Phantom Lady

Released Jan. 28, 1944: PHANTOM LADY, starring Franchot Tone, Ella Raines, and Alan Curtis. Directed by Robert Siodmak (The Dark Mirror, Criss Cross, The File on Thelma Jordan). Alan Curtis finds himself alone in a New York bar with two tickets to a show, but no date. PhantomLadyThe only other customer in the bar is a well-dressed woman (Fay Helm) wearing an unusual hat. Curtis tries to make conversation with her, but she is no mood to speak. However, Curtis eventually convinces her to accompany him to the show, no strings attached. At the end of the evening, Curtis parts with the woman, never learning her name, and comes home to find his wife strangled and three police detectives (Thomas Gomez, Regis Toomey, and Joseph Crehan) waiting for him. Curtis’ only alibi for the evening is the mysterious woman. Unfortunately, none of the people who saw them together – the bartender (Andrew Tombes), cab driver (Matt McHugh), drummer in the show (Elisha Cook Jr.), star of the show (Aurora Miranda) – remember seeing the woman. With no material alibi, Curtis is easily convicted and sentenced to be hanged. His secretary (Ella Raines), who is secretly in love with him, is convinced he was framed and decides to find the mysterious woman and expose the truth. This is a low budget noir but Siodmak succeeds in rising above many of the production limitations through first-rate cinematography.  The sequence where Raines follows Tombes through the streets at night is beautifully shot, making the most of what black and white cinematography has to offer, and is full of iconic noir imagery in almost every frame. Another exquisitely shot scene is Raines’ visit to Curtis in prison, which is an excellent example of how minimal elements: a barred window, streaming light, metal railing, and lots of darkness, can convey so much. Raines is the star of the show here. Once Curtis is convicted, it becomes her story, and she does an admirable job of taking the helm. Tone however, plays it a little too over the top – overtly obsessing over his hands and contorting his face whenever his brain experiences a short circuit. He is certainly creepy enough, but his portrayal of a demented murderer is more akin to a silent movie villain than a modern tortured soul of noir. One of our favorite character actors, Elisha Cook Jr., delivers a memorable and entertaining performance as a drummer who seems to have an endless supply of unbridled energy. Gomez deserves mention as the police detective who assists Raines. Unlike the typical portrayal of detectives in 1940s films, he is an understanding and sympathetic character, making him the perfect anchor for Raines and a counterbalance to Tone’s bizarre portrayal. Phantom Lady is very obviously a low-budget noir, but it is saved by an interesting story, creative cinematography, and a great supporting cast. If you can overlook some awkward dialog scenes and the occasional threadbare production values, you’ll find this to be a very good noir film. We give Phantom Lady 3.5 out of 5 fedoras.

3.5 Fedoras

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