There is a cruelty to Phantom Lady that really takes you by surprise, particularly at this distance. Many of the noir pictures from the 1940s follow a similar template. In some senses, Robert Siodmak’s murder mystery is no exception, yet there is a vicious bite to this that belies the old-fashioned tone of it in places.
The story, adapted from the novel by Cornell Woolrich, is tried and true. Scott Henderson (Adam Curtis), an average joe, has a row with his wife and storms out to clear his head. He meets a random strange woman and offers to take her to the pictures (as you do…) only to return home to find his wife has been savagely strangled. The cops think he’s the prime suspect but Scott of course has an alibi. Only guess what? The ‘phantom lady’ is nowhere to be found, as is Scott’s alibi…
Siodmak subsequently plays the film out as a mystery narrative through the eyes of his secretary, the devoted ‘Kansas’, to find the real killer before Scott is sent to the electric chair after being convicted of the murder. But here’s where Phantom Lady bucks convention: Usually the gumshoe is a male on the search for clues, with the person in peril a woman (often vulnerable or a femme fatale). Ella Raines’ Kansas is that gumshoe, following leads and even going undercover as a floozy at one point to entrap someone complicit in the conspiratorial truth behind what really happened to Scott’s wife. That, in itself, is unusual and somewhat ahead of its time.
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At the same time Raines looks every inch the kind of woman you would find in such a noir; classically attractive (though not quite beautiful like a Gene Tierney for example) and strong of will, yet physically and emotionally vulnerable when ultimately confronted by the dark truth. She still needs a man to save and protect her in the end, which is where Siodmak’s film returns to formula. Nevertheless, Phantom Lady feels different in this regard in how it positions its leading lady.
Moreover, it also brings you into the truth as the audience earlier than the characters themselves. Franchot Tone frankly gives a performance which balances unhinged, now comical hammy playing to the gallery with truly frightening calm and poise; he is absolutely an early version of a Hannibal Lecter, the detached, urbane, genuinely quite mad serial killer possessed of a psychological god complex Phantom Lady can only hint at. “What is any life worth next to mine?” he memorably opines in the final denouement; and it chills your blood. Siodmak can’t help but make him a pantomime threat at times but the DNA of more nuanced, memorable screen psychopaths is clear in Tone’s character and performance.
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Arrow Academy manage to eke out in this transfer plenty of the creeping shadows and dark, looming shots Siodmak uses to help weave his narrative, and their release features two great pieces of additional material – ‘Dark and Deadly: 50 Years of Film Noir’, an archival documentary littered with stars, plus a rare, hour-long radio dramatisation of Phantom Lady from 1944 starring stars of the film Ella Raines and Franchot Tone, plus you get a promotional stills gallery, a reversible sleeve with two artwork options, and a collector’s booklet with new writing on the film from author Alan K. Rode (which sadly we didn’t get to examine).
Though it may have faded somewhat in the annals of film noir, Phantom Lady really is one to go back and rediscover, as its fingerprints are on plenty of work in the decades on from it.
Phantom Lady is now available from Arrow Academy.