Saturday, February 28, 2009

Tonight's Movie: Phantom Lady (1944)

Unhappily married Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) is arrested for the murder of his wife. Scott's devoted secretary Carol (Ella Raines) is determined to clear her boss, but in order to do so she must find his mysterious alibi, the PHANTOM LADY. Unfortunately, strange things keep happening to anyone who might have seen the title character.

Resourceful Carol is aided by a police inspector (Thomas Gomez) who has doubts about Scott's guilt. She is also aided by Scott's best friend Jack (top-billed Franchot Tone), but from the time Jack enters the story, 50 minutes into the movie, the viewer knows that Jack is not exactly who he seems.

PHANTOM LADY is a relatively little-known but absolutely wonderful film noir which is filled with rainy streets, shadows on walls, and a gallery of creepy, disreputable characters. The film is very visually striking, including some terrific sets, and is a must-see for fans of the genre.

There are several notable things about the film, such as the unique way a murder trial is depicted, using simply voices, closeups of a court reporter's shorthand notes, and reaction shots of Carol's face. Another sequence in which Elisha Cook Jr. plays the drums, is, er, strangely suggestive. (Leonard Maltin rumors in his 3-1/2 star review that it was dubbed by Buddy Rich.) It's amazing what can be conveyed without showing an inch of skin. The film runs a taut 87 minutes.

I very much enjoyed Ella Raines in this role. I hadn't seen her in a film in a long time and I wish she'd made more of them. Her best-known films include CRY "HAVOC" (which I recently recorded), HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO, TALL IN THE SADDLE, and THE SENATOR WAS INDISCREET. Raines looks a bit like Gene Tierney at times -- when she gussies herself up as a tart she also sounds a bit like Tierney did early in RINGS ON HER FINGERS -- but she has her own unique style. I enjoyed her depiction of a beautiful, feisty woman who wouldn't give up. (I do think she should have been a little smarter in the final sequence, but no plot spoilers there...)

Carrie at Classic Montgomery mentioned that yesterday was the anniversary of Franchot Tone's birth, so it seems apropos to have watched one of his movies this weekend. Tone spent much of his career as a genial leading man or friend of the hero, receiving a Best Actor Oscar nomination for one such role (MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY), and his part as the unbalanced Scott is quite different from the many other films in which I've seen him. I used to think of Tone as rather bland, but have developed a great appreciation for his work over the last couple years and look forward to seeing more of his films.

Alan Curtis -- previously seen in the mid-'30s comedies SMARTEST GIRL IN TOWN and WALKING ON AIR -- is fine as the hapless murder suspect. The supporting cast includes Regis Toomey (a rather uncharacteristic role as a seemingly vacant-headed, gum-chewing police detective), Aurora Miranda (sister of Carmen), Fay Helm, Doris Lloyd, Virginia Brissac, and Victoria Horne.

PHANTOM LADY was directed by Robert Siodmak, who made a number of interesting thrillers, including CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY (1944), THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1945), THE KILLERS (1946), CRY OF THE CITY (1948), and CRISS CROSS (1949).

You can read more about PHANTOM LADY in this entry posted by Steve-O at Noir of the Week.

The movie is based on a story by Cornell Woolrich (REAR WINDOW).

PHANTOM LADY does not yet appear to have had a Region 1 DVD release, but it was released in a beautiful VHS print.

September 2009 Update: Thanks to Tim Coleman for writing and sharing the info he recently learned that it was his dad, Dave Coleman, who dubbed the drum solo.

April 2012 Update: I had another great experience seeing this film as part of a Cornell Woolrich trilogy at the Noir City Film Festival.

December 2012 Update: PHANTOM LADY is now available on DVD from the TCM Vault Collection.


Blogger NoirGirl said...

Great review! This sounds like such an interesting film. I've never even heard of it, much less seen it. :( Sadly, TCM doesn't have it scheduled in the near future, so it seems that I still won't get to see it. I'll be on the lookout for it, though!

Franchot Tone is one of my favorites. He's so debonair and suave.

3:37 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

I hope you're able to catch up with it, it's one of those relatively unheralded movies which is a great piece of entertainment.

Best wishes,

10:51 PM  

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