directed by Robert Siodmak, starring Ella Raines, Alan Curtis, Franchot Tone
Note: This is my entry in the Sleuthathon, hosted by Movies, Silently
Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) is a man with one hell of a problem on his hands. He arrives home late one night and walks right into a welcome committee of sneering cops, who lead him to the strangled corpse of his estranged wife. Scott swears his innocence, but his only alibi is a flimsy little story about going to a bar and meeting a mysterious woman. He doesn't know the woman's name and can barely remember what she looks like except for one tiny detail: she was wearing a strange hat. By coincidence, the singer at the show they attended together was was wearing the very same hat. Police Inspector Burgess (Thomas Gomez) is sympathetic to the hapless Scott, but it doesn't matter; everyone who supposedly saw Scott and the "phantom lady" swear it never happened.
Scott's fate is sealed. He's found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. But luckily for him, there's one person still fighting tooth and nail to save him: his loyal secretary Carol "Kansas" Richman. Secretly in love with her oblivious boss, Kansas is determined to track down the witnesses and force a confession out of one of them. Even if it means stalking men down alleys or seducing them or throwing herself into danger. Yet even with all her pluck and determination, Kansas is stymied time and again as the witnesses keep dying or disappearing. She enlists the help of Inspector Burgess and Scott's best friend Jack Marlow (Franchot Tone), but they likewise prove powerless. And all the while, the clock is running out for Scott. As impossible as it seems, the fate of one man's life might just depend on them tracking down that one strange hat and the phantom lady who wears it...
Raines is the magnetic center of Phantom Lady, playing an archetypal "gal Friday" who turns out to be an amazing combination of Mata Hari, Nancy Drew, and the Terminator. Her character should come off as a mere stack of cliches, a lovelorn secretary turned girl detective and all for the sake of a very dull man. But in the hands of director Robert Siodmak and Ella Raines, Kansas is a relentless force of nature.
Even more striking is the film's most famous sequence where Kansas tarts herself up as a swinging floozy, complete with jangling jewelery, chewing gum, and a hot-to-trot attitude, and descends into a jazz club to track down the drummer (Elisha Cook Jr.) She's determined to find one witness who'll talk, even if she has to let this sweaty, panting guy paw her all over. It's one of the film's odd little twists that the sexual energy between Cook Jr. and Raines feels palpable and not entirely fake, with Cook Jr. speeding up the tempo of his drum beats to impress this gorgeous creature giving him the eye. She professes her interest in him and in jazz ("I'm a hep kitten") and he takes her back to where his buddies hang out. Siodmak really goes to town here, creating a feverish, gleefully perverse atmosphere that almost swallows our heroine up then and there. You can practically smell the reefer in the air. The images and angles feel like a direct nod to Siodmak's roots in German Expressionism; he alternates between huge closeups and low angle shots that let the musicians loom threateningly even as they keep pouring out the notes, faster and faster.
Cook Jr. starts pounding on the drum so fast, you start to worry he'll have a heart attack. And all the while, Raines is there, laughing, throwing her head back, urging him on. She bares her teeth and looks at Cook Jr like she wants to devour him. Despite the jazz music blasting away, her gestures feel like something straight out of a silent horror film. It's bizarre and thrilling to watch. There's no girl detective here; Raines plays the scene almost like she's become possessed. And yet, once the scene is over and Elisha Cook Jr. goes on to fulfill his role in the plot (I won't give away this one either but if you're an Elisha Cook Jr. fan, you already know how most of his roles end), the movie never feels compelled to comment on what we just witnessed. Either we're supposed to assume that Kansas is a master actress, or we have to believe that buried under that common sense and courage is something kind of bestial and repellent, something she lets out this one time and then never reveals to us again.
I really like the ambiguity Phantom Lady gives to Kansas and I only wish it had been able to maintain the weirdness for the entire movie. Raines still gives us a fine performance throughout and Siodmak keeps giving us shot after shot to love (Did the man ever make a bad-looking movie?). But it must be admitted that one of the weaknesses of Phantom Lady is that outside of Raines and the excellent character actors Thomas Gomez and Elisha Cook Jr., it really doesn't have any performances or characters worth noting.
But, in the interests of fairness, Curtis isn't meant to be the main lead here. He's just the object of our heroine's devotion and frankly, the movie would have worked better if her motivation had been friendship rather than unrequited love. No, our male lead here is actually smooth-as-a-hat-band Franchot Tone, who strolls into the movie halfway through, playing Scott's best friend Jack. His arrival also coincides with a decrease in the energy and drive of Kansas' character. Not that she becomes weak exactly, but we suddenly get a lot more scenes of her talking with Jack and Inspector Burgess and demurely standing around. It's the great danger of being a female sleuth in a classic Hollywood mystery; once the male lead shows up, you're going to find yourself being elbowed out of the spotlight.
The mystery in and of itself is not particularly compelling and the movie ends up shooting itself in the foot by revealing the real killer halfway through. If the murderer was a particularly compelling character, this wouldn't matter so much, but he isn't, and we have to endure an awful lot of rambling from him about hands and the power in those hands and what they can do. It's about as terrifying as that guy handing out pamphlets on a street corner and wanting to tell you his theories on life. And then the murderer just keeps hanging around while we wait for one of the others to catch on. It's quite a let-down.
For all the illogical little plot conveniences strewn through the script, I do have to take issue with one particular bit of nonsense. The movie makes a big deal out of the "strange" hat that the mystery woman was wearing. This hat was so strange, so unique, you would know it anywhere, and so on. And yet, when we finally get a look at the damn hat, it doesn't look all that different from any other bizarre Hollywood concoction of the time. You can't scare me, 1940s milliners! I've already seen this. And this. I've even survived this. Don't promise me a funny hat, movie, and not deliver the goods.
However, what makes Phantom Lady an enjoyable film is not its plotting or its cliches or its hats. It's that wonderful, bizarre, Alice-in-Wonderland vibe that we get during Kansas' foray into the underworld. Robert Siodmak's direction is strong enough to lift a rather prosaic mystery into full-on nightmarish territory; I only wish the script had been sharp enough to keep up with him. I only wish it had been sharp enough to keep up with Ella Raines, too, who really does deliver a strong, startling performance, creating a female sleuth who'll definitely linger in your mind. But even if the movie ultimately decides to settle for convention, nothing could really dent the vibrant energy of the first half of the movie. It's proof enough that a few great scenes is enough to make a movie worthwhile.
"What a place. I can feel the rats in the walls."
It's really a toss-up between the scene of Kansas stalking the bartender and the scene of her with the jazz musicians. I like the ambiguity of the stalking more as a character thing but the imagery of her in the backroom jazz club is too powerful to ignore. So, in the end, I'll go with the jazz. She and Cook Jr. make some creepy, amazing music together.
Final Six Words:
The grime glitters most of all