Ella Raines and Alan Curtis star in PHANTOM LADY, directed by Robert Siodmak for Universal Pictures.

Phantom Lady (1944, Robert Siodmak)

There’s a distinct, definite brilliance to Siodmak’s direction. The film itself is unique in casting a woman as the hero in a film noir, essentially Bogart in The Maltese Falcon, while maintaining her as female. Ella Raines’s boss (played, in the film’s only mediocre performance, by Alan Curtis) is falsely convicted, due to perjury. Raines goes after the three perjurers and Siodmak creates, in each case, a magnificent sequence, whether it’s chase or just discomfort. Phantom Lady’s most well-known for the sexually charged scene with Raines and Elisha Cook Jr. at a jam session, but Siodmak’s just as impressive during the subsequent resolution to that scene.

All of or most of Phantom Lady was shot on set and Siodmak even uses matte paintings–quite effectively–for one of the pursuit scenes. Early on, during the trial, Siodmak gets the acknowledgment of artifice out of the way, summarizing the trial with voiceovers, tracking time with a court stenographer’s shorthand, focusing the cameras on Raines and Thomas Gomez (the sympathetic cop). Once that very artificial sequence is out of the way, once the audience has digested it, Siodmak doesn’t have to worry about anyone griping about the sets.

The relationship between Gomez and Raines is particularly interesting, because he’s in that position as the film noir sympathetic cop who shouldn’t be helping but is helping… but he’s also sensitive to Raines’s position (she’s in love with convicted boss Curtis). The two details never conflict for Gomez (and, to some degree, it’s entirely believable Raines would be as dedicated without the emotional investment). It’s a big surprise, seeing such unique gender dynamics in a Universal noir from 1944.

All the performances–besides Curtis’s–are fantastic. Raines is both the Kansas farm girl in love with her boss and the film noir hero without ever toggling between the two. She’s always both… Cook’s good in his scenes, as are Fay Helm and Andrew Tombes. Franchot Tone is great, surrounded by weird statues in an apartment; it looks like the Coens adapted it for Blood Simple.

I think I’ve only seen Phantom Lady once before, but certainly remembered it being good… I just didn’t remember Siodmak’s utterly great direction (or maybe just wasn’t filmically mature enough to appreciate it).

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Siodmak; screenplay by Bernard C. Schoenfeld, based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich; director of photography, Elwood Bredell; edited by Arthur Hilton; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Franchot Tone (Jack Marlow), Ella Raines (Carol Richman), Alan Curtis (Scott Henderson), Aurora Miranda (Estela Monteiro), Thomas Gomez (Inspector Burgess), Fay Helm (Ann Terry), Elisha Cook Jr. (Cliff Milburn), Andrew Tombes (Mac the bartender), Regis Toomey (Detective Chewing Gum), Joseph Crehan (Detective Tom), Doris Lloyd (Madame Kettisha) and Virginia Brissac (Dr. Helen Chase).

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