Arrow Video: Phantom Lady (1944) - Reviewed

German Expressionism, that artistic wave which swept through all of German theater, film and art in general from the early 1900s, can be found in the bloodstream of Film-Noir which rose in popularity as a subgenre of crime thrillers.  Like the Expressionist movement, Film-Noir often focused on bleaker themes filmed in low-key black-and-white emphasizing shadowy figures lurking in the dark amid smoke or fog.  Usually the film takes place within the city and involves a convoluted plotline with characters in peril and/or double-crossing in a game of theft or murder.  

Much of it emerged at the height of the Great Depression, around the time much of the German film industry began emigrating to the United States in the wake of the Nazi takeover of the country.  It should come as no surprise one of Hollywood’s top purveyors of the Film-Noir subgenre, Robert Siodmak, was one of those German auteurs who fled Hitler’s regime on two different occasions and applied his Expressionist techniques to one of the greatest contributions to the subgenre with his 1944 whodunit noir thriller Phantom Lady.

Based on the 1942 novel by Cornell Woolrich and adapted by Caged screenwriter Bernard C. Schoenfield, Phantom Lady tells the story of devoted office secretary Carol “Kansas” Richman (Ella Raines) who finds herself on a desperate mission to clear the name of her wrongfully convicted boss, Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis).  Charged with murdering his wife after one of neckties is found at the crime scene, Kansas enlists the help of her boss’ best friend Jack Marlow (Franchot Tone) who may know more about the death of his friend’s wife than he leads on. 

Remembered largely as Siodmak’s first Hollywood noir and the first film produced by Joan Harrison, Alfred Hitchcock’s former secretary and script assistant before she became one of Universal Pictures’ earliest female executives.  Boasting slick, moody cinematography by Woody Bredell and running at a brisk eighty-seven minutes, Phantom Lady bears all the trademarks people have come to expect from Film-Noir from shadowy chase sequences, long corridors with mercurial figures lurking in the distance, the echoes of footsteps in concrete alleyways.  All in all, it’s a heavy, choking atmosphere of the night life interspersed with shadowy nightclubs where danger seems just around the corner.

Performances from the three leads are strong with Mutiny on the Bounty star Franchot Tone, looking very like Joe Turkel’s doppelganger, providing a.  Ella Raines as Kansas makes for a plucky heroine unafraid to place herself in harm’s way to save her employer’s life before running the full gamut of intimidating to enticing and back again.  

Take for instance a prolonged sequence where she stares down and follows the bartender who served her boss the night of the murder, with her heavy undaunted brow with eyes glowering up from underneath.  You feel the menace coming off of her face in those scenes and for a moment aren’t sure if she’s transforming into a femme fatale.  Later still when she dresses provocatively and stares down drummer Cliff (William Castle regular Elisha Cook, Jr.) with bedroom eyes, their nonverbal exchange is drenched in sexual tension entirely of her creating before she makes her move and inadvertently reveals her real motives.

While the film didn’t fare as favorably with critics at the time (see notoriously cantankerous critic Bosley Crowther’s review), it did however strike a chord with audiences and cemented director Siodmak’s reputation in Hollywood as a solid genre director.  In the years since its initial release Phantom Lady is regarded as one of the quintessential Film-Noir pictures of the 1940s and a stepping stone for director Siodmak.  Though the film is less convoluted than, say, Out of the Past, and isn’t nearly as action packed as Gun Crazy, Phantom Lady is a solid genre film notable for not revealing the central characters until later in the picture and keeping the audience guessing as to where the loyalties of our heroes lie. 

- Andrew Kotwicki