Phantom Lady (1944)

Directed by Robert Siodmak

Phantom Lady is a 1944 film noir directed by Robert Siodmak, his first Hollywood noir. It was also a first for producer Joan Harrison, Universal Pictures’ first female executive, who was Alfred Hitchcock‘s former screenwriter and went on to produce his TV show Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The film was based on the novel of the same name (which was published under the pseudonym William Irish).

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After a fight with his wife on their anniversary, Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis), a 32-year-old engineer, picks up an equally unhappy woman in a bar and they take a taxi to see a show. The woman refuses to tell him anything about herself. The star of the show, Estela Monteiro (Aurora Miranda), becomes furious when she notices that both she and the mystery woman are wearing the same unusual hat. When Henderson returns home, he finds Police Inspector Burgess (Thomas Gomez) and two of his men waiting to question him; his wife has been strangled with one of his neckties. Henderson has a solid alibi, but the bartender, taxi driver and Monteiro deny seeing the phantom lady. Henderson cannot even clearly describe the woman. He is tried and sentenced to death.

Carol Richman (Ella Raines), a loyal secretary secretly in love with her boss, sets out to exonerate him. She starts with the bartender. She sits in the bar night after night, staring at and unnerving him. Finally, she follows him home one night. When he confronts her on the street, some bystanders step in to restrain him. He breaks free, runs into the street and is run over. Later, Burgess offers to help (unofficially); he has become convinced that only a fool or an innocent man would have stuck to such a weak alibi. Burgess provides her with information about the drummer at the show, Cliff (Elisha Cook, Jr.), who had tried to make eye contact with the mystery lady. Richman dresses gaudily and goes to the show. Rhythmic inter-cutting between Cliff’s frantic drumming (dubbed by Gene Krupa or possibly Dave Coleman as per IMDb) and the leering responses of Richman leads to them going back to his apartment. Somewhat drunk, he brags that he was paid $500 for his false testimony. However, he becomes suspicious and finds a piece of paper with details about him. Richman manages to escape, leaving her purse behind. After she has gone, the real murderer, Henderson’s best friend Jack Marlow (Franchot Tone), shows up at the apartment and strangles Cliff.

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Marlow, supposedly away on a job in South America, pretends to return to help Richman. She tracks down Monteiro’s hatmaker, Kettisha (Doris Lloyd). One of her employees admits to copying the hat for a regular customer and provides her name and address. With Burgess away on another case, Richman and Marlow go to see Ann Terry (Fay Helm). They discover her under the care of Dr. Chase (Virginia Brissac); the man she was to marry had died suddenly, leaving her emotionally devastated. Richman is unable to get any information from her, but does find the hat. Marlow suggests they wait for Burgess at Marlow’s apartment. However, while she is freshening up, Richman finds her purse and the paper with Cliff’s particulars in a dresser drawer. Marlow admits he became enraged when Henderson’s wife refused to run away with him; she was only toying with him. Fortunately for Richman, Burgess arrives just in time. Marlow throws himself out the window to his death. With Henderson freed, things appear to return to normal. However, Richman is delighted to learn (from a dictaphone message) that her boss returns her love.

Critical response.

Critic Bosley Crowther was not impressed with the atmospherics of the film and panned the film due to its screenplay, writing, “We wish we could recommend it as a perfect combination of the styles of the eminent Mr. Hitchcock and the old German psychological films, for that is plainly and precisely what it tries very hard to be. It is full of the play of light and shadow, of macabre atmosphere, of sharply realistic faces and dramatic injections of sound. People sit around in gloomy places looking blankly and silently into space, music blares forth from empty darkness, and odd characters turn up and disappear. It is all very studiously constructed for weird and disturbing effects. But, unfortunately, Miss Harrison and Mr. Siodmak forgot one basic thing—they forgot to provide their picture with a plausible, realistic plot.

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Elisha Cook, Jr.,

Synopsis by Bruce Eder

Engineer Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) is at a seedy midtown Manhattan bar early one evening, drowning his sorrows over a failed marriage, when he strikes up a conversation with a woman (Fay Helm). She’s well dressed, with a very ornate hat topping off her ensemble, and also seems even sadder and more lost than he is. Henderson persuades her to join him in taking advantage of the two theater tickets he has. They attend the show — a song-and-dance showcase by a Brazilian artist (Aurora) — and then part company without ever exchanging names. He returns home to find three detectives in his apartment and his wife strangled. Inspector Burgess (Thomas Gomez) questions Henderson and tries to verify his alibi, but no one — not the bartender, the cabbie who hauled them to the theater, or the drummer in the band who was watching her — admits to remembering the woman. Henderson can’t prove that he was elsewhere when his wife was strangled and is convicted of murder and sentenced to death. His assistant, Carol Richman (Ella Raines), who has watched all of this happen, can’t sit by while Scott is destroyed, and decides to get at the truth, joined by Inspector Burgess, who now believes Henderson to be innocent. Carol hounds the bartender (Andrew Tombes) until he seems ready to crack, but before he talks, he tries to get away from her and dies in an accident. The drummer, Cliff Milburn (Elisha Cook Jr.), proves more talkative and reveals that someone paid him 500 dollars to forget about the woman, but before Burgess can question him, he’s strangled. It seems as though there’s no hope left, even with the added help of Jack Marlow (Franchot Tone), Scott’s best friend, newly returned from Brazil, when Carol gets a line on the unusual hat the woman was wearing. She traces the hat to its owner in a mansion on Long Island, where she is recovering from a breakdown over the death of her fiancé — that was her trouble on the night she crossed paths with Scott Henderson. It is only on returning to New York, while awaiting Burgess’ arrival, that she realizes that Jack Marlow is the murderer — that he returned after having dinner with them, following their fight, and strangled Henderson’s wife; paid off the bartender, the cab driver, and Cliff Milburn to keep them from revealing the existence of the woman that Scott was with; and killed Milburn to prevent him from talking; and he plans to kill Carol before she can talk to Burgess.

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A Dark Treat

3 September 2005 | by manfromlaramie-1 (North Carolina, United States) – See all my reviews

Sadly not available on DVD as yet, but worth pursuing on TCM or VHS. A secretary believes her boss is wrongly accused of murder, and courageously takes on many dangerous characters in an effort to establish the truth. A movie with many twists and dark alleyways, none of which I will mention! The jazz band sequence where our heroine seeks the information about the killer, is one of the most erotic scenes in Hollywood history, despite being at very low budget and made during WWII in black and white. Despite the low budget – Long Island looks somewhat mountainous – this is a movie of original style and outstanding vision. Ella Raines was a great actress discovered by Howard Hawks who knew much about these matters, casting the feistiest women – Joanne Dru, Hepburn, Angie Dickinson, Lauren Bacall, Ann Sheridan – of their era. Robert Siodmak was of one of several German, Hungarian & Czech film-makers – Sirk, Wilder, Zinnemann, Lubitsch, Curtiz,Lang, etc – who émigrés relocated to Hollywood, and brought a highly original fresh vision with them. Sadly Ella Raines was never given such a great part again, and eventually ended up in poorly produced westerns.

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