon
9. The Suspect
10. Christmas Holiday