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April 11, 2019

Phantom Lady


Robert Siodmak - 1944
Arrow Films BD Region A

Phantom Lady is about a married guy who walks out on his wife and into a bar. He meets a woman with an unusual looking feathered hat. The woman, for her own reasons, is also unhappy. She agrees to go with the man to a Broadway show that night on the the condition that the two remain anonymous. Following the show, the man leaves the woman at the bar where they met. When he goes home, the man is met by detectives in his apartment. The man's wife is dead, strangled with one of the man's ties. The evidence is that the man murdered his wife, and all the potential witnesses claim that the woman with the hat never existed.

For me, the real Phantom Lady was the producer of the film, Joan Harrison. Some of my thoughts are speculation on my part due to lack of immediate documentation on how much of a hand Harrison had in the making of the film aside from the good sense to hire Robert Siodmak, setting the course for him to follow up Son of Dracula with a modestly budgeted film that led to more prestigious productions. The blu-ray release is my first time seeing Phantom Lady since it was broadcast about twenty years ago on the American Movie Classics cable channel. Bob Dorian, the host, had discussed how Joan Harrison had been able to go from being an assistant to Alfred Hitchcock to being a producer on her own. There are a couple of reasons why I think Harrison had a more active hand in the production here. For Hitchcock, Harrison had worked, sometimes without credit, on the screenplays. Amazingly, she was nominated twice for the 1941 Oscar for her hand in Foreign Correspondent and Rebecca. Harrison could well have had input in the screenplay for Phantom Lady. Also, the source novel is by Cornell Woolrich under the pseudonym of William Irish. Part of Harrison's work for Hitchcock involved reading novels and providing synopses for potential films. One episode from the television series, "The Alfred Hitchcock Hour" is from a Woolrich short story, as was the Hitchcock film, Rear Window.

Not having read Woolrich's novel, I have no idea how close the characters are as realized in the film. What struck me, and I may be on my own on this, is that Harrison split the character of Guy Curzon from Hitchcock's Young and Innocent into a manic drummer and the murderous artist with the twitch in his eyes. Cliff, the drummer, who performs with the Broadway show orchestra, seems as easily distracted as Curzon, albeit due to his paying more attention to the women in the audience than to the conductor. As his identity is more likely to be revealed, the killer in Phantom Lady more frequently covers his eyes, literal and metaphorical light become brighter.

Phantom Lady is rightly celebrated for a brief scene of a jazz band playing in some barely lit hidey hole. Zoot suited Elisha Cook, Jr. asks Ella Raines if she jives. Raines, uncomfortably dressed as slatternly as possible declares herself a "hep kitten". This is followed by the scene of Cook sitting in with a group of jazz musicians, filmed primarily in tight closeups of the musicians, extreme angles and a sense of claustrophobia. Cook's drumming, dubbed by Dave Coleman, is furious, a storm of percussion. The scene may well be Robert Siodmak at his most expressionistic.

One of my favorite moments is a shot of fall guy Alan Curtis grilled by detective Regis Toomey, underneath a large full-sized portrait of Curtis' dead wife. Curtis' wealth and taste are as meaningless as his alibi. Underneath some flashes of mock sympathy, Toomey's look is of someone who has no problem telling Curtis he's guilty of murder. Being a film of its time, the detectives all but call Curtis a cuck.

The blu-ray comes with the radio version of Phantom Lady with Curtis and Raines. There is also an older documentary, Dark and Deadly: Fifty Years of Film Noir that appears to have been made for television. Clips from older films, notably Murder, My Sweet and several neo-noirs such as The Last Seduction and One False Move are featured with comments by Robert Wise, Edward Dmytryk, B. Ruby Rich, Dennis Hopper and John Alton. I would have preferred more Wise, Dmytryk and Alton for a better sense of making the films at the time before they were identified as film noir.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at April 11, 2019 08:24 AM