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

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Book Review: Five Came Back

Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War (2014) by Mark Harris

I had incredibly high expectations for Mark Harris' latest book on film history. His previous work, Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, was one of the most praised books of 2009. I have vivid memories of buying it for my mom for Christmas, thinking to myself, "It's about movies in 1967, Mom was a young woman in 1967, she'll like it." Well, it wasn't two hours after Mom unwrapped it that I ended up being the one sitting cross-legged under the tree and reading away, utterly engrossed. Eventually, I did let her read it, but then I promptly stole it back. It's now got a permanent place of honor on my bookshelf. I've also been reading Harris' Grantland articles for some time; he's one of the few film critics I've found who can dissect Oscar races without sounding like a jaded traveler on the world's longest and most boring tour bus. So when I found out that Harris was going to be tackling a new full-length subject in Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, I marked my calendar. Expectations like that have crushed books far less modest than this one. So I'm happy to say that Five Came Back is every bit the book I hoped it would be.

Like Pictures at a Revolution, Five Came Back zeroes in on five very different subjects, weaving their histories together and giving full weight to the dreams and ambitions that drove them. But Pictures at a Revolution was the story of a competition; it was the battle between five Best Picture nominees and their radically different attempts to reach out to the audiences of 1967. Here, Harris once again goes back to the number five, giving us the tale of how five Hollywood directors walked away from successful careers and into World War II: John Ford, Frank Capra, William Wyler, John Huston, and George Stevens. But while there was a spirit of friendly competition between these men, it paled next to the camaraderie and artistic respect they all shared. Five Came Back is one of those rare books about Hollywood that can look unflinchingly at the foibles and ambitions of its insiders and lets you walk away feeling more fond of them, not less.

The opening chapters of Five Came Back invite irresistible comparisons to those "assemble a crack team" montages that you would get in a caper film. Even the directors' personalities easily graft onto the old archetypes. You have John Ford, the crotchety mentor figure, dropping paternal and ever-contradictory bits of wisdom. Frank Capra, the energetic and ravenously ambitious promoter. William Wyler, the cerebral perfectionist and, as a European Jew, the only one with a personal connection to the war. John Huston, the hard-drinking, cocksure daredevil, looking to prove himself in battle. George Stevens, the thoughtful and quietly troubled introvert. All of these men voluntarily left Hollywood, putting their own viability and reputation as artists on hold, in order to go overseas and document the war.

World War II was the first time in American history that filmmakers were enlisted in the art of packaging a a war for the American public. It was their images that brought home to viewers the reality of the situation abroad, even as that reality was pressed and molded into a patriotic vision. All of them knew and embraced the fact that they were enlisted in order to make propaganda. Before he started work on his series of wartime documentary films, Frank Capra watched Triumph of the Will and walked away shaken to the core. "I could see where the kids of Germany would go to any place, die for this guy...they knew what they were doing--they understood how to reach the do I reach the American kid down the street?" The challenge of wartime filmmaking was always to find that perfect combination, balancing the need to educate with the need to entertain. If filmmakers were too brutal with their imagery, the Army protested and refused to let the films be released. If they resorted to reenactments and corny dialogue, the increasingly-jaded audiences back home would jeer at them.

One of the more fascinating and endearing elements of Five Came Back is watching these men forget the demands of the war and succumb to their own artistic instincts. William Wyler, no one's idea of a reckless he-man, ended up risking himself time and time again crouched in a bomber plane, angling for the best shots. It would eventually cost him the hearing in one ear. John Huston was criticized by the War Department because his groundbreaking war film, The Battle of San Pietro, with its emphasis on death and destruction, was "anti-war." Huston snapped back that if he ever made a film that was pro-war, he hoped someone would take him out and shoot him. No matter the physical danger or the army bureaucracy or the interests of the public. Ford, Wyler, Huston, Capra, and Stevens found ways to practice their art.

Despite his full-throttle devotion to the war and the acclaim given to his documentary series Why We Fight, Frank Capra emerges as the only director whose career never recovered from the war. He was the only one of the five who never actually got to film anything on the front lines. Instead, his Army career was spent organizing, wrangling resources, and fighting with government officials. It's hard to feel sorry for anyone as endlessly bombastic and self-aggrandizing as Capra but after reading Harris, I couldn't help but sympathize with the man. Unlike the rest of his colleagues, Capra's post-war career was a straight slope down, fulfilling all his secret insecurities. His bag of tricks no longer charmed audiences. The new interest in realism and soul-searching had no place in Capra's fables. Harris pointedly makes a comparison between the first films Wyler and Capra made after their return. Wyler made a strikingly realistic film about the toll of war on ordinary people. Capra made a fantasy about a man who's lost his youthful dreams and craves the assurance that he's still needed by the world.

George Stevens, despite being somewhat neglected by critics over the past several decades (Stevens is the only director featured here with just one full-length biography to his name) stands out as perhaps the most fascinating character in Five Came Back. Stevens had built up his name as a director of sophisticated comedies, working his way up from Laurel and Hardy shorts to Fred Astaire musicals (including the indelible Swing Time) and polished romances like Vivacious Lady, Woman of the Year, and The More the Merrier. Despite his gift for humor, Stevens in person was contradictory and taciturn. He had a habit of falling into a trance-like state on his movie sets while he pondered what had gone wrong. Carole Lombard memorably summed it up: “I just (realized) what that pacing and thoughtful look of Stevens’ means—not a goddamn thing!"

Unlike Huston and Ford, Stevens went into the war without really craving adventure or a test of manly hardship. He was an asthmatic and a family man (Harris quotes extensively from Stevens' affectionate letters to his son back home and it's hard not to like Stevens after reading them). Yet it was Stevens who ended up taking his cameras into the unforeseen horrors of Dachau. It was Stevens who kept his eye to the lens, compulsively recording everything he saw, allowing nobody else to relieve him. "You can send three or four guys out with some weapons to do something, but I couldn't send anybody into the goddamn boxcar," Stevens remembered later. "I had to do it." Audiences of the time would barely get even a glimpse of Stevens' footage. Instead, the reels would be played for the judges at Nuremberg. As for Stevens, after he returned, he never watched the Dachau films again. And he never made another comedy.

The title of Harris' book is Five Came Back, not Five Went to War, and the distinction is an important one. When Wyler, Ford, Capra, Stevens, and Huston came back home, they were irrevocably changed from the men they'd been before. They'd played many roles throughout the war. Sometimes they'd been the decorated officers and sometimes they'd been the lonely cameramen, scrambling for just one perfect shot. They were the stoic witnesses to suffering and the impassioned artists demanding attention. None of them were saints. None of them were born soldiers. But they went to the front anyway and the images they saw would stay with them for the rest of their lives. And fortunately for us, they used what they learned, came back, and gave us some of the greatest movies ever made.

Final Six Words:

Reasoned and just, entertaining and essential

Note: I received an advance copy of this book from The Penguin Press (Penguin Group). It is available for purchase from Amazon and Barnes & Noble