Sunday, March 24, 2013

Phantom Lady (1944)

Director: Robert Siodmak                             Writer: Bernard C. Schoenfeld
Film Score: Hans Salter                               Cinematography: Elwood Brendell
Starring: Alan Curtis, Franchot Tone, Ella Raines and Thomas Gomez

One of the films that Robert Siodmak made during his brief tenure at Universal, Phantom Lady is one of the studios few noir films. Though not a studio know for noir, Universal did produce a few great ones, including Double Indemnity, This Gun for Hire, and Criss Cross. The story was based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich and features a standard noir setup. A man who had been fighting with his wife, and asked for a divorce, comes home one night to find detectives in his apartment. His wife has been strangled with one of his neckties and the police think he did it. Though he spent the evening with a woman he met in a bar, none of the witnesses seem to remember her.

Alan Curtis plays the man accused and he does a nice job in the first half of the film. But the real detective here is Ella Raines who plays Curtis’s secretary. She won’t give up trying to find out who the phantom lady is. It’s also great to see Thomas Gomez as the police detective who arrests Curtis. He’s one of the great character actors of all time, brilliant in Force of Evil. Fay Helm is the title character, her most well known role next to that of Jenny Williams in The Wolf Man. But the plot doesn’t really pick up until the villain appears, Franchot Tone, and he delivers some of the best lines in the film when he talks about what good and evil that hands can do. It’s chilling.

As a director, Siodmak makes some odd choices, and it’s difficult to know whether they were for artistic or economic reasons. One is during the courtroom scene, where he doesn’t show the court at all. He shows people sitting in the gallery, and alternates that with close up shots of someone’s hand taking down the testimony in shorthand, and thus we only hear what is going on in the court. Obviously this would have saved a lot of money and time shooting, but it’s not very artistically satisfying. Another strange scene has him turning a jazz into a menacing music when Ella Raines is attempting to get information from Elisha Cook, Jr. It’s a similar technique that was used by Orson Welles in Touch of Evil (another Universal noir) but with 50s rock and roll music used to torment Janet Leigh.

The story has a nice twist to it but, as with another Universal picture, The Glass Key, it’s only marginally noir. Siodmak has some nice nighttime setups early in the picture, but the second half of the film is mostly shot in daylight. Hans Salter’s score is sparingly used, and fairly forgettable, which is strange after he goes to the trouble of establishing “I’ll Remember April” as part of the opening theme song. The film is available as part of a Universal triple feature from Turner Classics, the only problem with the mastering being that the sound is too brittle. Raines and Tone and Gomez give solid performances and, though not a great noir film by any means, Phantom Lady is infinitely watchable and enjoyable all the same.

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