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Three stars - for Ella Raines
on 10 July 2013
I bought this DVD solely as a fan of the lovely Ella Raines, who didn't make nearly enough movies in her career, a fact which may sometimes tempt us to overvalue the ones which do exist. And I certainly think that Phantom Lady is overrated by a mile. She is engaging and watchable as always, but sadly the film is a dud and it starts with the script. The underlying plot of an innocent man unable to prove his innocence seems reasonable enough but almost everything else which happens is completely unbelievable. Hitchcock loved to refer to the McGuffin and boy, there's certainly a McGuffin in this film. It's a hat. OK, there's some nice high-contrast night photography and a couple of atmospheric rain-soaked streets, but this can't make up for the real visual weakness of the film which is the very obvious lack of actual location shooting. In too many scenes the painted backdrops and mattes are just a little bit obvious. Besides, no amount of applied style can make up for the fact that the plot is both interminably slow - most of the way the audience will be about two pages ahead of the cast who are having to drag the script along with them - interrupted by sudden plot twists which are unexpected only because they are implausible.
In the one scene everyone writes about, with Elisha Cook Jnr. miming to Gene Krupa's drumming, Ella Raines achieves quite a tour-de-force of acting. She's enticingly convincing as a wild and easy bad girl but also manages simultaneously to convey to the audience (and maybe to reassure the censor as well) that she's actually still a good girl really underneath all that lipgloss, lace and jive frenzy. It's quite an achievement. A number of reviewers have expressed surprise that this erotically charged scene got past the censors of the day. Maybe that's how.
One interesting aspect is the relationship between Raines' character and the police Inspector who, having first arrested her boss is now trying to help her prove his innocence. This same situation was revisited some five years later in another Ella Raines movie, the definitely superior B movie 'Impact' (1949) with Brian Donlevy, a film which does out-perform its budget. Once again we find Ella trying to save her man from the electric chair with the help of a curmudgeonly but trustworthy policeman. This time the McGuffin is a Chinese maid in San Francisco.
Yes, she's quite a gal.