Director: Robert Siodmak / Screenplay: Bernard Schoenfeld (from novel by Cornell Woolrich) / Editing: Arthur Hilton / DP: Elwood Bredell / Music: Uncredited
Cast: Franchot Tone / Ella Raines / Alan Curtis / Aurora Miranda / Thomas Gomez / Fay Helm / Elisha Cook Jr. / Andrew Tombes
Black, White and Fifty One Shades of Grey…
Typical, right? You wait for months for this blog to cover a ‘classic Noir’ picture, only to get two on the bounce…
Once again courtesy of Arrow Academy, we now have Phantom Lady, directed by Robert Siodmak. Like So Dark the Night before it, Phantom’s a movie shot with a similarly tiny budget, over just a fortnight or so, on sets carved from niche’s in a studio’s expansive backlot; in this case, Universal’s. Unlike So Dark’, however, Phantom’ is Noir in a purer form.
Siodmak’s an interesting Director. Born in the USA in 1900, his parents moved the family to Germany when Robert was just one. After making – and losing – a fortune as a young man in banking, courtesy of the Weimar Republic’s hyperinflation, Robert moved into film production & Directing; films proving an outlet for a latent artistic sensibility. After the advent of Nazism in Germany (and after a spell directing in France), Siodmak returned to the ‘States and a career in Hollywood, where he directed a string of B-movies and one or two higher-profile actioners (i.e. The Crimson Pirate (1952)). Later, he’d return to direct in post-war West Germany, but his latter work lacks the profile – or the recognition – enjoyed by such pieces as Phantom’.
Pulp crime writer Cornell Woolrich wrote Phantom’s original novel, from which Bernard Schoenfeld delivered a tight adaptation. For his DP, Siodmak went with Elwood Bredell, who conjured a near-perfect distillation of the emergent Noir style; devotees of which, will recognise its moody, low-key lighting. Unsurprisingly, given his familiarity with German ‘Expressionist’ film-makers such as Murnau and Lang, to name but two, Siodmak deploys his few lights to augment simplistic sets as empty of depth, as they are of extras; ‘true Noir’ is at least cheap to produce!
There’s more to Noir: evocatively-lit, rainy streets at-night. Characters who aren’t all they appear – and who pay the ultimate price for their duplicity. Supporting players encouraged by both Director & script, to explore their own ‘dark-sides’: in the right hands, such behaviour leaves everyone a suspect. Repeated examples of male bonding are also common, along with lots of smoke, bare lightbulbs and conspicuous alcohol consumption: that said, both smoking and drinking are constants in what feels like every movie of the period…
Phantom’ begins conventionally enough: with strangers meeting in a bar. In this case, we have a depressed looking woman in a striking hat and a man in possession of a sharp suit and tickets to a show. He’s been ‘stood-up’, so asks the lady to join him, so that at least the pair of them might enjoy the distraction of a night out. She agrees. So far, so meet-cute. Two strangers. Both at a loose end. No names, no pack drill. The score (uncredited and from studio stock) is sonic treacle here; waffling, melodramatic strings, though it’ll soon give way to stony silence when…
Well, let’s not rush ourselves. We’ve already had a few glances from the barman and a cabbie; now, at the show, we have a leering drummer from the house-band, who admires the lady’s hat because it’s identical to that worn by the star of the show, Miss Monteiro (played by Carmen Miranda’s younger sister, Aurora, thus making a family business out of improving Brazilian-US wartime relations). So unamused is Monteiro, on seeing this stranger wearing what she thought was a unique hat (hats are a big theme in the family Miranda), that she presses her own into the hands of her perplexed dresser, with instructions to ‘Throw it away! I never want to wear this again!’ Uh-huh. Make note, everyone.
The evening over, the man drops the still-mysterious woman off at the same bar where they met and returns home, whereupon we learn his name: Henderson, who’s played by Alan Curtis. Let’s just enjoy the moment when he enters his apartment and finds a trio of cops waiting within: his wife Marcella is dead (but not forgotten, thanks to her large, glamorous portrait that looms over the ensuing interview). She’s been strangled by a tie ‘so tight, it had to be cut with a knife’, according to a single, impactful line from one of the cops. The rest of their initial questioning is led by Inspector Burgess (Thomas Gomez), an old hand, who switches gears into more personal territory once the body is removed.
Henderson admits to squabbling with Marcella before leaving earlier that evening, when she announced that she wouldn’t be joining him at the theatre. This turned out to be a defining moment in their five year marriage; one that prompted him to ask for a divorce: which she refused (a revelation used by another cop to chide him into going further. Henderson refuses to oblige). Instead, he protests his innocence and tells of the evening spent with the ‘Phantom Lady’, who now becomes his alibi. He just has to find her again, which proves easier said than done…
Neither Henderson or Burgess are able to get confirmation from either the barman, cabbie or even Miss Monteiro herself, that Henderson was even accompanied by a woman that night, let alone one wearing such a striking hat. Think about it: Monteiro is willing to let a man go to his DEATH, rather than admit the truth AND SHE’S NOT EVEN BEEN BRIBED TO KEEP QUIET, LIKE THE OTHERS! Jeez: what price vanity?
Act One barrels into a murder trial. Being a B-movie, Phantom’s budget didn’t stretch to mounting a full-size courtroom scene, so Siodmak got round the problem, by using shots of a ‘public gallery’ filled with day-players and blending them with choice cuts of dialogue from both prosecutor & judge as well as pages of a notebook filling-up with shorthand. As a montage, it works well at conveying all it needs to and nothing more: our imaginations fill-in the rest.
Luckily for the accused, Burgess is in-attendance during the trial and keeping a close-eye on Henderson’s assistant, ‘Kansas’ Carole, played by the beautiful Ella Raines. Carole’s blessed with an undeniable, ribald sauciness about her, that she’ll deploy to varying degree, in-pursuit of her goal, namely, the acquittal of the man she loves… Siodmak handles the delivery of the inevitable ‘Guilty’ verdict with style, too: at the moment it’s announced, he dollies-in to capture Carole’s reaction, only to have it spoiled by a woman in the row behind, who leans-in whilst choking on an apple. So clever of Siodmak to undercut a moment that another director would have play-out as expected.
Not that Carole’s done with Henderson’s conviction. On the contrary, she’s only getting started. After visiting her boss in ‘the cells’ (unable to prove his alibi, he’s resigned to his date with the electric chair) Carole begins a little sleuthing of her own, beginning with the barman. Over three successive nights, she takes a perch at the same barstool and stares at the guy, impassively, causing him deep discomfort. Finally, she trails him out of the bar at closing time. They get to an elevated section of the subway; all sets, these, with expansive backdrops conjured from matte paintings. The dark streets of the Universal lot, are lit by solitary pools of light and glisten with rainwater. There’s no traffic. Few people. While waiting for the train, there’s a moment when the barman makes a subtle move that suggests he’s going to push Carole onto the live rail, but he pulls back at the arrival of a third passenger, to Carole’s obvious relief. Once again, Siodmak uses a trick to suggest something beyond the scope of his budget: in this case, the train. He plays the sound of a real subway train over a light-show simulating the play of light from windows in a moving train, onto the platform. The POV is impossibly wrong but, again, our imaginations do all the heavy lifting.
Eventually, they reach a street that’s straight out of The Bowery, with townhouse stoops filled with bums, drifters and ne’er-do-wells. The barman turns to confront Carole, but after the locals defend her, he sprints into the road, only to be hit by the first car we’ve seen heard in minutes: handy.
Looking relatively unflustered given what she’s been up to, Carole returns to her apartment and finds Burgess waiting there. He tells her that he believes Henderson to be innocent, on the basis that his repeated claims of spending the evening in-question with the Phantom Lady have the ring of truth about them. In his opinion, the seasoned criminal mind would’ve cooked-up a richer, layered alibi that, ultimately, would fall apart: but Henderson’s consistent. So much so, that Burgess agrees to help Carole in pursuing the leads and thus save her man.
With the barman out of the picture – literally – Carole’s next port-of-call is with the drummer in the band. To win him over, she dresses like a hooker of the period (a blizzard of fishnets, puffy sleeves and an elaborate hairdo) adopts the name ‘Jeanie’ and takes a front-row seat at the show, with the intention of catching his eye. When they meet at the Stage Door afterwards, we get this swell exchange:
Cliff: ‘Hi, Chick!’
Jeanie: ‘Gee. You sure know how to beat it out!”
Cliff: ‘Thanks, baby. By the way, the handle’s Cliff. Cliff Melburn.’
Jeanie: ‘I’m Jeanie.’
Cliff: ‘We’re gonna have fun tonight, Jeanie! You like Jazz?’
Jeanie: ‘You bet! I’m a hep kit!’
Cliff takes her to a dive of a rehearsal room, in which a jazz band are already playing. Without saying a word, he jumps onto the drum-kit and, encouraged by Jeanie’s vamping, launches into a crazed solo that builds to a frenzied climax, serving as an entrée for what he hopes he’ll be getting later… It’s amusing to picture the conversations Siodmak might’ve had with the studio – and the censors – over this scene, but we should remember that all we ever see is ‘someone drumming’ and whatever ELSE is going on, takes place only in our sordid imaginations! Once he’s ‘spent’, the band segues into a mellow ‘outro’ to send the happy couple on their way. Ignore the crap dubbing here – Elisha Cook Jr can’t drum to save his life, but he injects enough swagger into Cliff, that I go with him for the most part.
Carole / Jeanie manages to elicit a confession-of-sorts from Cliff, that he was bribed not to mention anything about the hat (or the mystery woman wearing it) to the cops; a revelation that leads him to find a police note in Jeanie’s possession bearing his address. A tussle is expected but avoided as Jeanie manages to escape. The same can’t be said for Cliff himself, who then receives an unexpected visitor: the man who bribed him. Urbane in his elegant suit, the visitor takes a seat amidst Cliff’s squalor and talks of what his (enormous) hands are capable of. After listing both the good and the bad, he proceeds to give a personal demonstration of the latter, using his silk scarf to make his point. As he moves-in, Siodmak’s camera evokes German Expressionism once more, as the man’s shadow looms across Cliff like Murnau’s Nosferatu on finding a fresh victim…
Thoughts of Expressionism return shortly after, when Carole visits Henderson in-jail. The scene opens with her bathed in an almost divine shaft of light, pouring from a high, barred window. Henderson, by contrast, is restrained by a symbolic barrier: it could easily be climbed, but what would be the point? He reveals that he’s to be executed ‘in eighteen days’: a statement to focus anyone’s mind and Carole’s no exception. Still: she does get to tell her boss that she’s, err, in love with her boss, even if he’s too blind to see that she’s talking – at last – about him…
But then, facing one’s execution in a little under three weeks, would cloud any prospects of long-term happiness!
Just as she’s leaving, Siodmak introduces us to Henderson’s ‘Best Friend’ and man-just-returned from a business trip to Brazil, Jack Marlowe a-k-a the Urbane Strangler. Franchot Tone imbues Marlowe with an overly-mannered interpretation of a paranoid-schizophrenic, that grows more annoying the more we see it until, by the end, Marlowe is a twitching precursor of Christian Bale’s turn in American Psycho.
The Third Act, will have Carole team-up with Marlowe in-pursuit of the Phantom Lady, and her hat: now revealed as little more than a corroborative McGuffin. But will she make it to the end-game, or will Marlowe reach for his tie one last time? I think you can work that out…
Problems? There are a few. First-off and perhaps the most troubling, is the question of who phoned the cops in the first place to alert them to Marcella’s death? Second, Marlowe is already known to Carole, as her boss’s BFF, so how come she doesn’t see him following her and Cliff on the night of her turn as Jeanie? The streets are empty; Marlowe would surely have been seen or heard! Third, the movie’s dubbing is sloppy. I’ve already mentioned the ‘impressionistic’ mis-match between Cliff’s ‘drumming’ and what we actually hear, but there are too many scenes that end with characters still-talking! Fourth, is the total lack of Black characters; Cliff’s in a damn jazz band, yet despite the evident commitment of its members ‘to the cause’, their efforts are undermined by such oversight. That said, for all I know, Siodmak tried – and failed – to bring-in Black musicians, but their admission only raises issues about exclusion when viewing the film seventy years-on.
Finally, there’s my beef with Henderson’s character. As-written, he’s weak to the point of being overly-passive. In the modern sense of it, he lacks ‘agency’. Everything that happens to him is the result of his own passivity: his acceptance of the mystery woman’s secret identity. His acceptance – albeit reluctantly – of everyone questioned to corroborate his alibi. His self-pity in accepting an imminent death-sentence despite his innocence. And, at the end, when given an opportunity to express love and gratitude, he can’t do it face-to-face, but has to use a dictation machine! Surely this moment, above all others, would’ve been the moment for him to ditch the props and adopt a little honesty? Err, no.
Turns out, it’s not that kind of picture.
Instead, it’s to Phantom’s credit that Carole’s the protagonist. She is the real chameleon, here; shape-shifting into both sleuth and Femme-Fatale in the pursuit of her own happiness: the love of a good, though dim-witted man. For this, we have to thank World War Two.
In the USA as elsewhere, so many women had taken jobs once filled by men, that they’d begun to see a future for themselves as equals in all things. Working in industry had shown a generation of young women just what they were capable of and Hollywood was no exception. With many of its male stars serving in the military, the industry’s constant churn of B-Movies became increasingly important, not only as a means of keeping both cash-strapped studios and cinemas going, but in ‘road-testing’ new notions of storytelling that, in a ‘business-as-usual’ (i.e. male-dominated) Hollywood wouldn’t be considered. Phantom Lady is therefore a good example of what I’m driving at: it shows a sexually-confident young woman, running her (male) boss’s company, then putting herself in-danger, to rescue HIM from jeopardy. We’re so used to seeing that played in-reverse, that when we see this, it’s a shock. I’d go further and suggest it’s almost a disappointment that Carole’s doing it for love. It might tie-off narrative loose-ends, but I can’t help thinking she’d have emerged as a stronger character, had she realised Cliff wasn’t her type after all and moved-on, once he was free; her job, done.
But, hey: it WAS 1944 and history shows that this spell of female emancipation would evaporate like Scotch mist within months of the war ending. The initial optimism would soon be replaced by a new threat: Communism and Hollywood, like the country, would revert to a benign patriarchy, with women treated – by and large – as the meek home-makers their husbands craved: Plus ça change…
In conclusion then, Phantom’ is a more effective assemblage of noirish elements than So Dark’, but any advance is stunted by a whole slew of logic problems and a plot that unfolds with all the dramatic suspense of an assembly guide for an IKEA cupboard: you know the basic form it’ll end-up taking, just not how it’s going to get there…
While the supporting players are all doing their best within the constraints of the material, only Ella Raines is, for me, making the most of what’s on offer. By contrast, both Curtis & Tone are both lumbered with one-note roles, devoid of opportunities for self-expression. Forget the men: this is a movie geared towards a new audience of newly-empowered women, hungry to see their experience reflected in the movies.
Ever keen to oblige, Hollywood complied: just as it’s doing today, though time will tell if the #me-too movement has longer, stronger roots than those encouraged by a World War…
I told you not to get Pistachio!
Never go wrong in vanilla.