[Films that come between The Maltese Falcon and Phantom Lady that I might return to include The Glass Key (which I personally dislike), This Gun for Hire, and Shadow of a Doubt (which, being a Hitchcock film, I don't regard as truly noir, just because).]
Though it comes at the beginning of the period, Phantom Lady features some of the most beautiful and most expressive photography in film noir. The mildly incoherent plot follows a strange dream-logic, but the film as a whole is a visual poem of urban alienation and societal subversion, with long passages shot in stark blacks and whites and an almost nonexistent score.
The story revolves around a funny hat. The lady who wears it can provide a "perfect" alibi for a civil engineer Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) whose wife is strangled, but she has vanished without a trace. All vestiges of her are wiped even from the memories of the tradesmen and performers who saw him out that night. He doesn't know her name and, apart from the hat, can't remember what she looks like. The nuttiness of his story lands him on death row.
The film's first stand-out moment is the quiet, chilling scene in which Henderson returns home to find three detectives and a dead wife. The sense of claustrophobia mounts as the sneering, insufferably smug, gum-smacking cops slowly invade his personal space, until they're fingering his tie and their smirking mugs are right in his sweaty, frightened face, which now fills the screen. "Your wife was strangled with one of your ties," they taunt him. "Yeah, knotted so tight it had to be cut loose with a knife."
The real protagonist is Henderson's tenacious assistant, Carole Richman (Ella Rains), who, convinced of her boss's innocence (and secretly in love with him), sets out to clear his name. The contrast between the two is sharp. While Henderson is laid prostrate by circumstances – weeping when his estranged wife is killed (while remarking that men aren't supposed to cry), scared and irritable under investigation, shrill on trial, petulant on death row, confident and self-absorbed when his position in society is regained – Carole always rises above circumstances. Gender stereotypes are inverted: Henderson's personality is weak, "womanish," while Carole's is strong and manly.
It's pretty plain that Carole is the one who really runs the office, from the first moment we see her, striding in to begin a day's work, greeting the mousy secretary, mastering her emotions when she learns of Henderson's plight, and dictating a letter as she smokes a cigarette. This is underscored by an obtuse crack Henderson later makes about keeping bobby pins off the floor and the seams on her stockings straight. He really has no idea.
After her boss's conviction, Carole sets about pursuing the forgetful witnesses. Here film noir takes on almost mythic dimensions as she hounds a barman to death like an avenging Fury. The scene in which she pursues him through the immense, night-black, rain-soaked city might well stand as the epitome of the style.
It's followed by a scene in which she transforms herself into a gum-chewing "hep kitten" to seduce Cliff Milburn (Elisha Cook, Jr.), a sleazy little jazz drummer. It's hard to convey in words how utterly bizarre, abrupt, and awesome this transition is. She goes from urban professional to strumpet, flashy, vapid, and wanton, complete with painted-on mole, seemingly without effort. After she catches Cliff's eye during a performance, he takes her to a backroom jive session, where she visually mounts him during a crazy orgasmic drum solo. They retire to his squalid rat-hole of an apartment lit intermittently by a flashing sign outside.
This middle act is one of the great passages of film noir. It's almost as though Carole is trying on female archetypes; given the deaths of the two witnesses she goes after, we might wonder what became of the poor cabby, whose fate isn't treated on screen. The film transitions to the final act with Carole's visit to Henderson in prison. The image of Carole talking to Henderson across the bars, both bathed and blackened by light streaming down through smoky darkness, is a noir icon.
But the third act is more like a Hitchcock thriller than a true noir. For me this knocks the film out of the top tier. It keeps up its subversive probing of female roles as the murderer (Franchot Tone), a narcissistic sculptor with undertones of the stereotypical homosexual woman-hater, takes center stage. He despises Carole, the police, and most of all Henderson, whose community-planning projects he derides as an obsession with drainpipes. Much of his screen time is spent in contemplation of his large, expressive hands, which are frequently lit with bright white light, in an almost masturbatory way.
The film closes with what I take to be intentional (though understated) irony. Henderson, back in the office, busy and self-confident, leaves Carole some dictaphone instructions that end by informing her that she's having dinner with him that night, and the next night, and the next night… The film actually concludes with this phrase "next night" repeated over and over again on the skipping belt. Are we getting a glimpse of Carole's future?
Like many noirs, Phantom Lady seems to operate on two levels. On the surface we have a seemingly happy ending with everything restored to the way it should be. But underneath that, we see a resourceful, masterful woman sent back to the prison of her traditional role, happily submitting to a man who will always take her for granted. What's true of the ending is true of the movie as a whole. The more you pick up on subtleties, the more twisted it gets.
* * *
I give Phantom Lady a grade of B for bueno on the following scale:
- A: awesome noir film, to be owned and watched a zillion times or until you have it memorized
- B: good (bueno) noir film with excellent passages but significant flaws, to be watched on occasion
- C: fairly commonplace noir film, to be watched once or twice
- D: dud of a noir film, to be avoided if possible
"What a place! I can feel the rats in the walls."