Phantom Lady (1944)

*. I think we’re all familiar with the femme fatale in film noir. Less celebrated, because far less common, is her opposite. I don’t know if this character has a name, but she is a dominant force for good who doesn’t aim at the destruction of the sappy male lead but rather works to effect his salvation.
*. Lucille Ball’s character in The Dark Corner is one such figure, and in this movie “Kansas” Richman, played by Ella Raines, is an even stronger example of the type. When her boss, a man she has long carried a torch for, is sent to death row for the murder of his wife she has to prove his innocence by locating a “phantom lady” who can provide him with an alibi.

*. In his essay on Phantom Lady Alastair Phillips begins by noting how the novel the film was based on was by Cornell Woolrich (under the pseudonym William Irish), who had also written the short story that inspired Rear Window, and that it had been produced by Hitchcock’s former secretary Joan Harrison. This leads to the following observation: “both films have similarly passive male leads and active female protagonists called upon to take a determining performative role in order to resolve the central narrative enigma.”
*. I think we can state what’s going on here in even stronger terms. Jeff is somewhat passive in Rear Window (he does what he can, given the condition he’s in), but Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) is totally absent throughout most of Phantom Lady, being in jail awaiting execution. A couple of years later, in Black Angel (which basically has the same story, also by Cornell Woolrich), the female lead would at least have the assistance of a male partner. But here the police detective Burgess (Thomas Gomez) is no help to Kansas at all in her investigations. Kansas is a one-woman show, making the corny ending with her glowing over Scott’s proposal literally being dictated to her by way of Dictaphone, even more ridiculous than it is conventional.

*. The rest of the movie is very uneven, though Robert Siodmak’s very capable direction gives a touch of style and coherence. The main problems have to do with the plot, which sort of wanders in and out of focus. Scott is convicted on what seems to be some pretty flimsy evidence. In fact, I’m not sure what evidence there was, aside from his being married to the murdered woman. The cops who show up at his apartment, however, are so sleazy that I wouldn’t put it past them to have planted something.
*. The crazed killer, imaginatively rendered by a game Franchot Tone, has no real motivation, aside from being a psycho artist. Best not to trust those types. Indeed, the movie has a pretty casual attitude toward psychology, from the detective’s theorizing over paranoiacs to the depressed, or just excessively grieving, Miss Terry (that is: “mystery”).
*. But there are highlights as well. Elisha Cook, Jr. steals every scene he’s in, as per usual. Here he’s a skirt-chasing drummer who memorably beats himself off at a night club when the leggy Kansas goes into vamp mode. Apparently there is some argument over whether Dave Coleman or Buddy Rich were playing the drums on the soundtrack. That people puzzle over this is natural if you watch Cook, because he obviously isn’t playing the drums.

*. I’m not much of a car guy, but my eyes did widen a bit at Franchot Tone’s ride. Trivia tells me it’s a 1941 Cadillac Series 62 Convertible De Luxe Coupe. Wow.
*. Presenting the trial as a series of reaction shots was kind of neat. What really impressed me though was the clerk taking shorthand. How many people even know shorthand today? I have to think that’s a vanishing skill, if not effectively extinct.
*. Above average noir, with enough original elements (even if they are kind of silly) to be entertaining. Raines is good in the lead. There are some effective sequences, including one really good pursuit that winds up on an elevated train platform. The story doesn’t hold together at all, but it’s a quick bit of fun.

11 thoughts on “Phantom Lady (1944)

    1. Alex Good Post author

      I have it on DVD. Part of some noir collection. Actually, 90% of what I comment on here comes from DVD. I’m an old school guy in that regard..

      Tone is very weird here. There actually isn’t much similarity between this movie and Rear Window. I just picked up on that because of what Phillips had to say about the importance of the female leads in pushing the action forward. But here it’s even more advanced, as Kansas does everything.

  1. Tom Moody

    Woolrich had another story with a take-charge woman righting wrongs: The Bride Wore Black.
    Phantom Lady, Black Angel and Bride, respectively, differ mainly in the extent to which the heroine operates within legal bounds.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Oh, man. It’s been so long since I’ve seen The Bride Wore Black. Must be close to thirty years. I’d forgotten (or didn’t know) it was based on a Woolrich story. Phantom Lady and Black Angel are a lot more similar, at least in terms of plot, in that they both have a woman trying to save their guy from death row. In Bride she really is a femme fatale.

  2. Tom Moody

    The Black Angel also uses femme fatale wiles to clear her husband. She is not as malevolent as the Bride but definitely wallows on the dark side. I believe the character is darker in the novel but both the film and the book end on an ambiguous note concerning her manipulations in the service of justice.
    I went on a Woolrich binge a while back and still haven’t recovered. *Do not* read Rendezvous in Black if you want to feel good about being alive.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      I’m not sure if I’ve read any of Woolrich’s novels. I’ve been through a bunch of his stories. I guess I like noir in small doses. I read that he was upset at how Black Angel was adapted.

  3. Tom Moody

    Except for Rear Window, which is a mere sketch fully-fleshed-out by Hitchcock, Woolrich wasn’t well-served by Hollywood. In fairness, his are the kind of stories that immediately inspire the question, “how can we tone this down?” But once you do that the whole meaning changes.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      There was this period where any “dark” novel was watered down by Hollywood. I remember there was a Mad Magazine parody that did a really funny Book/Movie parody years ago. Thanks to the Internet, I found it here:

      I think that nails it! (There’s more to it than this though. The guy in the book kills his wife with a knife, in the movie with a pistol, etc.)

  4. Tom Moody

    Agreed, Mad nailed it. One thing that still drives me nuts in current movies and TV is the penchant for putting characters in clean, well-furnished upper middle class houses and apartments. I understood that in the 1930s Depression people enjoyed Ernst Lubitsch-style elegance for escape and wish-fulfillment but since then expectations changed somewhat, and movies supposedly became more realistic. Many of today’s “gritty” or even science fiction stories still have people living in shelter magazine-fabulous dwellings. From Village of the Damned, with George Sanders tickling the ivories in his lavish study, to Arrival, with “linguist” Amy Adams living in split-level splendor, the skeptical audience is supposed to suspend disbelief for the sake of the un-skeptical audience’s need for material escape. Or something.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Years ago there was an At the Movies episode where Gene and Roger were bitching about their least favourite movie clichés. Gene offered up the fabulous homes and apartments that middle class (or lower) people lived in. The example he gave (I can’t remember the movie now) was a bike courier who lived in this ginormous loft apartment in New York. We’re all upwardly mobile on the big screen.


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