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This review is from: Phantom Lady [DVD] (DVD)
Paranoiacs, all of them!
Phantom Lady is directed by Robert Siodmak and adapted to screenplay by Bernard C. Schoenfeld from the story written by Cornell Woolrich (pseudonym William Irish). It stars Ella Raines, Franchot Tone, Alan Curtis, Thomas Gomez, Elisha Cook Jr and Fay Helm. Music is by Hans J. Salter and cinematography by Woody Bredell.
Out drowning his sorrows, Scott Henderson (Curtis) meets an equally unhappy woman in a bar, agreeing to her request to not exchange names, but to merely enjoy each others company, Henderson takes her to a show. Upon returning home Henderson finds his wife has been strangled and he is arrested as the prime suspect for the murder. When he frantically tries to prove he has an alibi by way of the "phanton lady" he spent the evening with, he comes up against a wall of silence with nobody able to prove he was with anybody. The electric chair awaits unless someone can prove his alibi. Enter Henderson's intrepid secretary Kansas Richman, who not only carries a torch for her boss, but appears to be his only hope of proving his innocence...
An important film in the film noir cycle given that its success kicked opened further the American doorway for German director Robert Siodmak (The Killers); something that all fellow film noir fans are eternally grateful for. Often cited as a top draw noir or one of the best from the early 40s output, it's a frustrating experience in many ways. Undeniably the middle third is an absolute visual treasure, where Siodmak and Bredell (also The Killers) craft the essential film noir style with highly detailed shadows and lighting gaining maximum atmospheric impact. An extended sequence that sees the wonderful Raines (Impact) stalk a witness through dark and dank streets to a subway station is clinical in its photographic brilliance. I love the quote from Bredell where he said that after being coached by Siodmak he felt he could light a football pitch with only a match! This middle third of Phantom Lady is the meeting of two visual minds and it's a class combination.
Elsewhere Siodmak emphasises objects and weird art to keep his world off kilter, while a key character's obsession with his hands also keeps things simmering in the realm of the strange. There's also a "famed" suggestive sex scene as Elisha Cook Jr (as always, memorable) pounds his drum kit to a climax as Raines positively smoulders in front of him. All of these things are set to the backdrop of a ticking clock format, where the innocent Henderson's life hangs in the balance. These are all film noir traits and executed with such skill it hides the fact that the film is primarily studio bound, in fact this can be seen as a marker for how to do "studio noir" effectively.
Unfortunately there is good reason why Phantom Lady is divisive in film noir circles. The dialogue is often plain daft, almost as daft as the plot itself. The murderer is revealed at the mid point and therefore we are robbed of the mystery element and sadly it sign posts the finale as being obvious and disappointing. Plot in the final third puts our heroine in constant danger at the hands of the real murderer, suspense is meant to be wrung out, but it never hits home the way it should. While on the acting front Curtis is too stiff to really make a telling innocent man hanging by a thread character and Tone is equally as flat in a critical role. However, do these things stop Phantom Lady from being a great film? No, I don't think so, there's just too much good in the mix to stop it from deserving some of the (admittedly exaggerated) praise put its way. 7.5/10