1 Hr., 27 Mins.
Phantom Lady October 1, 2020
id she ever exist? The question persists for nearly all of Robert Siodmak’s conceptually intriguing whodunit Phantom Lady (1944). One hopes it can be definitively answered. When one wonders whether she — “she” being the eponymous “phantom lady” — ever existed, it’s a reference to a woman the movie’s protagonist, Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis), meets at a bar the night of his wife’s violent murder. When
Scott first introduces himself to this phantom lady, distinguishable for her large and feathery floppy hat, he and his wife were supposed to be out having drinks, then going to a show. But then the wife decided last minute that she wasn’t going — the latest reminder that this marriage, now a few years old, is probably going to expire soon.
When Scott tells the woman at the bar what has just happened, she agrees to go through the motions of his and his wife’s previously made plans to keep him company, but only because she doesn’t want to spend the night alone. She
expresses a wish that neither person shares their name. It’ll be like a one-night stand without the sex — a few-hours-long distraction from misery. The night goes fine. But, obviously, this is curtailed once Scott returns to his apartment. Local police are spread out across the living room — forming a hasty circle — and all silently glare at him for eons before speaking a word. He learns his wife has been killed when he walks into his bedroom. (The police don’t even say why they’re there until he stumbles out, dazed.) There’s no way Scott could have committed this murder. He was with this mystery woman whenever it happened.
The problem is that the police know for sure that Scott had gotten into a fight with his spouse shortly before her death. They can’t confirm his alibi. When he and the detectives make the rounds to all the places ostensibly visited with the phantom lady — the bar, the theater — no one who should be able to recall the woman can recall the woman. And the woman is nowhere to be found, and is, for all intents and purposes, unreachable. So Scott must be guilty; so he’s sentenced to death. It’s at this moment in Phantom Lady that we start to hope the feature might go down a different, darker route than the one it finally goes with — a rather conventional one that finds Scott’s secretary, Carol “Kansas” Richman (Ella Raines), who is secretly in love with her boss, putting on a metaphorical detective hat and finding this woman herself, hopefully exonerating Scott in the process. Narratively, this is all good and fine for the most part — they beget some invigorating follow-ups with leads.
Kansas daringly decides to intimidate the fateful bar’s owner into diving deeper into his memory banks by staring him down at work for hours on end and then conspicuously following him home. It recalls the extended stalking scene from Cat People (1942). When Kansas ventures out to get more information from the drummer who played at the stage show (Elisha Cook, Jr.) attended by Scott and the mystery woman, she forgoes her normally diminutive personality in favor of a new persona: a gum-chewing floozy determined to seduce answers out of the man. In the film’s most visually stunning sequence, the camera pans back and forth between the drummer and Kansas as he does a heated solo; their eyes meet, and the photography’s jumps to and from the characters get more intense the longer the solo goes on and the hotter this optical come-on gets. Late in the film, Scott’s best friend (Franchot Tone) arrives from out of town to apparently help. But we’re on edge whenever he’s around. When he assists Kansas in her makeshift detective work, we’re confident he’s not telling her something. He suffers from debilitating headaches — overpowering ones he manages with the subtlety of Dr. Jekyll feeling the first notes of Mr. Hyde.
It isn’t hard, watching the movie, to prefer it go somewhere weirder, more
pessimistic, than it does. In a Kafkaesque, pre-Twilight Zone-ish, twist, what if the phantom lady legitimately never existed, with the murder itself remaining unexplained but somehow connected to the vanishing woman? What if this all were part of a larger conspiracy involving the police? At some points, that seems to be where the movie is headed: The force is so unreasonable with Scott that members strike us as atypically evil (for a movie released in 1944, that is). It’s a surprise when an inspector, played by Thomas Gomez, offers Kansas a helping hand, confessing that, like her and like us, he was a little nauseous watching law enforcement so quickly decide Scott deserved the electric chair. He felt powerless as his morals chewed on his insides.
Phantom Lady has a decent climactic twist, but it's whodunit 101 — too straightforward for a movie that practically invites us to imagine alternative, more nightmarish scenarios. The film in many places can be so almost phantasmagorical (visually it can recall German expressionism) that I think it would have fared better if it had leaned more into its quirkiness. Phantom Lady is too safe to be very memorable. The final stretch — an extended face-off between Kansas and the actual killer during which her scrappiness suddenly leaves her body and she starts making poor decisions in spades — is a bit of a doozy. Still, we do at least care about who killed Scott’s wife and where this so-called phantom lady has run off to. And Raines is a charming heroine — noir’s Nancy Drew. B