This great movie is based on the book that got me hooked on the dark suspense of Cornell Woolrich in the 1980s – and I suspect that, along with The Bride Wore Black, it’s the one that does it for most readers too. The premise is simple: a man is on death row for killing his wife. The only chance to prove his innocence is if he can find the stranger he spent the evening with at the time of the murder. The trouble is proving she ever existed as she seems to have vanished.
I offer this review for Bev’s Vintage Golden Age Mystery Challenge; Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme over at Todd Mason’s Sweet Freedom blog; and Katie’s Book to Movie Challenge at Doing Dewey (for reviews, click here).
“The night was young and so was he. But the night was sweet, and he was sour”
These opening lines, with their mixture of the poetic and the banal, probably sum up the pros and the cons of Woolrich’s writing style. His biographer, Francis M. Nevins, called him “the Poe of the 20th century and the poet of its shadows”, while Julian Symons dammed the books for their “melodramatic silliness” and the “continuous high-pitched whine of his prose,” though in fairness he did single out Phantom Lady as containing his best writing. Having cranked out a prodigious number of short stories and novellas throughout the 1930s, Woolrich made his debut as a mystery novelist in 1940 with The Bride Wore Black, leading to a series of six books with ‘black’ in the title. Phantom Lady instead appeared under his pseudonym, ‘William Irish’.
“Why not break down and admit there was no dame with you?” Burgess tried to reason with him, “Don’t you see how much simpler it would be all round?”
Scott Henderson wants to get a divorce but his wife just laughs at him. He heads out on the town, sharing it with a mysterious woman (wearing a strange orange hat) he just met in a bar. They agree not to exchange personal information, just enjoy themselves and then go back to their normal lives. Unfortunately Scott will probably never have a ‘normal’ night ever again as he returns home to find his wife dead. She has been strangled with the blue tie that he probably would have worn given the rest of his outfit – why isn’t he? And why has he no alibi? Because the woman can’t be found and none of the people they met seem to remember her. At trial he is found guilty and each chapter reminds us the days remaining before ‘the execution.’
“She’d already been perched on the stool several minutes when he first became aware of her”
Scott does have some allies though, principally his old buddy John Lombard, who comes back from his job in Venezuela to help, and Carol Richman, the woman Scott wanted to leave his wife for. And then there is Burgess, the lead detective on the case, who has started to have doubts about Scott’s guilt. With only 18 days to go before the death sentence is carried out, we follow Lombard and Richman as they track down any potential witnesses in the hope of finding the ‘phantom lady’ and why a bartender, a blind beggar (who may not be all he seems), a variety artist, a dress designer and a musician would all conspire and lie about having seen her with Scott on that fateful night. The story develops quite episodically as we follow the successive (unsuccessful) attempts to shake the negative testimony of the various people Scott says could help establish his alibi. Why would they lie?
The first and most powerful of these episodes shows Carol frequent Anselmo’s, the bar where Scott says he met the woman in the orange hat. She is certain the bartender is lying and so starts to stalk him, staking him out night after night and then following him on his way home. This is built into a major section of the book (it takes up twenty pages and the entirety of chapter 12) and we really do get caught up in the situation and even start to feel sorry for the man – Carol after all has no reason to believe he is lying other than her love for Scott (who might be guilty, after all). Her ruthless and obsessive stalking is the stuff of nightmares and certainly brings out the best in Woolrich, leading to a memorable payoff in which the man is killed by a passing bus having been completely panicked by her continuous presence. Is Carol guilty of manslaughter – and was it even worth it as he didn’t give anything away? He does at one point try to get rid of her, but wouldn’t anyone under that kind of pressure? Or did he truly have something to hide and was he behaving accordingly? Lombard’s assignment equally ends in tragedy when his blind beggar turns out to be a con man with good eyesight, but he dies falling down a set of stairs, so Scott is no further forward. Carol then tracks down the drummer who was in the theatre and saw Scott and the woman.
This is another major setpiece in which we see the drummer, who is addicted to reefer, let loose at a drug-fuelled jazz party before taking Carol back to his place and admitting that he has been paid $500 not to reveal the truth. But before Burgess can get a statement, the man kills himself in a drug-induced bout of paranoia, scared by what he inadvertently revealed about his part in the conspiracy. But who paid him off, and why is the woman’s identity being kept a secret? A complex plan, and a surprisingly well-hidden murderer, is revealed in a very long explanation at the end of the book. Unfortunately this does slow things down considerably and may have been why, for the film version, the whodunit element was jettisoned completely …
The cell-door started to easy back along its grooves and the warden said: “This is it now, Scott.”
This first half of the movie version is incredibly faithful to the book, probably the closest to getting authentic Woolrich on screen I can think of, with the all the major sequences intact: Scott being grilled by the police when he arrives home, the stalking of the bar tender, the Freudian jazz sequence are all beautifully shot by Woody Bredell and staged with his usual panache by Robert Siodmak. However, top-billed Franchot Tone only arrives at the halfway mark playing new character – a sculptor names Jack Marlow – and he is immediately identified as the killer.
This makes the role more interesting for Tone as it becomes more of a study of a guilty and insane mind, but it has to be said the presentation is very hokey. Marlow in fact simply oozes guilt, casting strange looks from the corner of his eye, obsessing about his hands with which he strangles people, his frequent headaches, twitches, dizzy spells etc, etc. Very typical of depictions of insanity in its day I suppose but decidedly overdone, which is a shame because the film is otherwise very restrained. This is underlined by one very unusual factor – the complete absence of any music score except during the opening and closing credits, avoiding the usual kind of overstatement one would associate with this kind of melodrama. Visually however the film is a film noir feast and Thomas Gomez, in one of his infrequent good guy roles, is terrific as Burgess while Ella Raines, no longer Scott’s mistress but instead his loyal secretary with a secret crush on him, as Carol (nicknamed ‘Kansas’ for some reason) is also very impressive as she doggedly pursues her investigation. Quite rightly the film concludes with a showdown between her and Marlow that is very different from the book but does the job of bringing it all to a neat conclusion. To read a really good analysis of the film, visit Colin’s Riding the High Country.
DVD availability: Easy to get in decent editions all round the world, I have the recent UK release, which offers no extras but a very solid picture, which in this case is pretty much all I needed. A recent Blu-ray release from Arrow is near perfect is a bit skimpy on the extras – but you can’t have everything.
Phantom Lady (1944)
Director: Robert Siodmak
Producer: Joan Harrison
Screenplay: Bernard C. Schoenfeld
Cinematography: Woody Bredell
Art Direction: Robert Clatworthy, John B. Goodman
Music: Hans J. Salter (drum solo: Dave Coleman)
Cast: Ella Raines, Franchot Tone, Thomas Gomez, Elisha Cook Jr, Alan Curtis, Aurora Miranda, Regis Toomey
I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge in the ‘published under a pseudonym’ category: