(director: Robert Siodmak; screenwriters: Bernard Schoenfeld/from the novel by Cornell Woolrich; cinematographer: Woody Bredell; editor: Arthur D. Hilton; cast: Franchot Tone (Jack Marlow), Ella Raines (Carol “Kansas” Richman), Alan Curtis (Scott Henderson), Elisha Cook, Jr. (Cliff Milburn), Thomas Gomez (Inspector Burgess), Fay Helm (Ann Terry), Andrew Tombes (Mac, Bartender), Doris Lloyd (Kettisha), Jay Novello (Cab Driver), Aurora (Estela Monteiro), Regis Toomey (Detective); Runtime: 87; Universal; 1944)
“The Phantom Lady proved to be a boon to the German-born director Robert Siodmak’s career.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A fine example of a 1940s type of film noir, as adapted from a Cornell Woolrich novel. The Phantom Lady proved to be a boon to the German-born director Robert Siodmak’s career, as the film was his first American success. It’s a chilling tale about an innocent man who is framed for murder and is scheduled to die in the electric chair, but his loyal secretary and the police inspector who arrested him work on his behalf to clear him of the charges. The acting was commendable and the development of the dark noir world was very well established; but, the case itself seemed hardly believable– the dialogue was atrocious and the crazed genius killer looking down at his hands and getting dizzy spells, was more ridiculous than anything else it could symbolize. The film had too many defects that just couldn’t be overlooked, yet overall it had a mesmerizing effect–largely due to the imaginative direction of Robert Siodmak. His use of German expressionism, shadowy street figures, the desperation of the chase of an innocent and helpless man, and making the hot summer streets of the Broadway night fit into the story, all gave the film a rich noir flavoring and made it an original American work.
Scott Henderson (Curtis) is a handsome, successful, 32-year-old civil engineer, who is glumly sitting alone in a NYC bar because his wife failed to meet him there as arranged. They had a spat, where he asked for a divorce but she refused. He now wants to make up with her and plans to take her to a Broadway show. A glum, well-dressed woman with a fancy hat, sits next to him at the bar. Scott tempts her with the tickets as a remedy to cheer themselves up. She reluctantly accepts and they take a taxi to the show, but her condition is that she wants no names mentioned and wishes to remain anonymous.
At the show the sexy Latin entertainer, Miss Monteiro (Aurora), is wearing the same unique hat onstage for her routine and is upset at seeing the ‘phantom lady’ with the same hat. Also, the drummer, Cliff (Elisha), notices the flamboyant hat in the audience and tries to flirt with the wearer of the hat. After the show, the mysterious lady just leaves without a word.
Returning to his apartment, Scott’s greeted by a trio of detectives. The one in charge, Inspector Burgess (Gomez), informs him that his wife was strangled with one of his ties and the knot was so tight that they had to cut it open.
When Scott gives his alibi to the police, they can’t corroborate that he was at the show with a woman. The bartender (Tombes), the taxi driver (Novello), and the Latin performer deny they saw him with a woman who wore such a hat, though they recall seeing him. His alibi turns out to be a phantom lady (Terry), and since his whole case hinges on her as an alibi–the jury convicts him when he can’t produce her.
With eighteen days to go before the execution Scott’s secretary, Carol (Raines), who has secretly pined for him and believes he’s innocent, decides to do anything she can to help and has remained in NYC rather than return to her native Kansas. Carol has been tracking down the eye witnesses to his alibi on her own, and has learned that the bartender was bribed by a man; but, he gets run over accidentally while fleeing from her questions.
Carol is surprised by the help from Inspector Burgess, who now believes Scott is innocent. But the case is closed and he can only help her in an unofficial capacity. When Carol zeroes in on the sleazy drummer in the Broadway show, Cliff, and gets him to take her to his apartment as he believes she’s a hooker, she learns that someone paid him $500 to say he never saw that woman. Carol’s forced to flee his apartment when he attacks her, but she calls Burgess for help. But it’s too late, because by the time he arrives Cliff is found by them strangled to death on the floor of his apartment.
Warning: spoiler to follow in the next paragraph.
It was brought out during the trial that before Scott left his wife to go to the bar, he had cocktails with some business clients and his best friend Jack Marlow (Tone). Marlow left early that evening by boat for South America and has supposedly been there since, but has now returned and pretends to be helping clear his friend of the charges. But he turns out to be a paranoid, with delusions that he’s a genius artist and better than anyone else. He’s been having an affair with Scott’s wife, but when she rejected him that night and refused to go with him to Brazil his ego couldn’t stand it and so he strangled her and framed his friend.
REVIEWED ON 8/24/2001 GRADE: C +