Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Noir-a-Thon: Phantom Lady (1944)

This weeks entry for our Noir-a-Thon is Phantom Lady. The first movie adapted from a novel by Cornell Woolrich (using the pseudonym William Irish) and the first major American movie directed by another European emigre, Robert Siodmak, this is the kind of adaptation you would have expected from a more experienced pairing.

Director: Robert Siodmak
Starring: Franchot Tone, Ella Raines, Elisha Cook Jr., Alan Curtis
Country of origin: USA
Language: English

Synopsis: An innocent man is accused of murder but his anonymous alibi cannot be found, sending him to death row. His trusty secretary must discover the truth and save his bacon.

What Indie Nights? review

Hello BBBG readers. This is your captain speaking. Your random fact for this week is that Sarawak, a Malaysian state in Borneo, was ruled for over 100 years by a British family, who were given the Rajah-ship as a thankyou gift by a Sultan and known as the White Rajahs. Honestly, I couldn't make this stuff up.

This week we were treated to the finest noir we've seen in a long time. Even my mum liked it. She was shouting at the screen, telling characters Don't go in there! and Look out! It takes a lot for my mum to stay awake throughout a whole movie, friends, so I wouldn't take this praise lightly.

Phantom Lady (1944)

This film was excellent. I don't even think it was the contrast with the limp and confusing Ministry of Fear from last week, or the subtle and somewhat romantic Laura from the week before. It was genuinely tense, suspenseful and absolutely gorgeous - the cinematography was spellbinding!

Our hero this week is an architect known as Scott Henderson, whose hair is so full of pomade you could see your reflection in it, should you feel so inclined. Seriously, even being in prison has no effect on the shininess of his hair. Dude was dedicated. His wife is strangled while he's out one night, and his only alibi is a woman whom he met in a bar, who insisted on 'no names' and who can't be found for love nor money by the police, Mr Henderson, or his spunky secretary Kansas (not her real name, but it's what he calls her and I can't remember the actual character's name. What do you think I am, superman?)

Phantom Lady (1944)

It is this mystery woman who drives the plot - it is her absence that causes Mr Henderson's alibi to be doubted, her presence as we saw it that convinces us of his innocence. When witnesses whom we know saw them together start telling the police he was alone that night, we start to suspect her - why is she having them paid off to stay silent, we wonder? What kind of a monstrous lady-criminal would sit by and watch an innocent man go down for the murder of his wife when a word from her would save him? This is certainly the most ingenious use of the femme fatale motif we've seen so far: the femme in question is absent the entire way through, allowing us all the time in the world to attribute shady and terrible motives to her actions.

The truth is rather different, of course, and I won't lie, even I saw it coming a mile off, and I'm not known, shall we say, for astuteness when it comes to signposts in filmmaking. The murderer and the motive are as clear as day - in fact we know who it is for the final third of the film - and yet this does nothing at all to detract from the suspense and tightly-wound nature of the plot. Knowing who it is just gives us more chances to say 'Don't go in there!!' to the innocent characters (thanks Mum).

Phantom Lady (1944)

While the film was visually stunning, I'd like to dedicate my final paragraph to Kansas the secretary. She's resourceful, dedicated and chipper, never giving up on her quest to exonerate her boss. I've noticed lately that there seem to be as many of these positive female characters in our noirs as there are the femmes fatale. I'd go so far as to say they were, thus far, as big a part of the noir canon as the fatales, quite often playing opposite them in the 'dowdy' or 'clever' girl roles, never getting to sparkle, but quite often getting to stay alive. I don't know about you, but I'd rather be dowdy and alive than glamorous and dead. Unless I got to be Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express, in which case I'd happily die any awful femme fatale death you dreamt up for me. They tend to get shot in the stomach from extremely close range, I find.
I almost think this anti-fatale character deserves its own name - femme vitale? If there are any French-speakers out there who could give me a legitimate opposite to fatale, I'm open to ideas. Cherchez la femme, so to speak...

Phantom Lady (1944)

Blahblahblahtoby review

If last weeks movie was as convoluted in its plot as the noir mode of film making gets then Phantom Lady is, so far at least, the height of the noir style.

Siodmak and his director of photography, Elwood Bredell, led the way in expressionist lighting and powerful use of shadows, laying down a template for future directors who dreamed of making it big in the film noir cycle. To date in the noir-a-thon we have seen some incredibly powerful visuals, even in last weeks Ministry of Fear we saw Fritz Lang and his darkened room/brightly lit hallway, but they were sporadic at best. Phantom Lady is almost a non-stop barrage of breath taking images. I was constantly making mental notes of which shots should be screen captured and in the end gave up trying to remember because there were so many.

Phantom Lady (1944)

The story of a wrongly accused man could be called Kafkaesque, the nightmare scenario of entrapment, wrongful imprisonment and knowing that nobody believes your story is one that we've all seen rehashed many times over the years but that does not detract from the power of rooting for the entrapped, even if he is a rich architect living in a similar milieu to Laura and not the grimy, poverty stricken streets that are usually associated with noir.

This is middle class crime once more and our male protagonist is just another man, passively accepting his fate like one of those once proud jungle cats seen in third rate zoos. In comparison the performance of Ella Raines as the secretary of the accused architect is superb. She is everything a man might expect to be in a Hollywood movie; strong, determined, resourceful etc and puts her cowering paramour to shame as he awaits execution.

Phantom Lady (1944)

Franchot Tone as the bad guy is merely OK, I know they had a different way of telling and showing in movies back in the 40's but I really don't think the way they accentuated the "my hands are itching to kill" aspect of his character stands the test of time. In a polished, highly professional piece of modern cinema this throwback to the silent expressionism of something like Fritz Lang's M just feels out of place.

The stand out scene is the slightly surreal jazz club sequence in which Ella Raines, dressed to look as trashy as possible is on a date with Elisha Cook Jr. in an attempt to find out some information from him. They go to a jazz club where Cook plays drums. The entire sequence stands out for its tight framing, dutch angles, expressionist lighting and Elisha Cook Jr.'s frenetic banging on his drums; his face echoing the main character from the Dali/Bunuel piece Un Chien Andalou as he approaches climax, all alluding to sexual behaviour that was unable to be shown in a more straight forward way. It certainly beats a train going through a tunnel.

Phantom Lady (1944)

Of all the lesser known films so far on this journey through noir this is the one I would insist on you watching, it's superb. The more time that passes since I screened it the better it gets in my mind. The visuals alone are worth drooling over time and time again, even the shots without Ms Raines.

Feel free to discuss these incredible images or our fabulous words in the blahs below

And now for some coming attractions


  1. Hey all, this one I hadn't even heard of, but the descriptions and the screen shots are definitely persuasive. I'm going to have to get this one on my list. Siodmak is far more known for The Killers, which I'm not a big fan of, but this one looks really good.

  2. @JON - thanks for coming by, I enjoyed this one so much that I partially dumped the analytical aspect of my reviews through pure enthusiasm. I hope you enjoy it. It was hard work trying to find a copy to buy though, ended up paying a premium price.

    Interesting that you mention the killers. Its on the noir-a-thon list twice (46 & 64) and I recently read the Hemingway collection that the story appears in, its certainly going to be one of the more intriguing investigations of this adventure.

  3. Yeah I know a lot of people like The Killers and it was top 5 in the Wonders in the Dark countdown earlier this year. They did a top 50 film noir. For some reason The Killers doesn't work for me, but we can get into that in a few weeks I'm sure.

  4. Have you got a link to that countdown? I don't think I saw it.

  5. Wow, that train station screen shot alone would have convinced me. This is another one to add to my watch list.

    Leah, how about 'femme maternelle'?

  6. Bonjour Tristesse: Good one! I had a moment there where I Google translated it (though I'm sure I could have figured it out for myself...) and then started dictionary.comming 'fatal', 'vital', etc, but I think your suggestion is better!

    It gets that sense of the opposite, the cold calculating femme fatale contrasted with the warm helpful femme maternelle. Of course I'm not a huge fan of pigeonholing women into these overt stereotypes, but for a lot of noir signifiers it works really well. Definitely top of the list thus far!

  7. I've only heard about this one but haven't seen it. Looks really good though, I was at a soiree last night and we were talking about film noir, this would be a good example of that. Gorgeous posters too, man they used to be so creative and artsy! Well done, Toby.

  8. "Phantom Lady" is brilliant, and is easily one of the best Cornell Woolrich adaptations ever made. Ella Raines is unforgettable in it.