Friday, March 21, 2014

Movie Review: Phantom Lady

Phantom Lady (1944)
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...

Ella Raines is one of Hollywood's more intriguing almost-success stories. The slinky brunette beauty with cat-like green eyes turns up in endless '40s glamor photos and she has some major movies to her name (Brute Force, Hail the Conquering Hero) but somehow she never became a box office draw on her own. Raines was discovered by Howard Hawks and the connection makes total sense when you see her on screen. Even in movies like Phantom Lady and The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry, where she plays straight-talking "good eggs," there's an icy confidence to Raines, a challenging sneer lurking under the smile. She doesn't necessarily come across as a major acting talent but that cool charisma was tailor-made for a Hawks heroine. And yet oddly enough, after building her up for a minor role in Corvette K-225, Hawks apparently lost interest and signed her over to Universal. Phantom Lady was really her first major starring role and in retrospect, one of the best parts she would ever get.

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. 

A more traditional movie might simply have had the secretary going around and politely questioning people. Instead, Phantom Lady gives us a fascinating series of scenes where Kansas relentless stalks one of the witnesses, the barman who claims never to have seen the mystery woman. Night after night, she turns up at the bar and sit, her eyes fixed on him. Cold, implacable, silent. The barman slowly starts to crack up under the pressure. What does this dame want from him? One night, he goes home after locking up the bar and she starts to follow him. No matter how far he walks, he can hear the click of her heels behind him. Raines looks delicate and vulnerable in the flickering shadows, wrapped in her translucent raincoat and yet, for once, the frightened woman in the alley is also the pitiless avenger. I won't give away what happens when Raines finally catches up to her man but it's enough to send a shiver down your back.

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.

Generally, I'm a sucker for the whole wisecracking-secretary-in-love-with-her-boss plot. Movies like Footlight Parade, Wife vs. Secretary, and even something recent like Iron Man just get their hooks into me and I couldn't tell you why. But man, Ella Raines could hardly have picked a less interesting object of her affections than Alan Curtis. You can pretty much sum up Curtis and his performance in an early scene where the police roughly question him over his wife's murder. His eyes fill with tears and he mumbles, "I thought guys didn't cry." The line is silly enough as it is, but Curtis' trembling delivery sends it straight into "teenager who just got cut from the football team" territory. And then one of the cops practically jams a cigarette in Curtis' mouth, like someone silencing a squalling infant with a baby bottle. I feel like somewhere out there is an outtake of this scene with the cop rolling his eyes and saying, "Christ, man, will you at least try to remember what kind of movie we're in here?"

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.

Favorite Quote:

"What a place. I can feel the rats in the walls."

Favorite Scene:

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


  1. Terrific review and pictures . I love this film and think it is Ella Raines ' best role.
    I'm like Alan Curtis and wish he had got better parts in Hollywood.

    1. Thanks for the kind comments, Vienna. You're especially sweet considering that I do beat up on it a bit and Alan Curtis, too. Sometimes the snark just runs away with me. In all honesty, I think he got stuck with a not very interesting role; if the movie had set up his relationship with Kansas in the beginning, it would make the romance and the character stronger. And yeah, I think overall, I did enjoy the movie and I would recommend it.

  2. I almost missed your post. I'm glad I read it. Ella Raines had always seemed interesting to me, even though I didn't know anything about her and movies, other than this one, didn't give her much to do. Then I read a book called Fighter Pilot by Robin Olds. Ella and Robin were married for 29 years, and it was a tempestuous union, as they used to say in the tabloids. She had a strong and not always positive influence on his career, which I won't spoil for anyone who might read the book. And I always say I'll watch anything with Elisha Cook, Jr. Thank you for sharing this with us.

    1. That's interesting info about Raines. She certainly comes across as an interesting presence onscreen. It seems like she was mainly utilized for her beauty but she had this steely confidence that I find appealing. And I agree, Elisha Cook Jr. ups any movie's cool factor.

  3. I loved your description "Mata Hari, Nancy Drew, and the Terminator"

    Enjoyed the review. And I agree completely about the hat.Curse you, you cruel silly hat leaver-outers! (shakes fist)

    Thanks for participating!

    1. Thanks so much for hosting, Frizti! You were incredibly sweet to let me post so late and to still come back to comment. Yeah, why must the costume department be so cruel to us lovers of crazy hats? It's an outrage, I tell you.

  4. I've just seen Ella Raines in 'Hail the Conquering Hero', so would be interested to see her in this too. Despite being critical, your review makes the film sound well worth seeing, and I will aim to do so. Enjoyed reading this, Aubyn!

    1. I still haven't seen Hail the Conquering Hero, although it's on my list. I would definitely say this movie is worth a look and if you're a fan of Raines, Siodmak, or just film noir in general, it's plenty of fun.

  5. The Phantom Lady works better on the page than it does on the screen, which isn't uncommon with Cornell Woolrich. The hat is a good example. In the book, it's described like this:

    "The unusual thing about her was the hat. It resembled a pumpkin, not only in shape and size, but in color. It was flaming orange, so vivid it almost hurt the eyes. It seemed to light up the whole bar, like a low-hanging garden party lantern. Stemming from the exact center of it was a long thin cockerel feather, sticking straight up like the antenna of an insect. Not one woman in a thousand would have braved that color. She not only did, she got away with it. She looked startling, but good, not funny. The rest of her was toned down, reticent in black, almost invisible against the beacon of a hat. Perhaps the thing was a symbol of some sort of liberation to her. Perhaps the mood that went with it was, "When I have this on, watch out for me. The sky's the limit!"

    In any event, I do love the film. It's a gorgeous film. One of the noir-est looking films ever. And Ella Raines is near and dear to my heart, in part because I've been told that I look like her (I wish!). This film has one of the best puns in film, too. The Phantom Lady of the title is named "Miss Terry." I love that. She's the very essence of a Maguffin.

    1. If I'd known my Phantom Lady post would bring an esteemed Woolrich expert such as yourself to the table, I would have come better prepared. Your old posts on Woolrich got me interested enough to dig up some of his short stories which in turn got me interested in movie adaptations so it's like it all comes full circle. And yes, even if I did harp on the film's plot a little, it is absolutely lovely to the eyes. I really could have gone into the visual aspects more but if I had, it would be hard to stop. I just love Siodmak's images so much.

      Thanks for stopping by and treating us to that wonderful excerpt, Vulnavia. Now I want to see someone recreate Woolrich's pumpkin hat! Any hat designers out there?

    2. Aubyn, I've been a fan of Ella Raines since I first saw her in IMPACT with Brian Donlevy, and even though it it could use a little tweak or two at times, I feel that Raines is awesome in her bravura performance. She's the coolest noir gal in movies, for my money, because she's so resourceful and determined, and she makes a very convincing "hep kitten" when necessary! :-) For the recond, my dear late mom was a fashion model and milliner, and she could've given the "Phanton Lady" a run for her money! :-) BRAVA to you on a compelling post!

    3. I've been wanting to see Impact, so thanks for the recommendation. I've been kind of intrigued by Raines since watching The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry. In that one, it's very interesting to watch her contrasted against Geraldine Fitzgerald; Raines is sleek, modern, and cool, and Fitzgerald has this sweet, old-fashioned beauty mixed with a crazy, neurotic energy. Raines was unquestionably the good one in that movie but even then, she shades it just enough to make you wonder how much she loves Sanders.

      Your mom was a fashion model? And a hat designer? Wow, that's amazing. Any chance you have some pictures posted?

  6. Aubyn, now you have me wanting to check out THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF UNCLE HARRY, too! I'll send you a picture or two of my mom from her heyday over the weekend; I hope you'll enjoy it! And what the heck, as long as I've mentioned IMPACT, here's a link to it from a fairly recent Tales of the Easily Distracted:
    Thanks, Aubyn, and keep your superb posts coming! :-D

    1. Aubyn, since you asked so nicely, I've posted one of my favorite glamorous pictures of my dear late mom in one of her most fabulous chapaux! You can see it on either my Facebook page as "Dorian Kathleen Bartilucci Tenore-Bartilucci", and/or look for me on my blogpost, TALES OF THE EASILY DISTRACTED, of course! (I apologize in advance if I unwittingly made this too complicated! :-))